I flew into Memphis on a Tuesday morning, several days ahead of a stay in Oxford, Mississippi for the wedding of my nephew, David Tanner, to the lovely Taylor Montague. Upon landing, I headed straight down US 61, the Blues Highway, past miles of level cotton fields, to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and began the Great Memphis Region Barbecue Sandwich Tour.
Clarksdale is the center of the Blues in the Delta these days, with a Blues Museum, lots of Blues venues, and plenty of converted lofts and other interesting places for Blues lovers from Memphis and beyond to stay. And it’s the home of Abe’s Bar-B-Q. Abe’s is why I drove straight to Clarksdale from the airport.
Abe’s is located right at The Crossroads, the intersection of US 49 and US 61, the Mississippi Delta Highways.
That’s not just any crossroads. It’s THE Crossroads. Robert Leroy Johnson was sitting under a sycamore on that very spot, perched on a wooden Coca Cola case, when he sold his soul to the devil, Satan himself, in return for talent — talent at playing the guitar and singing the Blues.
It has been suggested that Johnson was eating a sandwich from Abe’s when he cut the deal with Satan. It’s possible. Abe’s opened in 1924, when Johnson was 13, which is about the time folks start selling their souls to Satan. You know, God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac when Isaac was 12, because at 13 it wouldn’t have been a sacrifice. Anyway, our Abraham, Abe Davis, opened the Bungalow Inn in 1924. Son Pat Davis renamed it in honor of his father when he took over in 1960, and, within the rigid confines of state law, treated everyone with dignity.
Mustering as much dignity as I could, I ordered the regular pork barbecue sandwich. Abe’s also has a Big Abe that’s a double decker pork sandwich a la a club sandwich: bread, pork, bread, pork, bread. And I got a side order of hot tamales, which came husk-wrapped with saltines and slaw. I might have ordered a Big Abe, but I was planning to drive over to Helena, Arkansas, for some more tamales before heading back to Memphis for supper.
First, the sandwich:
Its a very interesting sandwich because it is so well thought out. It starts with sliced pork shoulder, which is good — you get a good pork flavor. They cook with wood, which is key. You can taste the smoke. Then Abe’s adds raw cabbage, not slaw, and that is a very good idea. The cabbage adds a wonderful combination of taste and texture that contrasts with and balances the pork. Next time you make barbecue, add some raw cabbage to a pork sandwich. See for yourself. Really.
And they add Abe’s sauce. Abe’s calls it “come-back sauce” because a customer once came in, ate only a third of a sandwich and left, saying he didn’t like it. Abe didn’t charge him. A few weeks later, the guy came back and said he couldn’t get the sauce out of his mind, and he had come back for more — and came back again and again.
Abe’s sauce is intriguing. I tried some on a cracker and it tasted too sweet. I thought it was going to ruin the sandwich. Once the sauce was married to the pork and cabbage, however, the sweetness receded and the spices came to the fore, while leaving plenty of room for the flavors of pork, smoke, and cabbage. Abe’s, as I say, is a well thought out, well constructed sandwich. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the sandwich justifies Abe’s slogan, Swine Dining.
Now the tamales.
The tamales were a big reason for my visit to Abe’s. Abe’s is on the Mississippi Hot Tamale Trail — here’s a map. Hot tamales are a big deal in the Mississippi Delta, the large football-shaped flood plain of the Mississippi River that stretches, at times 75 miles in width, and runs “from the wharf at Vicksburg to the steps of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.”
Anyway, hot tamales have spread along the River and in the process they have been transformed. They are much smaller and lighter than their Mexican forebears: two or three Mexican tamales is a meal, but six Delta tamales is an appetizer. My father grew up in Helena, on the Arkansas side of the River, and won a hot tamale eating contest when he was 16 by eating 36 hot tamales. The second place finisher ate 23, so he ate the last dozen not to win, but because they tasted good, and they were free. We often had tamales for Sunday suppers when I was growing up, and I ate a small mountain of tamales while working in the Delta while I was at the Justice Department.
So I entered Abe’s eager, as I always am, to have some Delta hot tamales. The ones at Abe’s are about half again as big as the one’s at, say, Doe’s Eat Place. The Abe’s tamales did not match that ethereal lightness that is so astonishing among the very best Delta hot tamales, but they had a good texture and they tasted really good. I thought about ordering three more, but Helena awaited. The slaw is a nice counterpoint to the tamales, light and crunchy. I ordered the tamales straight up, but you also can get the tamales at Abe’s covered with chile or with chile and cheese, both of which are fairly common servings; or with chile, cheese, and lettuce and tomato as a Tamaco, which is an Abe’s invention.
Abe’s appears to have grown over time.
You walk into a room with a few tables across from the counter and cooking area. A second, larger room is adjacent, and beyond that is another room. Finally, there are shaded outdoor picnic tables outside. And all that space — except for the picnic tables — gets filled on a hot, muggy August Tuesday. The decor runs mainly to press encomiums and to pig and Blues themes, perfect for the location.
You really should go to Abe’s. It’s a good place to eat barbecue sandwiches and tamales. You can get beer if you like, but only with a food order. Abe’s also has ribs and lots of burgers and such, so go. And spend some time in the Delta. It has been called “the most Southern place on earth,” which is at once a wonderful and an appalling thing to be. I guess I have some of both qualities (I’ll leave the ratio to you), or at least an appreciation for both, and I love the Delta. Go and see the miles of white cotton bolls in the fall. Listen to the Blues. Hit the hot Tamale Trail. Have a sandwich and some tamales at Abe’s. Go to Greenville for a steak at Doe’s.
But don’t sit on a wooden Coca Cola case and wish for things you don’t have.
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