Barbecue Spaghetti: A Memphis Icon
My travels this week took me to Memphis, Tennessee, which, it is safe to say, is a pretty big barbecue town. For Memphians pork shoulder slow-cooked over charcoal and hickory is not just a dish but an ingredient, and they seem inclined to incorporate it into any number of other dishes.
There’s barbecue pizza, for instance: a cheese pizza topped with shredded pork and Memphis-style barbecue sauce. Invented at Coletta’s Italian Restaurant in the 1950s, it was a favorite of Elvis Presley. There are barbecue nachos, which debuted on the menu at the Germantown Commissary in the 1980s and became a hit when the Memphis Redbirds began serving them at their ballpark.
Perhaps the city’s most unusual creation is barbecue spaghetti. Note that it’s not barbecued spaghetti (the noodles aren’t cooked on a pit) but rather barbecue spaghetti—a fusion of two popular dishes. And there’s more to it than just tossing a little pulled pork into a pot of spaghetti sauce.
In Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce, and Soul (2014), Craig David Meek dug into the history of this local icon. It was invented by Brady Vincent, a former railroad cook who opened a barbecue restaurant called Brady and Lil’s. When Vincent retired in 1980, he sold the business to Frank and Hazel Vernon. The Vernons moved the restaurant to its current location on Madison Avenue and renamed it The Bar-B-Q Shop, but they still make barbecue spaghetti using Vincent’s original recipe.
The exact formula is a tightly guarded secret, but the base for the dish is actually cooked in the pit for up to 12 hours. Though it has similar tangy notes, it’s not the same recipe as the reddish-orange sauce that dresses the Bar-B-Q Shop’s pork sandwiches. (I got that much out of the waitress during my visit before she clammed up.) That base is thoroughly blended with thick, soft spaghetti noodles and big shreds of pork that have a great smoky bite.
Over at Interstate Bar-B-Q you can find a very similar version of barbecue spaghetti. Owner Jim Neely learned the recipe from Brady Vincent, too, when Neely consulted with the barbecue veteran as he was preparing to open Interstate Bar-B-Q in the late 1970s. Neely told Craig David Meek that his version, which is modified somewhat from Vincent’s recipe, incorporates the extra back flap meat from racks of ribs and is cooked in a pot with peppers, onions, and spices. It’s every bit as tangy, warm, and filling as the version at the Bar-B-Q Shop.
Locals and outsiders alike seem rather divided on the merits of barbecued spaghetti. Some praise it as a high delicacy while others seemed baffled by it altogether. I, for one, fell in love with it at first bite. Why mess around with potato salad or french fries? If you can accompany your pork barbecue with a side dish that incorporates even more pork barbecue—well, that’s downright innovative in my book.