I am a converted believer in Memphis, my hometown, the place I vowed never to live after turning 18. It wasn’t some great epiphany. Like many conversions, it was subtle and happened while I wasn’t paying attention.
If, generally speaking, places have a way of growing on a person, then Memphis is the kudzu of places: wild, seamy, tangled and invading with relentless consumption. Go ahead, call us a weed. Resistance is futile, you’ll see.
Like kudzu, in a bad way, Memphis sprawled through annexation over the last 40 years. Done is done. But like kudzu, in a good way, the heart of Memphis has also grown thick with vine runners holding together what otherwise might have eroded.
Dial back time and tell 1999 Jennifer that she’ll write this post; she’ll call you nasty names. But while she was busy reading her New York Times, pining to return to life at higher altitude, those renegade tendrils wound their way around her, the unlikeliest of converts, and pulled her to the pews of the Memphis faithful. They turned her into me.
Now as I reflect on 15 years of living in Memphis (hard to believe I’ve written that), I can point to a handful of things that inspired my eventual conversion. Looking back, I see them as true articles of faith, proof of a place where unlikely magic can happen.
12 Articles of Faith for a Memphis Believer:
- AutoZone Park (Memphis Redbirds). Like Annie Savoy in Bull Durham, I believe in the church of baseball. But that’s not what earned Baseball America‘s 2009 “Minor League Park of the Year” top spot on my list. AutoZone Park did, in 2000, what 20 years of downtown development couldn’t do in a sustainable way: bring families back to the city core. Honestly, I never, ever believed that would happen.
- Memphis Grizzlies. My late mother was devastated when my PR firm was hired for the NBA Now pursuit team and then to represent the public building authority that oversaw construction of FedExForum. “Sweaty boys in undershirts” was my prim mother’s description of basketball, a sport she hated her entire life. But, Mama, despite your disdain the Grizzlies have ignited a fierce and gap-bridging loyalty in Memphis. They’ve rallied the congregation by being (let’s keep it going here) the kudzu team of the NBA. Spurs can trim the vine, but they can’t keep it from growing back stronger. Plus the Grizzlies are the believe memphis progenitor. Can’t really ignore that.
- Memphis Farmers Market. Sometimes it takes an outsider to engender faith. A byproduct of bringing the Grizzlies to town (yes, really), the downtown Memphis Farmers Market put a fashionable storefront on local farming, summoning pride among dirt diggers who’d been pulling crops from Delta soil for years. Markets that pre-dated MFM have grown, and new markets have spawned in the MFM’s wake of cool. Some of those spinoffs are working to address food deserts in Memphis, a problem no one was paying attention to 10 years ago even though it was just as bad. I believe we might actually fix it, and show the world how in the process. (And, to you regular readers: yes, the Cooper Young Farmers Market is still, and always, my personal choice for farmers markets. But MFM revolutionized farmers markets in Memphis, and there’s just no denying it.)
- AC Wharton’s election. Although critics chastise his consensus-building approach, AC (as the people’s mayor is known to everyone locally) changed the tone of public conversation in Memphis. Acknowledging my bias (I worked for him when he was Shelby County Mayor), AC makes me believe that civil discourse is still possible, even in Memphis, even in the age of ridiculous partisan bickering. And despite continued pressure from business, community and political camps, he will not bend to anyone else’s mold, a quality I admire and respect.
- Kelly English. Full disclosure, because some of you who know me know this already: If I could pick only one Memphis chef to prepare my last meal, it would be Erling Jensen (he stole my palate before you moved to town, Kelly; it can’t be helped). But Kelly English, a Food and Wine Best New Chef of 2009, is my pick for game-changing local chef. He’s the guy who can make anyone believe Memphis belongs on the national map of both hot and haute cuisine. To boot he’s also a one-man Hall of Justice, ready to tackle the Joker and Lex Luthor at the same time. (You have to live here to understand that one; sorry.) And the cocktails at Restaurant Iris are just as, um, formidable as the food. Really, I may have to rethink that Erling Jensen thing.
- Friends for Our Riverfront. Embrace progress, but don’t mess with the natives: that’s how I would sum up Friends for Our Riverfront, the grassroots group working to preserve the Mississippi riverfront as a public greenspace, protected from overzealous development and unnaturally cultured place-making. Small but mighty, they make me believe that David can still take Goliath.
- Broad Avenue Arts District. Like Friends for Our Riverfront, the Broad Avenue Arts District is proof of the marvel of grassroots activism. When Sam Cooper Blvd. was moved, Broad was cut off like an oxbow lake. So residents, local businesses and general do-gooders took charge, played up its existing assets, painted their own bikes lanes, and made it into a cool, quirky, thriving arts district, sort of without help. Even Guy Fieri has been to visit.
- The new LeBonheur hospital. So, it’s great, really great, to have a world-class children’s hospital in your city. Greater still to have two of them (counting St. Jude). But LeBonheur Children’s Hospital makes my list not because having a children’s hospital is great, but because keeping children front and center makes everyone believe there’s a future. Drive west on Poplar Avenue, and the most prominent icon on the skyline is the bright red heart at the top of the LeBonheur tower. The heart of the city; I love that.
- Overton Park Conservancy. Yeah, I know. Shelby Farms (also in Memphis) is the largest urban park in the U.S. And the conservancy to protect Shelby Farms was also created in the last 15 years. But commitment to an enormous greenspace in the most affluent corridor of Shelby County just doesn’t inspire the believer in me the way the Overton Park Conservancy does. Overton Park was the Shelby Farms of Memphis back in the city’s heyday. So important was the park to city residents that they fought, and won, a decades-long battle to prevent I-40 from taking the land as highway right-of-way. The conviction and commitment remain strong, now reinvigorated by the formation of the Conservancy. When I look at what’s happened in Detroit over the last 10 years, I see hope for Memphis because of a resilient corps remains unwilling to let the inner city fail. Believe that all is not lost, ever.
- Levitt Shell. Free concerts in a beautiful outdoor setting (Overton Park). Family friendly. Great entertainment line up (tonight it’s Rosanne Cash). Did I mention free? What’s not to like about the Levitt Shell? (Except maybe the parking, until the zoo gets its act together and builds a multi-story garage.) Sometimes it takes just a single person’s planting a seed to sow a full garden of believers. Really full. As in totally and completely overflowing, every night.
- Overton Square. Midtown Memphis was the entertainment epicenter in the 1970s, when downtown Memphis was all but abandoned. Then Overton Square, 70s party central, died its own (almost) death in the late 1990s. Hearing the bell toll a few years ago a discount grocer moved to replace the iconic 70s Overton Square retail facade with a surface parking lot, and a few die-hard Memphians got their hackles up. In a good way. One of them anted up, put a substantial investment in redevelopment, and made a silk purse from a sow’s ear. (Ok, it’s an abbreviated version, but that’s the net of it.) Believe in the power of resurrection.
- Tennessee Brewery Untapped. “Hey,” a couple of guys said one day, “here’s an idea: how about we pull together a crazy, spontaneous, vibrant effort to save the historic Tennessee Brewery building by creating a six-week pop-up biergarten?” Hell, why not? When you believe, you believe: Tennessee Brewery Untapped.
If you’re a local, then you’ve probably got at least a dozen more articles of your own Memphis faith to add. There are scores of them, to be sure; so please post a comment and build the list. These 12 are the ones dearest to me, the vines that reached my heart and made me a believer.
If you’re not from Memphis, come see for yourself and take stock – it will be like a scavenger hunt and pilgrimage at the same time. After all, we gave birth to the place that puts ice cream in snow cones; how could you not love us? Just watch out for the kudzu, or you might wrapped up and start calling this home.
As my friend Dan Conaway would say, I’m a Memphian. And I believe.
Food | Week of June 16, 2014
It’s full on summer now, time to suspend the dinner schedule and shift to preparing foods that keep well and can be served whenever everyone feels like coming inside.
In a blender, puree 2 large fresh cucumbers (peeled and seeded) about 1/4 of a white onion, some fresh dill, celery flakes and 2-3 cups buttermilk; salt to taste. Chill several hours; will keep, wrapped and in a glass container, for several days in the refrigerator.
Creole Shrimp Salad (adapted from the Woman’s Exchange Cook Book, 1964)
Boil, peel, devein and coarsely chop about 3 lbs. fresh shrimp; place in a large glass bowl or container. Chop 2-3 stalks celery, some white onion or shallots, and a handful of green olives; stir together with shrimp. Mix 1/4 c. mayonnaise (or Greek style yogurt), 1/2 c. Creole mustard, 2-3 Tbsp. olive oil and a dash of white wine vinegar. Pour dressing over shrimp, stir and chill for several hours.
Boil a box of rotini according to package directions; drain and set aside. Coarsely chop 2-3 stalks celery, 1 bunch fresh scallions (or garlic scapes), a can of black olives and EITHER summer sausage OR cooked (or canned) tuna. Stir pasta, chopped vegetables and sausage (or tuna) with about 1/2 c. mayonnaise in a large glass bowl. Add some lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Keeps for several days. Warning: if your people are like my people (even my children) then they will snack on this salad all day long, and it will disappear quickly. Make lots.
On a large platter, arrange lightly steamed green beans (I toss with butter and salt while they’re still warm; I’m Southern that way), fresh cherry/grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, sliced bell peppers, raw carrots and hummus that you either make yourself (here’s a good basic recipe) or that you buy (no judging; it’s summer). Sometimes I’ll put the platter, with some bread and/or crackers, on the counter and just let everyone snack.
Poached Chicken | Green Salad
Poach several pounds of chicken breasts (it’s easy; here’s a good primer if you need one), and you’ll have it for impromptu chicken salad, club sandwiches, or chopping up and tossing into some pasta. Make a batch of Ina Garten’s Buttermilk Ranch dressing, and you’ll be really set for the week, especially if you’ve got a head of fresh lettuce from the local market.
Today’s post was inspired mostly by Memphis but also in part by the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, Worlds Colliding. Find out more about blogging with WordPress at http://wordpress.com.
All words and images belong to me, Jennifer Balink. If you want to use a pic, please ask; I share with people who are nice.
I am always struck by the similarities between Memphis and Louisville. And (though I wasn’t actually from here), like you, I find myself being rather amazed at the subtle changes that “happened while I wasn’t paying attention.” I like your smörgåsbord of summer foods, too. Hope you have a lovely week.
Thanks, Michelle. Sorry for the tardy reply (and yes, Memphis and Louisville are remarkably similar). I was in Sacramento this week for a blood center association meeting, and I was thinking about how lucky we are, both in Memphis and in Louisville, to have not only farms but also WATER! Was a bit on the brown side there…. Cheers to you.
Yeah, as there’s too little water and too much as the coasts go away, it may turn out that we made the right choices after all. (Perhaps accidentally. But no matter.)
OK, I just fell out of my chair. But this is GREAT. Awesome writing, and you are absolutely right.
Thanks! Was a long time getting to this point, as you well know.
Sears Crosstown resurrection efforts and Opera Memphis–I was lucky to get to play for a series of mini-operas they produced and performed at the Crosstown building this year that featured the stories of people who worked in the building. It was truly one of those Memphis moments where you realize what you love about this city. Great article, thanks!
Thanks! Yes, those are two good ones, too. We’re luckier than we realize in our Delta town.
I love your article because I deeply identify with it. I left Memphis when I was 18 for school in New Orleans, then after that Democratic politics in DC. I returned 2 years ago to care for my grandmother. Just within the last 2 months, I’ve developed a newly-found deep-felt appreciation for this city. Sure it has it’s problems (what city doesn’t), but we’re the ones to make it right!
Thanks, Justin, and welcome home, the place for us to make and shape.
The fact that you put AC Wharton in this and praised him for anything is ridiculous!!! He is a liar and a thief and a disgrace to not only Memphis but the entire state! He is truly the pure face of evil!! How are earth after what he has done could you put any faith in him?!! Amazing!
Jennifer I have always known you were smart, bold and good to the core. This just affirms that. I am proud to say I know you. Keep writing , Memphis needs that!
You have a Memphis advocate ,devotee and volunteer firmly in your corner.
LOVE this as always, and love that you live in Memphis, and proud to call you friend.
Hot, humid, bug infested, classist, racist…
Civil Rights Museum, the Orpheum, A. Schwabs, and the Music scene are just a few I would add to the list. Great story, Thank you!
Great additions! Thanks for adding them, and for the kind words.
[…] to write something good about my hometown, sitting down to do it, and being overwhelmed by the great reader […]
Comments are closed.