Following the trail of Nashville and Memphis cuisines.
By Michael Costa
ennessee is basically three states,” explains Kelly English, chef/owner of Restaurant Iris and The Second Line in Memphis. “It’s west, central and east, which is Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville, respectively. That covers a broad spectrum of the width of the United States regarding growing seasons and climates, so ingredients that grow in eastern Tennessee are different than what grows in the west. That’s why there isn’t a singular Tennessee cuisine. It’s deeply regional, and when you look at Nashville and Memphis, they are truly different cities culturally and socioeconomically, and their food reflects that.”
Nashville and Memphis—Tennessee’s two biggest cities—are more than 200 miles apart, and as English noted above, the distance between the two is further defined by their respective cuisines. If you’re unfamiliar with the famous foods from each place, here’s a primer for your palate. Also, be sure to register for ChefConnect: Nashville for a chance to taste some of the Tennessee treats described below in March.
Memphis and Nashville are hubs of the South and steeped in the history of that region. “If you poll a hundred Southerners and ask them what their most important dishes are, I’ll bet a lot of them would say greens and cornbread,” says English. “Nobody likes to talk about where that came from, but the people that owned plantations would eat turnips and pork chops, and give their slaves the leaves of the turnips and the corn feed from the pig, and they had to figure out what to do with it. That’s what’s lasted and what we still eat today, those dishes that came from nothing that someone had to figure out how to make edible.
“That’s why Southern food to me reflects the resourcefulness of people that didn’t have anything and figured out how to make food that we still identify with and cook today,” English continues. “It’s not the food of kings and queens, it’s the food of the people.”
Humble, resourceful “food of the people” is the foundation of Nashville’s notable eats: hot fried chicken (with Prince’s Hot Chicken widely considered the original, opening in the mid-1930s), and the “meat-and-three” concept, which is a staple throughout the South today, but originated in Nashville.
Nashville hot chicken has become so popular the past decade, that even KFC has their version on menus for the masses. But true Nashville hot chicken likely couldn’t be served from a drive-thru to unsuspecting guests because, “if you eat the original, full-heat version as it was intended, it’s hotter than biting into a habanero,” says Phillip Winkler, ACF member and executive chef of the Google Data Center in Clarksville, Tennessee—about 50 miles northwest of Nashville. “It’s like a fried-on pepper powder coating where the more you lick your lips or even breathe, the more it burns, and it will make you sweat, but it’s still amazing.”
Meat-and-three is a less painful but equally humble concept, where customers walk through cafeteria-style and choose one of the meats on offer that day (ham, brisket, fried catfish, trout, chicken, roast beef, meatloaf, and more) and pick three sides (greens, mac and cheese, black-eyed peas, candied yams, mashed potatoes, to name just a few) for a minimal amount—today’s prices are often $10 or less.
“We used to go to a meat-and-three when I was a kid, and looking back now, it’s such a value concept. The portions are oversized, and they’d give us yeast rolls the size of softballs. It’s not a surprise the concept spread far outside of Nashville, since people on a budget can really get their money’s worth, and the true meat-and-threes feature soulful, satisfying home-cooking,” Winkler says.
Barbecue aficionados generally recognize four foundational regions in the United States for styles of BBQ: Memphis, Texas, Kansas City and North Carolina. Memphis style primarily highlights smoked pork, with ribs being the city’s BBQ calling card, usually dry rubbed with seasoning, and sauce served on the side. Central BBQ is the most prominent name in Memphis, but locals swear by their own neighborhood favorites too, since the standard of quality for BBQ is astronomically high in the city, the same way pizza is in Chicago.
While BBQ might be the first food people think of when they hear Memphis, a lesser-known staple item is the Delta tamale, or “hot tamale”, which, in rural and agricultural parts of the South, was a portable source of sustenance for field workers, made with readily available ingredients like corn masa, pork shoulder, chicken thighs, chuck roast, and spicy chili and pepper powders. The legendary bluesman Robert Johnson even recorded a song about the Delta tamale in 1936 called, “They’re Red Hot”.
“It’s not the same as a Mexican tamale. A Delta tamale is still masa based but it’s almost like chili inside of the husk wrapper. They’re a staple all up and down the Mississippi Delta, but it’s something many people outside this region don’t associate with the South,” English says. “Here in Memphis, they’re very common, and if you’re in town, check out Pop’s Tamales in Orange Mound—they’re among the best examples of a true Delta tamale.”
ChefConnect: Nashville is coming March 22-24! If you’re a chef exploring new ideas and flavors, a student looking to gain experience or a foodservice professional keeping abreast of the latest and greatest, we’ve got educational and networking opportunities for you. Register before Feb. 24 to save up to 40%!