Recently, we attended the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ) Conference in Memphis, Tennessee. At the Smokin’ TASTE of Memphis Event held for our conference at the STAX Museum of American Soul Music on Wednesday night, I overheard a local brewery owner describing the great cultural divide between Memphis and the rest of its home state, Tennessee. “We’re blues and they’re country. They’re hilly. We’re flat,” he said. And, I thought to myself in a snarky tone: “And the river that Memphis claims as its own is certainly more daunting than the one named for its home state.”

Memphis-MSRiverI admit I have a soft spot for Memphis. I grew up coming here with my daddy for conferences at The Peabody. When he’d go without us, he’d always bring home little duck-shaped soaps that the housekeeping staff gave him extra, so each of his four children could have one. I brought my own children here when they were wee babies because it was the thing to do, and they’ve all watched the ducks march and seen the River roll on. I seem to never tire of driving down Riverside Drive or gazing aimlessly at the Mississippi River flowing southward. And no matter how far away I go, I can’t ever quit thinking about the barbecue.

Memphis is undeniably the capitol of the Mid-South. For decades, it’s served as the hub of this region with its bustling Mississippi River port and prime central location in the Mississippi River delta region. From King Cotton to Elvis Presley’s music empire to today’s Memphis-style BBQ, the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and even FedEx’s world headquarters, Memphis has certainly benefitted from its location, and has perhaps become the red-headed stepchild of its home state of Tennessee in the process.

A city with so much soul is bound to have problems resulting from its overwhelming free-spirit. But these problems, are they really that much different than other places? And what about the collective passion in the community that is working to SOLVE those problems?

Visiting the Soul of Memphis

Admittedly I come to Memphis for three very basic reasons:

1. To eat Barbecue
2. To sit in the Peabody Lobby and watch people
3. To watch the Mississippi River roll on

Other people come here from all over the world for a variety of other reasons that are perhaps MUCH more interesting – and lively – than my own choices. But to me, amongst the bustle of this town is a soul that calls out to me – and I like to come here and listen to it and be challenged by it. And that is why I come to Memphis. Everything else that I discover on each consecutive visit just adds to my understanding of its soul a little bit more.

Learning from the Soul of Memphis

This trip to Memphis was no different. I did each item on my regular Memphis bucket list within hours of arrival. I ate Central Barbecue from their food truck in Court Square Park. I ate my BBQ nachos with jalapeños in all of their smokey pulled pork covered-in-more-cheese-than-should-be-legal goodness under the shade of a mammoth oak tree within clear view of the hillbilly rock band playing on the amphitheater stage at high noon. And even as I ate, I was thinking about where to find my next plate of BBQ.

Memphis-CentralBBQ-Nachos

I sat in the Peabody Lobby between lunch and an afternoon conference session alone in a corner and watched the crowds go by. The current Peabody Duckmaster is personable, and this is the second trip where I’ve watched him mingle about the lobby telling the story of the ducks and their day to day care and habits to inquiring visitors of all ages.

Later that same afternoon, I found a terrific new place to watch the River, and in the process discovered a new piece of Memphis’ soul in the process. Refusing to use my GPS – which sometimes makes life more interesting – I went in search of a place I’d heard of but never seen: Harbor Town. Harbor Town is a residential work/life development situated on an island on the Memphis side of the Mississippi River just north of the infamous “Pyramid.” In search of the bridge which would get me to Harbor Town, I happened upon the St. Jude Garden. This is where the soul of Memphis began to speak to me anew on this visit.

Hospital Food

The St. Jude Garden feeds employees, doctors, patients and families of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with fresh organic vegetables through the Kay Kafe cafeteria daily. The garden is situated in a fenced city block turned green space adjacent to the hospital in the North Main district of downtown Memphis. This city block is home to 59 raised beds, a greenhouse and hoop houses for growing vegetables like carrots, celery and lettuce year round. To learn more about this garden and Chef Miles McMath, the chef behind it all, stay tuned for the next story in our Memphis series.

The Cafeteria Man

Later in the week, I sat in on a session at the AFJ Conference called, “Cutting-Edge Strategies for Fighting Hunger and Obesity — In a City Where You’d Least Expect to Find Them.” The panel was comprised of change-makers working in and around the Memphis metro area, and I wondered to myself what causes outsiders to call the Deep South a place where one would “least expect to find” solutions to our own problems.

One of the panelists was Tony Geraci who runs a $90 million dollar restaurant better known as the largest no-charge school cafeteria program in the nation. As Executive Director of Memphis City Schools Nutrition Services, Geraci boasts that he produces “healthy kids sitting in a classroom, ready to learn.” The proof is in the numbers: increased health – and test scores. Learn how this architect of the National Farm to School movement is changing the way the next generation of Southerners eat in an upcoming story in our Memphis series.

Peggy’s Healthy Homecooking

Before I left town, I ate lunch at Peggy’s Famous Healthy Homecooking at the recommendation of our new friend, Stan. In the most obese city in America, Peggy is helping her community live longer and live healthier by serving up “a meal like grandma used to make” full of old-fashioned flavors – while scooping up a serving of healthier cooking methods and ingredients. And the proof is there: Peggy reports her customers have enjoyed results like lower blood pressure and diabetes management without insulin. We’ll learn more about Peggy’s story in an upcoming story in our Memphis series.

Angels Watching Over Memphis

The passion and creativity that built Memphis will continue to roll forward like the Mighty Mississippi. Sometimes with the devil in the details, but most often led by angels working hard – no matter where the demons show up – to take care of its city – and the world. Every time I visit Memphis, I smirk a bit because even the most downtrodden folks here seem to have a smile on their face. This city has a joy and immense generosity in its spirit. It’s that soulful smile that make this such a welcoming locale for fellow Southerners and global visitors alike to converge to appreciate and engage with music, history, agriculture, food, and art – to be captivated by the sounds, flavors and soul of the Deep South.

Oh, and my new favorite place to watch the Mississippi River is the northernmost portion of Memphis’ Greenbelt Park located on the north end of Mud Island off of Island Drive. Your GPS can take you there – or you can just wander around and find it like I did – and maybe find a bit of the soul of Memphis for yourself along the way.

Learn More

» This is the first in a series profiling three-game changers who are feeding the soul of Memphis. Subscribe to our email list here to receive the rest of the series directly in your inbox.

Next Steps

» Visit Memphis to feed upon its soul for yourself. Click here for our recommended itinerary including BBQ and dining recommendations, where to stay and a few “visit like a local” things to do.

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