Thursday, July 5, 2012

Pork, Pork... Pork?

Tuesday was all about pork. And art (which Rob will discuss). And music. And oh yeah baseball. But first the pork, which helped propel us from Jackson, Tennessee, to Little Rock, Arkansas.

Having trouble seeing much in that photo? Well, that's Payne's BBQ, on the south side of Memphis, perhaps the most amenity-free restaurant I have ever been to (yes, including your average Kansas Fried Chicken). The place is a barely converted service station that's been barred up and encased in concrete grillwork on the outside, and the inside is hot, dark, and barely outfitted. The menu board sit on the floor in the corner. The tables were last wiped down in 1973 or so. The bathroom is the sort of place you expect to find a mutilated body. But holy god is the food good.

Dig that neon-yellow cole slaw on the left. That's a lot of mustard and perhaps turmeric (which is a miracle ingredient, if you didn't know) hard at work there. The meat is spectacularly prepared, and the sauce, while a touch sweet, builds remarkably as you plow your way through this mess. And "mess" is the word—don't they have wet-naps in this part of the country? We got here the day before they were closing up for two weeks, and we couldn't have been luckier....

...except later in the day when, foiled in our effort to visit Cotham's Mercantile outside of Little Rock, we stumbled upon Grand Kibb's BBQ in North Little Rock—a little roadside honey of a place that seems to be almost entirely ignored on the Internet and in reality. This is tragic, because there is some incredible sauce here—thick like molasses and nicely spicy. The meat isn't as transcendent as that at Payne's, but that's like saying that Tony Campana isn't as fast as Billy Hamilton. Payne's is the Billy Hamilton of meat; Kibb's is just everyday fantastic.

In between these two gluttonous fests, we spent two enthralled hours at the Stax Museum in Memphis, which is on the site of the old studio. The exhibits are well done—from the reconstructed country church to a, uh, Soul Train–esque dance floor—though the corporate and administrative story that Rob and I were most interested in was the hardest to suss out.

Lots and lots of Stax 45s. Kids, ask your grandparents what "45s" are.
The reconstructed studio itself, which has an oddly sloping floor.
Rob's photo of the original Stax mixing board
The museum is interesting in its own right, but it also tells a story that it doesn't seem to quite want to own up to, which has to do with how the idealism and creativity of the 1960s gave way to the cynicism and mediocrity of the 1970s. There were political and cultural reasons for this—not least the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in 1968—but also duller, corporate ones. That cliché about musicians signing away rights and interests they didn't know they had? Well, Stax had that problem, too, on a seemingly semiannual basis. And unfortunately so much of the money story informs the story of what could be done creatively—namely, less and less. Yes, the woman behind Stax's initial success went to produce "Disco Duck." Please, let's not even discuss it. Also, Isaac Hayes became a cartoon character. Stop, stop, already.

On to Little Rock, where we found more evisceration of the past by the present going on. It seems that not long ago Witt Stephens Jr., the town's leading big-deal investment banker, decided that he didn't much care for the Arkansas Travelers' longtime home, Ray Winder Stadium. (It was, let's be fair, quite old-fashioned and small.) By dint of a large cash donation and even larger donation of land, he was able to push ahead the prospect of moving the team to North Little Rock. By the way, is it a coincidence that Witt Stephens Jr. has the same initials as the Wall Street Journal? Getting the job done did require some camouflage—51% of the citizens of North Little Rock had to be convinced to carry a sales tax increment for a few years to fund the rest of it, and the stadium is nominally dedicated to the catching Dickey brothers, who were Arkansas natives. But none of this would have happened without WSJ.

The City of Little Rock seems to have not taken this entirely lying down. The billboard in the bottom left of this photo reads, "Hey Travs, Nice view!" The view, of course, is of downtown Little Rock, across the river—sending the inescapable message, "You couldn't have betrayed us in this way if we weren't here to provide the backdrop and provide the base of WSJ's enterprises in the first place, so bite me."

The team is repaying the favor by adding the worth "North" to the traditional interlocking "LR" logo on the team's jerseys and generally reminding people that North Little Rock is apparently a way more pleasant place that Little Rock.

And Ray Winder Stadium? Well, it's not in great shape for a game anymore, let's leave it at that:

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