Saturday, February 21, 2015

Closing Remarks - Austin, Texas and "It" Cities

I spent a week in Austin, TX, with my wife over the New Year's holiday, and naturally we sampled a lot of barbecue. We also talked a lot about the similarities and differences between Austin, Nashville and Memphis.

It was my first trip to Austin. Nashville I've probably been to at least once a year for most of my life, since it is only a couple hours away from home. And last April my wife and I spent a long weekend eating and drinking there for our seventh wedding anniversary where we we sampled a variety of food from high-end places like Husk and the Catbird Seat to down home eateries like Hattie B's Hot Chicken. So I'd witnessed firsthand how much Nashville has grown and changed in recent years, while hearing a lot about Austin.

All three cities are known for food and music. Nashville and Austin both have reputations for being "it" cities; magnets for money and jobs. As much as I love Memphis, let's all be honest, we aren't exactly associated with financial prosperity and skyrocketing property values here. So it is interesting to compare the positives and the negatives between the cities before delving into the barbecue I tried in Austin.

While the population numbers for the Greater Memphis area have been fairly stagnant for the past couple decades, the geographic area has spread tremendously, largely fueled by a foolhardy mix of public and private debt. As I type this the Memphis suburb of Southaven, MS, is pouring millions of dollars in taxpayer debt into a massive shopping mall development around Church Road despite the town already having an abundance of empty or underutilized retail as the era of shopping malls and big box retail dies away.

Meanwhile both Austin and Nashville are trying to cope with the infrastructure demands of surging populations. During the past year the residents of both cities have voted down mass transit proposals despite their constant complaints about traffic congestion.

As a Memphian, one thing that quickly stands out in Nashville and Austin is how lily white both of them are and how marginalized most of the non-white residents you encounter are. While Memphis has a large number of black residents living in poverty, it is also home to a huge black middle class.

It is initially striking how little diversity you in Austin or Nashville, when both are known as magnet cities drawing new residents from around the country. But the vast majority of those new residents seem to be middle class, suburban-raised white folks under the age of 50, so there is a certain homogeneity to them. You never feel the diversity of backgrounds that makes cities like San Francisco, NYC or Chicago or so fun to explore.

Ultimately I definitely felt more at home in Austin than Nashville. That isn't surprising since Austin is known for barbecue, tacos and live music; which are all big parts of my everyday life. But on a deeper level Austin also has a genuinely casual, laid-back atmosphere that makes it easy to enjoy. Austin is full of real, regular people where real, regular people can seem an endangered species in Nashville.

Nashville has the greatest concentration of ridiculous hipsters I've ever seen, and that includes recent travels to places like Williamsburg in Brooklyn. And in using "hipster" as a derogatory term, I'm not referring to young creative people who are active in the arts. I mean it in terms of people who are consumers as opposed to creators, and who adopt a ridiculous image in an attempt to appear interesting.

I think the reason the hipster style is so prevalent in Nashville is that it is a backlash against an even bigger scourge -- bro country. Austin may have its "keep Austin weird" motto, but it is also a place where most people dress like normal humans. In Nashville you are either in the bro country camp or the hipster camp. It actually makes you somewhat sympathetic to the hipsters. If it's a choice between being a hipster or the kind of dude who listens to and dresses like someone like Luke Bryan or the Florida-Georgia Line douchebags, then pink skinny jeans and a bow tie suddenly seem reasonable.

In Austin you see reverence for country music as an art form. Willie Nelson is practically the city's patron saint. In Nashville it is a label slapped on the worst pop music imaginable to make money. In the words of Stephen King's Gunslinger, Nashville has forgotten the face of its fathers, although at least for now it looks like Studio A has been saved from being transformed into yuppie condos.

But Austin is also having trouble maintaining its identity with outsiders pouring in. "The city can't decide what it wants to be," was a comment we heard from multiple residents. In that way it is the opposite of Memphis, where we have have a strong cultural identity and general atmosphere forged from being a Dirty South riverport, much like New Orleans or Savannah GA, which are the two cities outside of Memphis where I've always feel the most at home. But when it comes to barbecue, Austin definitely has a strong identity that reflects its location on the map.

I'd recently shown Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor for Texas Monthly magazine, around Memphis. So naturally I texted him for suggestions about where to eat in his part of the world. Specifically, I asked him where to go besides Franklin Barbecue. I know Franklin is supposed to have the best barbecue in Austin, but I'm from Memphis and I don't wait three hours in line for barbecue. Like me, Vaughn had a blog devoted to trying all the barbecue in his area that led to him creating a book on the subject. He knows Texas barbecue as well as I know the Memphis variety, so I asked him for the Austin equivalent to Alex's Tavern. I wanted to know where to get great barbecue without waiting in line with a bunch of tourists.

The first place he sent us to was Freedman's. We ate there our first night in town, sampling a platter of brisket, pork ribs and pork shoulder with vinegar slaw. Everything was so great it actually bothered my wife. "I don't want Austin to have better barbecue than us," she said. Everything had perfect bark, a deep smoke ring and a perfect texture. The brisket stood out in particular, probably because great brisket isn't common in Memphis. The slaw was also outstanding. It was tangy and delicious with none of the sugar and mayo nonsense that is too common in the South.

The service was also great. We sat at the bar and the friendly bartender was a lifelong Austin resident, which we quickly discovered was a rare find. Austin has grown so rapidly in recent years that we quickly learned that when talking to someone, one of your first questions should be, "where are you from?" This was a big contrast from Memphis, where one of your first questions is generally, "where did you go to high school around here?" Freedman's was out of its homemade sausage the first night, but we made it a point to return later in the week just to get an order. It was as good as everything else we'd tried.

Our next stop, based on another recommendation from Vaughn, was Valentina's. Valentina's is actually a trailer located at the back of the Star Bar near the University of Texas. We had the brisket tacos and corn. Everything was good, but we weren't blown away since we have been jaded by the incredible brisket tacos from Elwood's Shack in Memphis. I've never gotten around to blogging about those Elwood's tacos, but they are a must try for anyone in Memphis,

My next two stops weren't based on recommendations. They were simply places I noticed while walking around. The first was Ruby's. Ruby's is the kind of sandwich shop that is common in Memphis, except specializing in brisket sandwiches instead of pulled pork. It is interesting to note that while Austin is known as a barbecue town, it is actually more of a taco town. It has taco places everywhere, the same way you find pulled pork sandwich shops all over Memphis. It was also surprising to note that where Memphis has tons of barbecue joints run by old barbecue veterans, most of the barbecue in Austin is cooked by guys in their 30s who are approaching the craft from more of a chef's perspective.  

The sandwich was a bit of a culture shock for anyone who grew up where "getting a barbecue," means pulled pork with sauce and slaw. It was a Texas-style sandwich with brisket topped with pickles and onions. The sauce was served on the side. The end result was still delicious and the meat had a solid smoke ring and bark. The pickle and onion served as a good substitute for slaw, providing the crunch and tang to complement the meat.

 Even after a week in Texas, this menu sign at Black's just looked wrong to me.

For my final barbecue stop visited the fairly new Austin location of Black's Barbecue. The original Black's in Lockhart is supposed to be exceptional, but I'd heard the Austin location was having some problems with consistency. While my wife was getting ready to go out one night I stopped in and ordered a pound of beef brisket, a beef rib and baked beans.

When I got back to our room I discovered the brisket had been left out of our order, leaving us with one rib and some pickles and beans. At least the one rib we had appeared massive, but that was before we realized how much unrendered fat it had on it. Still, given the reputation the original Black's has, I'd like to try the mother location one day. And I'd be willing to give the Austin store another shot in the future to see if they get things figured out.

This post is a bit delayed, but I've been meaning to write it since I got home. This is my first blog entry in six months. I really intended to stay active with the blog after my book came out, but finding the motivation has been difficult. Don't get me wrong, I still eat barbecue or soul food pretty much every day for lunch while I'm running around town for my business. That isn't going to change any time soon.

Part of the problem was the burn out that came from going from a book contract to a published book in about seven months, which was unplanned until I was suddenly thrown into it. The blog was always a labor of love I could work on when I felt like it. The book consumed all my spare time for half a year, without even counting the publicity obligations after it came out.

Meanwhile, I have a lot of other hobby projects at any given time beyond the day-to-day operation of my business. But most importantly, for now at least, Memphis barbecue seems like an area where I've already said my piece. After a couple years of blogging followed by writing an entire history of the city told through the story of our signature food, I don't want to just keep repeating myself over and over.

I'll still be posting pics of my finds on the @memphisque Instagram account and occasionally posting barbecue news on the Memphis Que Facebook page and Twitter account. And I may still write an occasional post here when I find something interesting enough, like I did for our Austin trip. I'll definitely be doing some freelance writing on interesting elements of Memphis, like this piece I did for High Ground News.

But for now, I am putting the blog on hold to focus on other interests. I've got a '55 ford I've owned since I was a teenager, which I've been trying to rebuild since a wreck in 2011. I had to put it on hold for a year due to book obligations, since there was no way to juggle writing a book, building a car from the frame up, running a business and still being a good husband to the woman who is amazingly sympathetic to my crazy whims. Something had to give.

Now that the book is done, I'm ready to sacrifice some writing time to get back to work on the car. I greatly appreciate all the readers who have enjoyed the blog, especially the longtime readers who also picked up the book when it came out. I was always proud of the blog and I am damn proud of the book. Not just for me, but because it tells the story of the city I love through the food and music that represents so much of its character.

Also, when I started the blog I felt like there were a lot fewer voices touting the city's potential. In the past several years it seems like more and more people are embracing the inherent coolness of Memphis. And there have been some surprisingly large signs of revitalization, with Broad Avenue, Overton Square and Crosstown being the most obvious examples within an easy bike ride of my house. I hope I continue to see Memphis being recognized as the cool city it is. But I also hope we can avoid the loss of character that can accompany being labeled a "cool" city. I don't want us lose that soulful atmosphere that makes us a unique place. 

I want the kind of economic success that means better jobs for the people currently living in places like South Memphis. Despite stereotypes you'll hear thrown around in the suburbs, I can tell you from my work travels that parts of Memphis like South Memphis have large numbers of hard-working people who have simply never been as lucky as our more privileged residents. I want to see them revitalize their community. I don't want to see the kind of economic boom that would simply lead to carpet-bagging hipsters overrunning the historic Soulsville neighborhood while the current residents our forced to move out to our increasingly blighted suburbs.