Memphis Tennessee BBQ Project

The Tennesse Barbecue Project – Memphis Barbecue

Note: This project was conducted before the formal inception of the SFA’s oral history program. It differs in scope and format from later SFA oral history projects.

Memphis, Tennessee is the center of everything barbecue. This part of the barbecue oral history project was initiated to highlight just that: the long-standing tradition of smoked pork in this town on the river. In the spring of 2002, Amy Evans and Joe York embarked on an adventure to document a handful of barbecue joints—legendary halls of smoke and sauce, as well as a few neighborhood secrets. What they found ended up being much more than a map of where to have lunch. They actually happened upon a little piece of hog heaven that just can’t be found anywhere else. That heaven includes the places, the pork, the signs and, of course, the sauce.


A&R Bar-B-Que Sign

A&R Bar-B-Que (2002)

Down the street behind the lightning bolt gates of Graceland the King takes his rest.

Here, bolted to the same cinder blocks that hold the disembodied hog who seems to be hitchhiking on both sides of the highway, is another barrier.

The Bar-B-Que Shop

Bar-B-Que Shop (2002)

On the door they’re dancing, up on their hind legs, his hooves on her shoulders, hers on his. It is a scene straight out of a pig prom.

Big S Grill

Big S Grill (2002)

“God gives everybody so much. If barbecue is yours, that’s it.”

Bill's Bar-B-Q - 1

Bill’s Bar-B-Q (2003)

I could go anywhere in the world, cook barbeque just like I do here, if you’ve got the hickory wood. I mean, it’d be no way that it’d be different. But you go as much as just across the river into Arkansas, and barbeque is different. – Billy Frank Latham

Bobby's Bar-B-Q

Bobby’s Bar-B-Q (2003)

We serve whole hog barbecue. We cook it the old-fashioned way over the wood coals, and it takes approximately 24 hours to cook…Then when we serve it [W]e basically pull it straight off the hog. We don’t chop it unless customers request it. – Chad Sellers

Brown's Bar-B-Q

Brown’s Bar-B-Q (2002)

Essay by Joe York I walk in and wait in line behind the boy and the girl. They order and step back from the counter. I step forward and speak into the holes bored through the bullet proof plexiglass that separates the kitchen and its customers. It feels more like a box office than a … Continued


Bryant’s (2002)

Just inside the front door, the silly hillbilly hog has got one hand in his overalls and the other on the hay seed he’s sucking. The sign he’s stuck to says he’s on special.

At the tables they’re eating barbecue and breakfast. And while there are different menus for each, it is not entirely clear if they occupy separate spaces.

Corky's Ribs and BBQ

Corky’s Ribs and BBQ (2002)

Some historians put the number at around three hundred, others simply say he had a herd of them, but they all agree that when Hernando de Soto and his six hundred soldiers landed somewhere near Tampa Bay in 1539, they had pigs.

As de Soto fought and finagled his way across the unseen South, his soldiers prodded the pigs from campfire to campfire, ate them by night, and by day breathed their pock-filled pork breath for the first time into southern skies.

Cozy Corner Restaurant

Cozy Corner Restaurant (2002)

On this philosophy Raymond raised a business around his family and a family around his business, each so much a part of the other that trying to tell them apart would be as impossible as sucking the smoke out of a rib.

Foster’s Bar-B-Q

Foster’s Bar-B-Q (2003)

[I flip the hogs] when they’re ready to serve. I do mine just a little bit differently. I’ll cook them with the skin up, and then when we’re ready to serve them, we’ll flip them so the skin’s down. And it serves as a catch for grease and whatnot. – Wilma Foster

Hays Smoke House

Hays Smoke House (2003)

In this area here, like in say a 30-mile area here, this is a hotbed for whole hog barbeque. And you’ll go out of business right around here if you try to cook shoulders. It don’t make no difference if it’s delicious – that’s just the way this has always been. – Dennis Hays

Interstate Bar-B-Q

Interstate Bar-B-Q (2002)

Despite what we had come to expect of the Memphis pig… ordering you to order them, dressing up as chefs and cooking other pigs, smiling and spinning so gleefully on the spit you’d think them still in the sty… the idea of driving a car into one them was particularly strange. Still, standing in front of the mural nothing could have made more sense.

Joyner’s Jacks Creek Bar B.Q.

Joyner’s Jacks Creek Bar B.Q. (2003)

When I was young, growing up, my grandfather, this was the business that he came to buy his barbeque…I mean, it’s been over forty years anyway that there’s been a business here, and I think prior to that it was many years before that. – Joe Joyner

Leonard's Pit Barbecue

Leonard’s Pit Barbecue (2002)

It was raining pretty hard. I ran from the car to the awning where a large man and a small boy waited for someone to bring the car around. I walked by them and tried to go through the door. Just as I reached for the handle the door opened. People flooded out, saturating the space with small talk.

Little Pigs Bar-B-Q

Little Pigs Bar-B-Q (2002)

She sits her pen down and walks out the front door. Around the corner, she slides the OPEN pig from its coasters, flips it and slips the CLOSED pig into place. The door opens and closes again. The key turns.

Marlowe's Ribs and Restaurant

Marlowe’s Ribs and Restaurant (2002)

That we would find Marlowe’s on our first trip to Memphis in search of barbecue art, was about as likely as Ponce De Leon landing his flagship in the Fountain of Youth. You’re supposed to have to wait, to suffer, for that kind of payoff.

My Three Sons Bar-B-Q

My Three Sons Bar-B-Q (2003)

Barbecue is supposed to be on wood. If it’s cooked with gas or electric, all it is is roasted pork. You can put a smoky flavor in it by adding a smoky liquid to it, but ours has got the real smoke. It’s the real thing. And that’s they way, that’s the way barbcque has always been made, is with the fire. – Jimmy Hopkins

Papa KayJoe’s Bar-B-Que

Papa KayJoe’s Bar-B-Que (2003)

We cook—everything that we cook is on hickory, strictly hickory coals. There’s no gas, there’s no ovens, there’s no knobs. – Devin Pickard

Payne's Bar-B-Q

Payne’s Bar-B-Q (2002)

Bingo was here before us… his pockets bulging with balloons, his deft fingers drumming the redcounter, his eyes fixed on the smoke-stained menu board, weighing pork against beef, beef against sausage, electing his lunch and handing over the money he made mangling his pocket’s plastic into giraffes and wiener dogs.

Payne's Bar-B-Q (Original)

Payne’s Bar-B-Q (Original) (2002)

Essay by Joe York Down the street the Lamar Theater is little more than a poster board for politicians. The windows are boarded up. The marquee is a mangled mess. It hasn’t seen a movie in years. Across the street is a stand of stunted store fronts. Empty and quiet. The people passing on the … Continued


Rendezvous (2002)

The people that have taken barbecue, the art of cooking barbecue or the skills of cooking barbecue in a sense commercial probably are restaurateurs, or people whose family had been in the restaurant business and may have had someone that helped in the family restaurant business that they liked to barbecue.

Scott's Bar-B-Que Business Sign, Lexington, TN

Scott’s Bar-B-Que (2003)

I mean, I’m basically the only one [around here] that’s still in the old tradition way. And if I had to go to a gas or anything like that, I’d quit. – Ricky Parker

Three Little Pigs Bar-B-Q

Three Little Pigs Bar-B-Q (2002)

I see the pig he said I’d see and pull into the parking lot. On the side of the building facing the Blockbuster, the “Bar” the “B” and “Q” pig are can-canning, B and Q smiling at Bar, Bar smiling back.

Tops Bar-B-Q

Tops Bar-B-Q (2002)

Tops. It’s the best. The tops. That’s what it means. It’s simple. But still there’s something else swirling around my mind. I can’t get away from it.

Whole Hog – A Slow-Smoked Story Cycle

Everyday the South’s passion for the pig plays out in parts. Shoulders and skins, maws and middlins, ribs and lips, bacon and butts, brethren of one body split and spread about, each a denomination unto itself. But amidst this sea of pieces there are places unparted, where hogs are still wholly enjoyed.