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Regional BBQ: Memphis

Posted by Chef Perry Perkins on

Regional BBQ: Memphis

~Chef Perry Perkins~

Second only to reality TV shows, and possibly refined sugar, American's love BBQ.

On that, we can all agree.

Unfortunately, that's about the only point of BBQ that we CAN agree on. There are numerous
regional styles and ingredients that are considered "BBQ", and many of the folks from each region
would die defending the premise that their BBQ is the REAL THING.

We can't even agree on the spelling...

Barbecue? Barbeque? BBQ? B-B- Q?

Now, I' not about to start a fight by claiming that any one region hold the smoking scepter of true bbq (or even the spelling), but I will take a few posts to tell you what's out there, and share some recipes of what makes up BBQ to different folks, in different places.

All of these regions share similarities in what they call BBQ, as well as differences...sometimes very minor differences, but they all have something to teach us about that wonderful pastime of smoking and grilling meat. Each post will cover a bit of history, specific techniques, and a look at "how they eat it" i.e.: serving styles, accompaniments, etc.

Let's start, with no particular preference, or bias (really), in...

Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis, Tennessee

Though BBQ has been popular in the area for a long, long time, it really saw a boom following World War II, when a spirit of entrepreneurship swept the country, and locals realized there was a living to be made with those old family recipes for slow-smoked shoulders and ribs.

In Memphis, then as now, it's all about pork, pulled or on the rib, and only about pork. Just try looking for a beef rib at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Contest (it'll be the smoker run by the honest politician...good luck!)

Memphis pit-masters don't go in for a laundry list of seasonings, either, typically relying on little more than salt and smoke to bring out the best, natural, flavors of shoulders and whole hogs. They maintain the same minimalist perspective when it comes to sauce, at least before the meat is served, as well.

Some of the most popular items on the Memphis menu, are actually referred to as "dry ribs" (referring to lack of sauce, NOT thankfully, the quality of the Q!) which are coated in a blend of spices, usually a combination of garlic, paprika, onions, cumin, with a few "secret" ingredients, that the cook would likely face down a firing squad before sharing with you. 

These dry ribs (usually Baby Backs) are slowly smoked until falling off the bone and might (might) be served with some sauce on the side.

Probably the most famous (and arguably the best) dry ribs in the city are found at the world famous, "Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous" restaurant.

Also, the smoke-eaters at Vergo's will inform you that they don't refer to their spice blend as a "rub", but simple as the "seasoning", as it's sprinkled (copiously) onto the ribs, and not rubbed in.

Remember what I said about those "very minor differences". ;)

Pork shoulder is served straight up, pulled or chopped, topped with sauce, or in sandwich form on a white roll with sauce and slaw.

And, speaking of...


Though every Memphis pit-master will have his own specific sauce recipe (are you seeing a theme, here?) the base for each tends to fall along the same short-list of ingredients including tomatoes (ketchup), cider vinegar, and dark brown sugar, ending up as a thick, moderately sweet, tangy sauce.

Never fear...there's a recipe at the end of this post!


Stay true to The Home of Blues, but serving your 'Q with a heapin' helping of bbq beans, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, or cooked greens.

For you "out of the box" smokers, another favorite unique to Memphis is "Barbecue Nachos"...a mile high dry-cleaning nightmare of smoked chopped pork shoulder, spicy nacho cheese sauce, tortilla chips, Memphis-style
barbeque sauce, dry rub, and sliced jalapenos.

A gut-busting (but delicious) combination guaranteed to turn your belly into a hunka hunka burnin' love!

Memphis-Style Sauce

2 cups ketchup
1⁄2 cup dark brown sugar
1⁄4 cup apple cider vinegar
1⁄2 tsp. hot chili flakes
1 Tbs. onion powder
2 tsp. hickory salt
2 tsp. garlic powder
1⁄2 cup yellow mustard
1 Tbs. Mexican chili powder
1 Tbs. coarse ground black pepper
3 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbs. grapeseed oil

Combine all ingredients except for the oil, and bring to a low boil, whisking often.

Reduce heat and low simmer and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove sauce from the heat, and whisk in the grapeseed oil until combined.

Allow sauce to rest in the fridge for at least 24 hours (72 is better), before using.

~Chef Perry

As a third-generation chef, Perry P. Perkins focuses his love of cooking on barbeque, traditional southern fare, and fresh Northwest cuisine.

Perry runs the non-profit organization, MY KITCHEN Outreach Program, which teaches nutrition, shopping, and hands on cooking classes for at risk youth.

His cookbooks include La Caja China Cooking, La Caja China World, La Caja China Party, and the NEW “La Caja China Grill.”

You can follow the rest of Chef Perry’s cooking adventures at

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