By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine
Memphis is our favorite place to eat pork—ribs (dry rubbed or wet sauced), chopped shoulder on a bun, country ham stuffed into biscuits, and bacon banana sandwiches—but in this soulful city, vegetables are required eating, too. And we do not mean only those greens and legumes that are customarily boiled in a pot with meaty hocks or hunks of fatback. In fact, Suhair Lauck of The Little Tea Shop, down by old Cotton Row, says that her bowl of turnip greens has become even more popular since she took pork out of the recipe altogether three years ago and started using chicken stock instead. We were aghast at the idea of southern-style greens made without pig parts. It had always seemed to us that the opulent likker—a spruce-green broth retrieved from the pot—in which they wallow in their serving bowl gets its intoxicating character at least as much from the ham bone as from the collard, turnip, or mustard leaves that the boiling process turns soft and mellow.
But tasting is believing, and a serving of pork-free turnip greens with pot likker at The Little Tea Shop is positively tonic. If a flavor can be verdant, here it is: the heady soul of a plant with leaves that marinate in sunlight. Turnip greens are the centerpiece of Lauck’s best-selling lunch. For $6.50, you get a bowl filled with sultry dark greens sodden in their likker, the once tough leaves cooked so limp that you can easily separate a small clump of them with the side of a soup spoon and gather it up with plenty of the liquid. On top of the greens are slices of raw onion, giving pungent bite to the leaves, and on top of the onions are bright red slices of tomato, which are shockingly sweet compared to everything below.
We make the mistake of trying to discuss Lauck’s vegetable philosophy during lunch, when she is the life force of The Little Tea Shop, working the dining room with relentless enthusiasm. Old friends who enter get a buss on the cheek, newcomers are instantly “Sweetie” and “Dear,” and she introduces parties of strangers if she thinks they’ll get along. We shake hands with three gents who have been eating at the same table for over 40 years. “No one else would dare sit there,” Lauck says. As for the lack of pork in her greens, she sums up her reasoning as she whisks past our table carrying chocolate-draped ice cream pecan balls for somebody’s dessert: “It is dietetic, it is delicious, it is religious.”
Aha, religion. Lauck is Muslim, so there’s the reason for her porkless greens, we surmise. But that’s only half right. We next meet Kevin Shockency, co-proprietor of Memphis Grits, a Main Street storefront known for rugged-textured grits (delivered from a 100-year-old mill in Oxford, Mississippi), as well as bespoke sausage made by a hog packer out east, in Fayette County. Shockency’s greens are robust, but when we ask him whether they’re cooked with ham hocks or with fatback, he answers, “Smoked turkey legs.” We’ve never known turkey to taste so extravagant, making likker as rich as the translucent amber fat on a slice of country ham. Why turkey rather than pig? “When you serve a lot of diverse people, you must offer an alternative to pork,” Shockency explains. His restaurant is one of the few excellent breakfast places in town, open every day at eight for hot platters highlighted by bowls full of syrupy stewed cinnamon apples.
By this point, we are on a mission to find greens cooked the old-fashioned way. Next stop is The Cupboard, a hugely popular restaurant in what used to be a Shoney’s. A sign outside boasts, “Freshest Veggies in Town.” Proprietor Charles Cavallo is a fresh-food fanatic, a calling he credits to his uncle, who sold watermelons. “One day, when I was twelve, he gave me a few he had left over. I sold them by the side of the road, and from that moment, I had the passion.” He drove a produce-delivery truck for ten years, and in 1993 took over The Cupboard with the goal of making it a showcase for vegetables. Local tomatoes, squash, crowder peas, onions, cabbages, and sweet potatoes appear not only on the menu (which features a four-vegetable, no-meat meal) but also on the floor of the restaurant, in the vestibule and around the cash register, from which they are sold by the peck and bushel. One of the best cooked vegetables here is the simplest: a whole baked sweet potato, utterly unseasoned but starchy sweet and soft as pudding. And The Cupboard’s full-flavored turnip greens? They are made without pork or poultry, just boiled and seasoned. “My greens taste like greens,” Cavallo says, stating the obvious. “Sometimes I have people who come in and say, ‘You’ve changed the recipe. These are different.’ ‘Yes, they are different,’ I say. Maybe younger, maybe winter greens, which have a softer taste, maybe they are from Georgia instead of Tennessee. Every bunch has a flavor of its own.’”
Does anybody still use pork? Surely our old favorite Ellen’s, a classic Memphis soul food café, hasn’t relinquished the ham bone. But as we sit at one of the plastic-laminate tables, with the city’s best fried chicken in front of us, we are informed by the waitress that none of the vegetables we are forking up contain any animal products whatsoever.
Our final subject for Memphis greens research is Alcenia’s, a modest lunchroom decorated in an intriguing mix of 1960s psychedelic beaded curtains, primitive folk art, and odes to African-American culture. Proprietor B. J. Chester-Tamayo, who named the restaurant for her mother and granddaughter and opened it as therapy to get over the untimely death of her son, is known to Memphians not only for her homey food but for her hugs. “I feel so guilty if I haven’t hugged you, I’ll chase you down the street when you leave,” she laughs.
Chester-Tamayo learned to cook from her mother, who lives in Meridian, Mississippi, but comes to visit and makes tea cakes and apple cobbler and coaches her on the phone when she is making chow chow or pear preserves. Not to draw out the suspense: Chester-Tamayo tells us that the only vegetable dish in which she uses pork as flavoring is lima beans. Her turnip greens get their opulence from what she calls smoked turkey “tails” and necks. But the vegetable that we consider essential eating here is cabbage. When we first see it, we assume it has been steamed with other greens because there are dark leaves laced among the white ones, but Chester-Tamayo explains that those are the cabbage’s outer leaves. “The best part!” she exclaims. “Most people throw them away because they are tough. They need an hour extra steaming; that makes them soft and brown.” Flavored with a hail of spice that includes jerk seasoning and lots of pepper, this is cabbage with tongue-searing punch. A basket of cushiony-moist griddle-cooked cornbread is the perfect foil for these ecstatically seasoned vegetables.
At Alcenia’s, we finally do hit the jackpot in our quest for pig meat, but it’s not a ham bone or fatback. The lunch special is a fried pork chop, crisp crusted and dripping with juice. This succulent chop is pure pig; but we find ourselves keeping it alone on its plate, away from side orders of cabbage and greens. After so many good plate lunches all over Memphis, we have come to appreciate the separation of pork and greens.
Ellen’s Soul Food & Bar-B-Q (permanently closed)
601 South Parkway East
Memphis Grits (permanently closed)
22 South Main Street