Memphis style BBQ is a type of slow-cooked barbecue that originated in Memphis, Tennessee. This style of cooking is typically done at low temperatures with just charcoal and the results are savory, smoky meats served on thick slices of white bread.
The history of Memphis Style BBQ has its roots in both influences from other regions (Kansas City, Texas) and the specific conditions found in the city itself (a dense commercial district with lots of grassy space). However, it really can’t be pinned down to one recipe or any single cultural group. Rather it’s an ever-evolving dish that draws on elements from all over the country.
The term Memphis barbecue actually causes quite a bit of confusion, since nobody seems to know for sure where it came from. In asking about the origin of the style, most people point to either two different restaurants or two different men.
The first story is that the style was created by Frank and Louie Rendon sometime around the end of World War II. The Rendons were Italian immigrants who worked as waiters at a local restaurant named Rendo’s. While in Italy, Frank had helped out with the family dinner. The family prepared the same meal over and over again, with his help. One day his nephew Giuseppe asked Frank what he thought made the food so good. To this day it’s said that Frank took his nephew to the market to buy some fresh tomatoes and would only buy one of each variety, giving no explanation why he did this.
Once at their home, Frank placed the tomatoes on the ground, covering them in hickory ashes and lit a fire below them. In a few minutes Frank began peeling and chopping the tomatoes with his hands, mixing in the juices and handfuls of salt. It wasn’t long before Giuseppe had an epiphany as to what made that dish so delicious. When they opened Rendo’s they started serving this spicy style of tomato sauce, which is referred to as ”Rendover” sauce today.
The second story places the creation of Memphis style BBQ in a conflict between two African-American men named Eddie and Will Rogers. This version goes that the owners of Rendo’s took one of the Rendons’ recipes with them, who in turn passed it along to a friend named Miss Lulu.
Whether or not these stories are true, it’s clear that either way, there are strong Italian roots to this style.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Italian immigrants brought their style of Italian-American food to Memphis. Meanwhile, a young African American man named Charlie Vergos was helping his uncle at his BBQ restaurant which was located in the back of Vergos’ family grocery store.
Charlie used cheap cuts of meat and would prepare them with a method similar to Rendover sauce: adding lots of salt, pepper and other locally available spices. He also favored oak wood and pecan wood, which he would smoke over for hours.
The rest, as they say, is history. Over the next few decades, Miss Lulu’s recipes were passed down to Vergos’ children. In fact, it was his son Nick Vergos who began cooking on the competition circuit, taking Memphis style BBQ out of Memphis and into the world. Nick has won many awards over the years, but he also passed down his recipes to a new generation of chefs.
Today, Memphis style BBQ is considered one of the most authentic, versatile and delicious of all styles. From popcorn shrimp to ribs, Memphis barbecue is becoming a world-renowned style that is equally popular in restaurants and at private competition events around the country.
Memphis BBQ has become so popular that it’s now recognized as a federally protected food product by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
It’s also gained a reputation for being easy to do. In a lot of ways, Memphis style BBQ is the perfect recipe to begin with – it’s simple and versatile enough so that you can experiment while still achieving great results. Just unlike in Italian-American food, you don’t need to spend hours in the kitchen learning tricky techniques (like saucing meats with vinegar or caramelizing meats on the grill). This style calls on your grill or smoker to have a good time.
“This style on a lot of ways, is the perfect recipe to begin with – it’s simple and versatile enough so that you can experiment while still achieving great results.”
Through out history, Memphis style BBQ has developed from a simple tomato based dish eaten in Memphis, Tennessee to the most popular styles of barbecue in the country. It was passed down from one generation to another over a period of fifty years before eventually becoming federally protected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It’s now considered one of the most authentic styles in America. If you are like me your mouth is wayterin’ just thinking about that savory smoked goodness!