Craig Meek sees the city through its 'cue

Craig Meek's way to the city's heart was through his stomach. His blog turned soon-to-be-released book examines the history of the city one plate of barbecue at a time and uses food as a launch pad for discussions on urban design, blight and community health.

Craig Meek spends his work week in a van, traveling throughout the Mid-South to visit auto body shops in need of whole sale parts. But in the evenings he is often found at his desk, writing about what he ate on his lunch break. The creator and author of the Memphis Que blog was recently tapped to write a book about his exploration of the quintessential Memphis food, and what he discovered about his city while eating his way through its neighborhoods.

While Meek, 35, has a somewhat unorthodox job, his decision to work for himself – and pursue multiple interests – is becoming increasingly common among young Memphians. He graduated from the University of Memphis and first worked for the Commercial Appeal reporting and copy editing, and then in corporate communications at International Paper. But the corporate environment held very little interest for him.

Until 2005, fixing cars had been a long time hobby. His interest in auto repair dated back to his teen years when he and his dad rebuilt a 1955 Ford Sedan. So when he had the opportunity at 26 to abandon the corporate world and take over a whole sale automotive parts business, he didn't hesitate. "Being self-employed had always been a dream," Meek says, "and Memphis is a great place to take that risk."

While sitting at the Belle Diner downtown, he recalls a memorable quote from Meanwhile in Memphis: The Sound of a Revolution, a documentary about Memphis music. Grifters drummer David Shouse described the city as a great place for artists, explaining the city has good food and a low cost of living. But it is also a place, he says, where people will leave you alone to do your own thing, screw up, recover, and learn from your mistakes. For Meek, this is what makes Memphis a good place to try new things, and take chances.

Meek's new work took him all over the region visiting clients, from Brighton to Hernando, from West Memphis to Jackson, Tenn. Three years ago while in Collierville, he decided to stop at a small barbecue restaurant, Captain John's, for lunch. "It's a little, locally owned place," he says of the unsung spot. "I realized humans are creatures of habit, they are always returning to the same few restaurants. Local mom and pop places don't get much press, but they are really good." As a man who deeply appreciates a quality plate of pulled pork, slaw, and beans, he felt like sharing his lunch-spot findings with the world.

Combining his culinary interests and his writing talents, he composed a few casual posts about local barbecue on social media. They were so well-received, he decided he would start "covering" local barbecue on his own, reviewing the big time smokers and small dives, via a blog.  

Meek's mission seemed simple: sample as many of his city's barbecue and soul food restaurants as possible and share the experiences on Memphis Que. "I didn't realize what I was getting into," he says, smiling. While traveling around town, he finds pork and home-cooked veggies daily for lunch. He has reviewed everything from tiny roadside trailers to major chain restaurants, tasting their barbecue specialties and seeing how they measure up.

It didn't take long for him to visit the staple barbecue locations around town, so in his daily driving for work he kept his eye out for the obscure, out-of-the-way places. "It became like a game, to spot the small places and stop in." And he came across an abundance of them, each offering their own version of smoked pork, and often a window into the community it served. "The posts quickly turned to discussing the neighborhoods. You can't talk about the hot tamales from South Memphis Grocery and the tamales from the Germantown Commissary without acknowledging the vastly different neighborhoods," Meek explains.

The blog digressed regularly from standard food reviews and started addressing the communities around the establishments. "It's the law of the bell curve – if you're eating at over 200 barbecue places, the food is usually going to fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Going off topic, looking at the history of food, urban development and nutrition, was a way to keep things interesting," Meek says. "Food is a jumping off point to discuss urban design, blight, white flight – issues Memphis has death with."

His entries return frequently to the life cycles of neighborhoods, spotlighting the almost inevitable transition of suburban sprawl into blight. "A new suburb can create the illusion of prosperity, but most new development over the past several decades has been funded by a foolhardy mix of public and private debt," he writes. "For municipal governments a big new development is like a leased luxury car. It may look like a symbol of wealth at first glance, but it is actually a giant liability."   

He received a call from The History Press in the fall of last year; they had read the blog and asked if he was interested in creating a book about the history of Memphis barbecue. So the journalist-turned-small-business-owner turned back to writing and got to work on a history of the city "as told through barbecue." He has been working nights and weekends since signing the book deal to research and write a book unlike any other on the subject. The book, titled Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce and Soul, is due out on June 24.

Now that the book is complete and ready for press, he may return to the blog platform for occasional posts because, as he says, the barbecue landscape is always shifting. "Memphis barbecue changes fast enough that I already have a backlog of places to post about."

Meek notes that the blog gave him a reason to experience Memphis more fully – and not just its cuisine. Instead of simply doing business in the different areas of town, he has been sitting down at neighborhood restaurants and lunch counters, meeting the shop owners, chefs and regular customers. "Seeing all the neighborhoods has really increased my love for Memphis. People talk negatively about the city, but they've never really gotten out to explore it."
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Anna is a local writer, editor and non-profit administrator. She serves as Managing Editor for High Ground and as the Director of Communications and Marketing for the New Memphis Institute. Share feedback and story ideas with her here.