Barbecue comes in all sorts of regional styles—and Memphis has a lock as Tennessee's most famous BBQ. Here's how some local practitioners make it Memphis-style.
University of Tennessee graduate Archer Bagley developed a taste for Memphis style barbecue growing up there before coming to Knoxville for both undergraduate and post-graduate studies. Later, while working as an engineer and software consultant in Colorado, a state he describes as having no barbecue, he missed the barbecue of his youth. "I started piddling around in my backyard with my Weber," he says. "I came up with a dry rub recipe and six sauce recipes." He was mainly influenced by the Bar B-Q Shop in midtown Memphis, a restaurant that was originally Brady and Lil's. "About 50 percent of the recipes there are still Brady's," he says. "Brady was the first to make barbecue spaghetti."
After having children, Bagley and wife Yvonne (the creator of the restaurant's delicious collard greens) decided to move back to Knoxville and open a barbecue restaurant. "I wanted to do something different, something that didn't involve sitting in a cubicle" explains Bagley. With the skills and recipes honed in his back yard and the assistance of executive chef Jay Barron, a Memphis native with a lot of culinary experience, Bagley opened Archer's BBQ (5415 Kingston Pike, 675-2880) a little over a year ago. Clark Cowan, another experienced chef, recently joined the team. Besides the main location in Farragut, the operation includes Archer's BBQ Express in Rocky Hill and the hot pink Squealmobile, which sells barbecue in various locations—with updates posted on Facebook—around town.
Bagley describes his technique: "I put dry rub on all my meat. I put it in the smoker. I pull it out when it's done. The only thing we serve sauce on is the wings. We serve the whole wing, which is what they do in Memphis. We also serve baby back ribs—most places in Memphis serve baby back ribs. Places here serve spare ribs; they're cheaper."
He admits to some departures from classic Memphis style. "In Memphis you'll get cole slaw on your sandwich. I think the meat should stand on its own, so we serve it on the side. Some people think there's only one way to make Memphis barbecue. I have my own versions."
Mr. Bob E. Que
Memphis style barbecue is a family tradition for Scott and Leigh Cobb, owners of Mr. Bob E. Que (10324 Chapman Highway, 572-2420). Leigh's mother, Barbara Poss, began as an employee at the original Mr. Bob E. Que in Cleveland, Miss. and eventually purchased the place (including the name and the recipes) from owners F.R. Armstrong and wife Gerri. Armstrong was inspired to open Mr. Bob E. Que after winning awards for his special sauce and rub at the acclaimed Memphis in May barbecue competition in 1986. So how does a barbecue joint move from the Delta to the Smokies?
Poss ran the business with the help of her family and a few locals until the summer of 2000 when her daughter Leigh and son-in-law Scott Cobb brought their children to the mountains for vacation and fell in love with the area. After their visit, they convinced Poss to move the family and the business to Sevier County. After a brief stint in Sevierville, they opened up shop at the current location in Seymour in October 2001. Poss' son, Kevin, was the man behind the smoker, closely supervised by mom.
Current owners Scott and Leigh Cobb are keeping the family tradition alive with the help of daughter Tiffany, granddaughter Kyle, and Barbara Poss, who is still around making sure things are done to her satisfaction.
"Memphis barbecue has a dry rub," explains Leigh Cobb. "Most of the others are wet. It's cooked with hickory and oak wood. It's true smoked. We do it the old-fashioned way. When you cook with wood, the meat will have a pink smoke ring. It's cooked at a low temperature for a long period of time. That's how you get the tenderness and taste." Their sauce, which has a distinctive honey-based sweetness, is served on the side.
Understandably, the Cobbs closely guard their award-winning rub recipe, but they reveal a few things. "The rub has about 17 different spices," says Cobb. "It has a bite to it. We apply the rub and put the meat on the smoker for about six hours. The spices soak down in there. You just know when it's ready."
Billy Bob Billy
When you agree to meet a guy named Billy Bob Billy to talk about Memphis barbecue, what you don't expect is an urbane, attractive 64 year old man dressed in khakis, navy blazer, blue shirt, and colorful but tasteful tie. Turns out that just as there are wrestler names and stripper names, there are BBQ names—and Bill Morris's BBQ name, or "nom de smoke," is Billy Bob Billy.
Morris, who moved to Memphis from Oxford, Miss., where his father was a professor, worked at IBM for 10 years, spent 10 years as a health-care consultant, and worked as a financial advisor for 20 years, but he is perhaps most famous in the world of competitive barbecue.
Morris got his start as a member of the Men's Club at Holy Apostles Episcopal Church in Memphis. He was brought into the fold by his friend, Mike DeVois, whose BBQ name is Blaze Dawson. "Blaze is a popular BBQ name," says Morris. "We had several guys named Blaze." In addition to cooking for church suppers, the men started cooking competitively, starting with Memphis in May but also in competitions in other states, including Missouri, Mississippi, and Arkansas. The "Holy Smokers Too," as the group dubbed itself, started winning accolades almost immediately and also drew some attention with their 20 foot trailer, which included a smoker and a hog-cooling box that was actually a wooden insulated coffin. The Holy Smokers won the World Championship at Memphis in May in 1985 and 1988. Morris says, "From 1985 to 1994, we were the team to beat."
"Memphis barbecue is a dry presentation," Morris says. " It came about at The Rendezvous. Their process is to cook the barbecue, and right before it's served, you sprinkle it with the dry rub. So you get that burst of flavor when you bite into it. As we like to say, ‘It's not the size of your smoker; it's how you rub your meat.' "
Morris shares his considerable skills through his cookbook, They Were Smokin, his website holysmokerstoo.com, and his non-credit barbecue courses offered through the University of Tennessee. He offers a course called "World Championship BBQ" and one for grades seven and up called "Jr. BBQ Pitmaster." A well-rounded fellow, he is also the author of the novel, Murder on Market Square.