If you don’t want to be stereotyped, don’t tell people you’re from the South.
People will usually be hesitant to make judgements on background information they receive, but letting people know you grew up in the Bible Belt is a surefire way to get pegged as a country-music loving, farm-raised, bull-riding redneck or hillbilly.
I mean, they’re not entirely wrong, though. Have you been to Missouri?
But I’m from Memphis. If you think it’s like Nashville, you’re wrong. But if you think it’s like Detroit, I’d give you a pass, because it’s not too far off. But Memphis is Memphis and there’s no other way to put it.
So I grew up in the heart of the South in good ol' Memphis, Tennessee. It’s funny how different the perception is compared to the reality. It’s one of those cases where people think one thing but it turns out to be the complete opposite. We don’t have that much clout on country music (though Johnny Cash started his career there), but we’re built on hip hop, blues and rock-n-roll. We’re the blue district in a sea of red. We’re the cultural preservation where all other things are changing.
But if there’s anything about Memphis that’s not a far departure from the southern stereotype, it’s the cuisine.
Memphis has a rep for a lot of things: music, a history of civil rights activism and ducks. But nothing defines Memphis better than its food.
There’s twofood genres that I’d say best exemplify the city. And number one would probably be hard to miss: Memphis barbecue.
It’s unavoidable. You’ve heard of it. But the odds that you’ve actually had it are slim.
In October, I went on a trip with the Kayaking Club at the University of Michigan to Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. After a long day in the river, we decided to Yelp the best nearby restaurant and take a chance, since we were kind of in the middle of nowhere.
So two Midwesterners, a West Coaster and a New Yorker walk into a barbecue place. A Memphian sits down.
It was pretty clear they had no idea of the depth that barbecue goes – I could tell when they were shell-shocked from me asking if the barbecue was dry-rub or wet-rub. To them, barbecue was just another meal, an entree to get by. Here’s the proper breakdown of the fine detail you should always pay attention to when judging barbecue: wet or dry, sweet or sour and type of meat.
Memphis barbecue is pretty well defined. Slow cooked pork ribs, almost always dry rub, with vinegar and pepper-based sauce or rub.
These are the fine details that are etched into a Memphis history that go unnoticed by outsiders.
Continuing on the road trip, trying to kill some time, we played a guessing game that involved giving hints to lead the others to the word we were thinking of. So when it was my turn to give hints, I gave a few that I thought would be a dead giveaway
When they responded with silence, I put in a less confident, “Heartbreak Hotel,” before giving in and saying, “Graceland.”
At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was just because they were uncultured swine or not, but I thought Elvis Presley should be a universally recognized icon. Then I realized something. We had primarily been listening to country music.
The unspoken rule of long road trips is that you play music to cater to everyone’s tastes. So odds are they had subconsciously grouped my taste of music based on my Southern roots. But the capital of country music is Nashville. Trust me, it’s not Memphis.
Part of it is growing up right next to Graceland. But part of it might be like it is with barbecue — there’s so much that isn’t immediately obvious until you’ve lived there. And the same with B.B. King and Justin Timberlake and Three 6 Mafia and so on. It’s not something you just group together as one thing unless it’s music in Memphis.
If you like spice, you’d love the second food type food: wings. I’m not going to lie, I’m an addict for wings. I had a near-two-week streak of eating at Mr. Spots in Ann Arbor every day. It was way worse in Memphis.
It’s a subtler part of the city you don’t really appreciate until you leave Memphis. When I first came to Ann Arbor, the first thing I looked for were local wing shops. It’s not really a struggle you’d find in Memphis, where every corner has a shop that’s at least an eight out of 10.
Inside the good food bubble of Memphis, you don’t really realize how different it is elsewhere.
Last month I was shopping for a used bike and found a guy on Craigslist who lived in Farmington Hills. He wanted to meet late in the evening, and though I was a little spooked at first, he was kind enough. He was an Indian national who had run out of luck on his U.S. visa, and unfortunately was about to be deported and therefore was selling his stuff cheap.
We conversed a little bit about the bike before gradually drifting to discuss where we were from. When I told him I’m from Tennessee, his disapproval was obvious. I drew a contemptful side-eyed glance from him, a joking (but not really) raise in the bike’s price, even the not so subtle, “I hate Trump.” It was clear he thought of Tennessee as a backward place responsible for the country’s reactionary immigration policies, and that I was a reflection of it.
I never did correct him. Probably still thinks he sold his bike to a right-wing country hick who helped him get deported.
But that’s most people. Maybe not to that extreme, but a lot of South is unfairly grouped as one stereotype. You tell people you’re from the South, expect questions.
“Where’s your accent?” or “Is this your first time seeing snow?”
Expect skeptical glances during election season. Expect to be defaulted as a country music lover.
Because I’ve been there and done that. But don’t worry, I’m not from any place in the South. I’m from Memphis, born and raised.