Sunday, September 02, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: Tennessee I - 'Cueing in Memphis, but do I really rub the way I rub?

I remember way back when I was barely nine years old.  My parents threw my sisters and I in the back of the Bronco late at night, not telling us where we were going.  The next morning, guess who woke up, rubbed his eyes and said "We're not home yet!"  (Or something like that, I don't remember.)  This was the last, most epic of our family drives from Baltimore to Pigeon Forge, at the time home to a Silver Dollar City that later became the site for Dollywood.  The next time I headed to Tennessee it was on my big move to California.  I haven't been back, so this armchair visit will have to do for now.

Official Name: State of Tennessee
State Nickname: The Volunteer State
Admission to the US: June 1, 1796 (#16)
Capital: Nashville (2nd largest, but is the largest metropolitan area)
Other Important Cities: Memphis (largest), Knoxville (3rd largest), Chattanooga (4th largest)
Region: South, Middle South or Mid-South; East Central South (US Census)
RAFT NationsCornbread & BBQChestnut
Bordered by: North Carolina (east), Mississippi, Alabama & Georgia (south), Arkansas, Missouri & the Mississippi River (west), Kentucky (north), Virginia (northeast)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: bobwhite quail (game bird); channel catfish (commercial fish); Eastern box turtle (reptile); honeybee (agricultural insect, for the honey); raccoon (wild animal); smallmouth bass or bronzeback (sport fish); tomato (fruit - no, not vegetable)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: Southern foods, including fried chicken, cornbread and so on; Memphis style barbecue (both dry and wet); hot chicken (particular to Nashville); smoked hams; ham and red-eye gravy; Appalachian foods (Brunswick stew, stack cake, etc); anything eaten by Elvis (sure, not many Tennesseeans eat fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, but "the King" would want me to mention it, no?)

Our first stop in Tennessee has us walking to Memphis, another city legendary for its barbecue.  If y'all have been paying attention, I have tackled the art of barbecue in a few of these state posts: pork ribs from Kansas City and pulled pork from North Carolina (both east and west).  Now we hit Tennessee, and once again get ready to do some dry rubbin'.

Of course, Tennessee isn't just barbecue, though anyone living within a country mile of Graceland would insist it is the best part.  Much of its food is characteristically "Southern" and/or "Appalachian".  But there is a small handful of things you may more easily find in Tennessee than in the surrounding states.

* hot chicken - simply put, fried chicken, only very very spicy.  This is specifically a Nashville thing: hot, greasy, spicy hot fried chicken, leaking orange all over a nice plain piece of white bread, usually served with pickles.  I will tackle this soon, but not now.
* Tennessee country ham - like neighboring Virginia, Tennessee is known for its ham.  Their ham is different from that of the Commonwealth.  It should come as no surprise that...
* ...ham and red eye gravy is so popular that is an unofficial state dish.  This is common throughout the Greater South.  Even in my mother's kitchen in Baltimore - in my semi-Southern/semi-Northern home state, this is one of the more Southern aspects of food back home - I remember her making ham and red eye gravy for my father, and for us kids.  Simply put: fry up a ham steak, and mix the juices with coffee (or since I didn't like coffee, Mom added brown sugar instead).  Serve over the ham steak.  Yum.
* mountain stack cake, a typical Appalachian dessert that is a first cousin to the Smith Island cake in that there are many thin layers of cake.  The difference: instead of icing the cake, you put dried fruit (usually apples) between the layers.
* fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.  Okay, this is not a traditional Tennessee dish, but I had to give a nod to the King.
* I don't know what her favorite food is, but I have to give a nod to Savierville's most famous native daughter (and Dollywood proprietress) Dolly Parton.  Did you know she has a cookbook?  I didn't.

As said before, Memphis barbecue is an important aspect of Tennessee food.  Restaurateurs-cum-television-stars Gina and Pat Neely are famous in Memphis for their barbecue, and certainly they're not alone.  And like crabcakes here, in Memphis and throughout barbecue country families pass down their recipes through the generations.  In Memphis, barbecue is dry-rubbed pork (such as baby back ribs) with a sauce.  In Gina and Patrick Neelys' Down Home With The Neelys: A Southern Family Cookbook (2009), Pat Neely describes Memphis sauce as

...known for its sweet and tangy tomato base.  Ours keeps true to that tradition, striking a perfect balance between the sweet (we use brown and white sugar), the tangy (cider vinegar), and the tomato base (good ole ketchup!).  Any self-respecting Memphis pit master will tell you that the sauce must complement the meat without overpowering it, and ours [simmered for five hours] does just that. [Neely & Neely 2009:25]
While I did use the Neelys' sauce recipe for this barbecue outing, I went with barbecue meister Steve Raichlen's recipe for dry rub, posted on the Food and Wine website (2002).  As for the prep: I delved back into my smoked barbecue experiment from Kansas City and set up my oven to smoke some barbecue.

The Recipe: Memphis Dry-Rub Barbecue Baby Back Ribs (smoked in the oven) with Memphis Barbecue Sauce

For Raichlen's Memphis dry rub you will need:

* baby back ribs ($8 per lb at Harris Teeter, or about $16 for this rack)
* paprika (had it; the Neelys point out that any Memphis dry rub worth its salt - errrr - will have paprika, and Raichlen's is no exception)
* salt and pepper (had these too),
* cayenne pepper, cumin and dry mustard (had them all)
* celery salt (I only had celery seeds)
* onion powder (had on hand, too)
* dark brown sugar (bought one box for about $2)

For my indoor smoker, I assembled my wood chips - both hickory and cherry in this case) and enough aluminum foil to completely cover my pan of ribs so that no steam gets out.

First, mix up your dry rub in a bowl.

 Remove the membrane from the back of the ribs for easier ripping apart, if you like.

Pat the dry rub over both sides of the rack of baby back ribs.

Next set up your oven smoker.  Soak a layer of wood chips for half an hour and then place a rack on top of them.  Prepare a large sheet of aluminum foil that you can wrap around your entire pan.

Place the rack of ribs on the rack inside of the pan, and wrap your aluminum foil around the entire pan, tenting it at the top.

Again, you have to wrap the entire pan in foil.

I roasted my ribs for about 3 hours at 250°, as I did with the KC barbecue ribs.

When done, cut open the foil and take in that wonderful smell.


You could eat these ribs naked.  I mean the ribs are naked, though nothing's stopping you from dressing the same.  Seriously, nobody's looking.  But wouldn't they go nicely with some barbecue sauce?  Again, on the ribs, not on you.  Here's where the Neelys' recipe on page 25 of Down Home With The Neelys (2009) comes in handy.

For Gina & Pat Neely's Memphis barbecue sauce you will need:

* ketchup (this is one of the three things I did not have on hand, having thrown it out after losing power for almost a week after the derecho rolled through at the end of June.  No, I didn't need to throw it away, but I wanted to be on the safe side since it wasn't pumped full of corn syrup.  A bottle was about $1.50)
* apple cider vinegar (this is another thing I didn't have on hand, because I was out.  It cost about $1.50)
* lemon juice (had to replace it.  The old bottle had turned after sitting in the refrigerator-turned-heated-closet)

I had everything else on hand:

* brown sugar (I used light this time),
* pepper (no salt - as the Neelys say, there's enough)
* light corn syrup
* Worcestershire sauce
* dry mustard
* paprika, sugar and onion powder (the basic ingredients in the Neelys' dry rub.  You need a smidgen of this in your sauce)

Prep a small batch of the Neelys' Memphis dry rub to add to the other ingredients.

Mix everything together in the pot.

Stir and bring to a boil.

Let simmer for a few hours.  Keep watch over it and stir lest it get too goopy and burn to the bottom.  Serve with your ribs.

Memphis dry rub with hickory wood flavoring: very tasty.  I am finding it easier to do smoked barbecue sans liquid smoke in the oven.  I will have to do this more often (and will soon enough when I get around to Texas).  The barbecue sauce was a bit thick for me, but I think I just let it boil down too much.  Had I not done so it would have turned out very nicely because it does have a wonderful sweet, tangy taste.


Bedell, Malcolm.  "Nashville Hot Chicken". Far Away: Cooking and Eating in Maine, posted April 3, 2012.  Copyright 2010-2012,  All rights reserved.

Jones, Justin.  Personal correspondence to Nashville Scene website.  Published in "Bites Exclusive: Winning Hot Chicken Recipe!" by Jim Ridley, Nashville Scene, posted July 31, 2008. Copyright 1995-2012, City Press LLC.  All rights reserved.

Neely, Gina, and Patrick Neely, with Paula Disbrowe.  Down Home with the Neelys: A Southern Family Cookbook.  Alfred A. Knopf: New York, NY, 2009.

Raichlen, Steve.  "Memphis Dry Rub Ribs".  Food & Wine Magazine website, 2012.  Copyright 1997 - 2012, American Express Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Ridley, Jim.  "Bites Exclusive: Winning Hot Chicken Recipe!Nashville Scene, posted July 31, 2008. Copyright 1995-2012 City Press LLC.  All rights reserved.

Severson, Kim.  "Nashville’s Rising Stars: The Kitchen Is Their StudioNew York Times, published June 18, 2012.

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.  "Appalachian Foods".  From "Appalachia: Heritage and Harmony" Resources Page for the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 2003.  Copyright 2003 by the Smithsonian Instution.

Tennessee Gen Web ( "Stack Cake".  From "The Table of Our Ancestors, Old Time Southern Recipes".  Family recipe from the family of Hilda Marsh, Knoxville, TN.  Date unknown.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Tennessee" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Tennessee".