15 July 2010
Once again, we have covered significant ground without stopping to catch up and report here on the blog. While we are already packing up to leave Lake Texoma (headed for Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, TX) I would still like to think back to where we left off, in Memphis, TN.
We arrived in Memphis hungry, anticipating some of famous BBQ that the city, as well as the region, is known for. We checked in at our hotel, located centrally between the Mississippi River, Confederate Park and “downtown” Memphis, and headed straight to the recommended neighborhood BBQ, named Rendezvous.
While this is a famous eatery and certainly part of the Memphis tourist experience, the main reason for mentioning our meal there is because of the folly involved. As I mentioned, we arrived hungry. Very hungry. We ordered a plate of pork ribs to share, some beans and rice and our first sweet tea since arriving in the south. When our food was served, we tucked in so enthusiastically that we failed to notice (now this is embarrassing) that the famous Rendezvous BBQ sauce was with us in bottles on the table. That is, we didn’t find the sauce to go with the ribs until we had eaten all 18 of them.
Adam lives for BBQ sauce. We kept a stockpile in our kitchen at home, finding stored sauces in three places when we finally packed up for our move. Let me reiterate that this boy loves BBQ sauce. Adam had also been waiting patiently until our arrival in Memphis to get his fix of his favorite flavors. We had decided, after living off our mini pantry in the car nearly exclusively since Washington, D.C, to splash out in Memphis and go out for a traditional meal. Now we sat, digesting a stomach full of sauceless ribs (“I noticed they were kind of dry….”) and sampling the most delicious BBQ sauces we had ever tried off of our index fingers. Alas.
Feeling mildly disgruntled and jazzed up on sweet tea (that stuff is sugar-y!) we headed “home” (Home is where the stuff is, at this point), took a little nap and then set out to do the only thing that seemed sensible on a Friday night in Memphis – we went to the famous Beale Street.
Now, Beale Street is a lot like Bourbon Street, in New Orleans, but scaled down and contained in the space of several blocks. After walking about half a mile down dark, mostly deserted streets (let’s just say that business is not booming in Memphis), we turned onto Beale and were bombarded with neon lights, the sound of live music and crowds of merry making drinkers. We had our IDs and bags checked at the police gate (the whole street is blocked off at night time) and were then allowed to join in the scene. On Beale at nighttime, one has the novel option to purchase (no kidding) “Big Ass Beers” from vendors on the street and stroll around taking in the music. Every bar in the area (and many an alley and store front) is alive with bluesy music and the people (a mix of tourists and fun seeking locals) are more or less just walking around drinking, shopping and dancing, which they are allowed to do until 3am when the streets are cleared.
Taking into consideration the schedule we have been following (up with the sun, down with the bugs) and our tight budget, we didn’t really follow in the footsteps of those around us on Beale. After walking the strip a few times, checking out some music (which was great!!), and washing it all down with a “super big ass beer” we wandered away and feel heavily asleep back at the hotel. Another big day, Saturday, was waiting for us in the morning.
We had two main objectives to fulfill before checkout time from the hotel. We wanted to try out one more famous eatery (The Arcade) and of course, we had to see the farmers market. We rode the trolley south a number of blocks, conveniently getting dropped off right between the famous café and the bustling market. After a classic brunch we dove into the liveliest market we had seen since starting our trip!
Without growing this blog post to book chapter size it is important to give our readers a sense of the socioeconomic state of a place like Memphis. As I mentioned, aside from Beale Street we mostly found little more than our reflection staring back at us from the empty storefronts downtown. However, when Adam went for a morning run he passed county jail and noticed no less than 20 bail bonds and lawyers offices, apparently thriving with business. In a few words, it is safe to say that this city, while making dramatic improvements in recent years, remains depressed in the face of the white flight and urban decay of decades passed. Change, without finance, comes about slowly.
This is important because when we arrived at the farmers market it was HOPPING. An established Saturday morning event that takes place in a large outdoor bus terminal, this market features live local music starting at 8:30am and was brimming with delicious local goods and happy shoppers. We were thrilled, to say the least, and with no further ado got to work with the camera.
By now, we have a basic routine. Adam, of course, mans the camera (hence “cameraman”) while I play the role of producer or fixer. As I go about my regular farmers market shopping, I feel out potential interviewees and alert Adam when it is appropriate to join me and start filming. I also take basic notes, as each market we visit has its own culture, vendors, products, etc. In this case, I was looking for a half dozen farm fresh eggs, which we found at a stand selling beef from central Tennessee.
We quickly got friendly with the young man working the table and he obliged to speak on camera about his role working with the farm. Before long, the owner/farmer/Big Man appeared and took over the interview with gusto. We were in serious luck.
Andrew Donnell is the 7th generation owner of Donnell farms and though he is relatively young, has grown his family’s operation significantly. In contrast to a farmer like Jim back in Virginia, James is working on a large scale (i.e He has a 40-row planter). He grows all the crop “giants” like wheat, corn and soy, and uses some of the resulting product to feed his cattle, who cannot be grass-fed year round due to the seasonal weather. Here at the market he was selling an array of fine, free range beef, pointing out that he could tell us (or any consumer) exactly which cow was in what package of meat.
Though this sounds a little off-putting (in this country I don’t think we are really accustomed to thinking about meat as ‘cow in a package’), it really is awesome. Why? Because the average American hamburger patty can contain the meat of dozens of different cows, and (read your packages carefully) sometimes these cows are not even from the same country! If this doesn’t put you off, then give me a call and we can talk about the conditions those same cows are raised in…
Anyway, James gave a rocking interview, smiling broadly from beneath his straw hat. As we said farewell he presented us with a pound of his own ground beef, a simple gesture that touched us deeply. We carried on, watching as the market packed up around us, and soon struck up a conversation with one of the staff volunteers. He turned out to be the person in charge of marketing and was eager to speak on camera. We learned that he is part of the volunteer board that is responsible for running this vibrant operation. He also let us know that this part of the city has come up considerably in recent years and that the market seems to have contributed to the revival of the area. Just as markets used to, this one fulfills multiple purposes. It is a place for community members to shop (for healthy, seasonal produce and homemade products), gather together and exchange information. Vendors support one another, volunteers provide shoppers with information and advice, and local musicians perform in keeping with the musical backbone of the city.
Instilled with renewed faith in the importance of these markets we walked peacefully back out into the heat and returned to the hotel to get ready for the afternoon’s activities.
To be continued…