I have to admit, I’m a neophyte when it comes to Southern cooking, although I’ve managed to do an admirable job of self-education when it comes to baking with Jack Daniels.
I’ve got twenty-four hours in Memphis with just enough free time to check out the local cuisine. My guide on this culinary odyssey is Dan McCleary, a Shakespearean actor whose work I’ve closely followed for more than a decade. Dan has played the Bard’s greatest roles - Coriolanus, Richard III, Mark Antony, Falstaff and MacBeth. A native of Memphis, he’s back on his home turf for what may well be his greatest role – establishing a permanent Shakespeare company in the state, The Tennessee Shakespeare Company.
We walk past horse drawn carriages and hang a right onto historic Beale Street where the preponderance of neon signs dazzles the eyes. The Blues were born on Beale Street in the honky-tonks at the dawn of the 20th century. Although it is a weekday evening, the street is teaming with activity and there is a perceptible haze, which may, or may not be my jet lag. It is the annual Barbeque Fest and down on the Mississippi, pigs are roasting on slow burning fires and hordes of folks are on round-the-clock grill duty.
Dan has a jovial laugh worthy of Falstaff, and he seems to be enjoying his return to his Southern roots. He has promised the ultimate Memphis food experience. “You have to visit Miss Polly’s,” Dan says. “It’s the best fried food in Memphis.” We walk into Miss Polly’s Soul City Café. Above the door is a neon sign with a plump, matronly hen inviting us to enter and eat and eat and eat…
Inside, we are in a long narrow room and are hit by a blast of humid air and the aroma of a seasoned hot skillet. The walls are decorated with photos of the great Blues artists. We take a seat at the Ray Charles table. On the back wall is Miss Polly’s slogan: “Love, Peace and Chicken Grease.” That kind of says it all. We’re not here for health food – but we will definitely feel the love.
Our server is Jules, a petite woman with sleek, long auburn hair and a porcelain complexion. We order a couple of cold Pabst Blue Ribbons, which Dan devotedly describes as “nectar of the Red Neck.” Jules brings large plastic cups, but we’re classy guys and we drink from the cans.
The menu is a thing of beauty – fried food as far as the eye can see. The first course arrives, and it is a Southern classic – fried green tomatoes. Translucent, emerald-colored slices of tomato are coated in a delicate cornmeal batter with a peppery bite.
“It’s poor people food,” says Dan. “You didn’t wait for the tomatoes to get ripe, because you had to eat. Frying in cornmeal made it taste better.” Indeed, the tender crunch of the seasoned cornmeal is at first rough and hot on the tongue and then dissolves into sweet, pulpy tomato. Sweet and spicy is the preferred taste combo in the South, according to Dan.
My entrée arrives, and it confirms his culinary hypothesis. I’ve ordered the “Hen House,” a platter that includes a humongous hunk of crispy, batter-fried chicken breast, a waffle the size of a Frisbee topped with butter and maple syrup and a side of Hoppin’ John, an old slave dish of black-eyed peas, slab bacon and hot red pepper. Do I feel like a fox or what? Believe it or not, I’ve been conservative in my menu selection. I could have ordered the sixteen-piece fried chicken platter.
Dan has ordered Southern Fried Catfish. According to “A Love Affair with Southern Cooking,” by Jean Anderson (HarperCollins, 2007), 94 percent of all U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish comes from the South, and the fish is versatile enough to be baked, broiled, fried, grilled or steamed. Of course, Miss Polly ain’t going for no sissy steaming techniques. Her catfish is fried and she’s proud of it. It’s probably the Pabst Blue Ribbon, but I swear those lightly breaded, glistening white fish are so fresh they’re still wriggling with Southern hospitality. We dive in, head first. On the table, there are fancy napkins if we need them – a fresh, economy-sized roll of Bounty paper towels. You will surely think I’m fibbin' but the food is light as a feather, not heavy like you might expect. In the Northeast, we’d say “the chicken’s got a certain Wessonality” but I wouldn’t dare make such a pedestrian comment on Beale Street.
When I am sure I can’t eat any more, Dan suggests dessert. There is another sign of what’s to come on the opposite wall. It reads, “Get Yourself a Skillet Fried Pie.” We order one serving of the peach pie.
Our server Jules approves of the choice. “It’s zero calories and zero fat. How cool is that?” she giggles.
The golden crescent-moon pie arrives at the table nestled in a cast-iron skillet and sizzling in what looks like a stick of butter and some additional lard thrown in for good measure. It is topped with a dollop of vanilla ice cream that is having a meltdown. The white-hot heat off the skillet is giving me a sunburn. The pie is like sweet, molten lava. It is ridiculously good, but I fear that I will be spending the next six months on my exercise bike.
As we are about to stumble from our table, I ask Jules a question that’s been nagging at me.
“Who is Miss Polly? Is she an historic figure or did somebody make her up?”
“A lot of people ask me that, and I really don’t know,” says Jules. “I usually tell them, I’m Miss Polly.”
After an overdose of Skillet Fried Pie, I’d believe anything, too. However, it is a mystery to be solved on another visit, and we stagger (or is it swagger?) out onto Beale Street where a Bluesy rhythm rings in our ears and the scent of slow roasted pork fills the balmy Southern night.
©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved