Last week, I hopped in a time machine and moseyed on down to Memphis to partake in a screening of WGN’s upcoming series, Underground, on behalf of Terry Hines & Associates (who organized the screening) and Very Smart Brothas (who asked if I wanted to attend). The series stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell as “Rosalee” and the great-faced Aldis Hodge as “Noah,” who organized a group of fed-up enslaved folks off that dastardly White man’s plantation so they could live freely and perhaps maul chicken wings without the threat of violence or the burden of dealing with massa’s useless, hateful ass wife.
Whenever I’m visiting a new city, my first step is always locating the best food because I have my priorities in order. I reached out to the homies and Southerners and got all types of great recommendations for BBQ and delicious-but-unhealthy things. “Go to Gus’s!” “Anything on Beale Street!” One thing was for sure, though: I was not, under any circumstances, to moonwalk my Black ass into Rendezvous.
One sisterfriend put it best: “Don’t you take your Black ass to Rendezvous. That shit is for White people and tourists who don’t know any better.”
What’s the first place that this bemulleted gentleman recommended as he escorted me to my hotel?
While checking into the Madison, I told the chocolatey queen at the front desk where the driver directed me. Without missing a beat: “Boy, don’t you go to Rendezvous. That’s more for…um…tourists and…yeah. Naw.” We shared a knowing and Blackful cackle and I retreated to my quarters where I pretended to be productive for a few hours and slept like a log pon that wondrous bed.
The next afternoon, the writerly squad arrived to Blues City Café down on Beale Street in search of BBQ and elation. While seated in that booth sipping that sweet tea, my life changed. How, you ask, jealously? Through the gospel of gumbo cheese fries, which skeeted all over my soul in the most wonderful way.
Now, I adore fries. Curly fries. Sweet potato fries. Shoutout to the kimchi fries at Korilla BBQ in Manhattan and the buffalo chicken blue cheese waffle fry situation at The Waffle in Los Angeles. But gumbo cheese fries is a whole different level of splendor. Because skrimps.
It was everything I needed in life at that moment. My only regret is that I had to share them with six hungry folks. And because I was just meeting all of these folks for the first time on this business lunch of sorts, I curtailed my eagerness and ate like a nice, ungluttonous person. I refrained from shoveling fries into my mouth. I had to pace myself. I didn’t lick the plate this time. It was torture. I don’t want to get myself worked up and aroused thinking too hard about smashing that plate by myself. Surely, that plate would have returned to the kitchen spotless.
When it came time to order our main dishes, someone at the table asked, “Are there any vegetables here?”
Waiter: “No. Well, salad, fries and new potatoes.”
Us: “What the hell is a new potato?”
Waiter: “It’s just a regular little boiled potato.”
We sucked our teeth collectively.
Me, internally: “No gravy? No bacon? No magic? What kind of joyless dungeon are we in?”
I ordered the ribs and catfish platter with fries, assuming that that kitchen full of big Black dudes couldn’t possibly let me down. The ribs? Muy succulent. Not enough sauce, but that was fixable. That catfish though? Gentrified and woefully under-seasoned.
Later that afternoon, arriving to the screening at the National Civil Rights Museum, we hopped out the whip and walked into history. The newly renovated landmark is built into the side of the Lorraine Motel, where that scumbaggy White dude assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. We have all seen the photo of Jesse Jackson standing over Martin’s body, pointing across the street. But I wasn’t prepared for the sadness that overtook me as I walked under that balcony, past Room 306 and through the parking lot, all preserved to look like April 1968.
Looking up inside Room 306, I watched a gaggle of Whitefolks snapping pictures of his personal effects, smiling, Whitefully. I sighed a lot in those few minutes.
Entering the museum’s reception area, I needed to shake off the weight of that arrival. What’s the quickest way to shake the murder-scene-as-a-tourist-attraction blues? By hitting up the lonely, underworked bartender, standing there guarding the spirits and an empty bar, beckoning me with a smile and a wave of the hand.
Hey best friend.
And so it began. As we waited for the start of the screening, I spent an hour working as the self-appointed Appetizer Master, ensuring all available foodthings were suitable for human consumption. I take my role as the Calorie Whisperer quite seriously. I don’t fuck around when it’s time to eat. I double-checked the jumbo shrimp cocktail situation and the delicious crab cakes because I wouldn’t have been able to live knowing I could have saved a colleague from treacherous culinary underwhelming. So I bravely wrecked one of each and offered my belly rub of approval. While we guzzled our third round of spiked peach sweet teas, I intercepted and inspected the briefcase full of yummy sliders, declaring myself responsible for trial, lest my cohorts be exposed to potential burger-borne disappointment. Because I’m a good person.
Me, to server: “I’ll need to investigate one of these, please.” *smashes slider*
Colleagues: “How was it?” Me: “Good as fuck.”
And they went forth and burgered. Mission complete.
I didn’t know what to expect from a modern series about the Underground Railroad, aside from lots and lots of Harriet Tubman references. Hollywood clearly believes that Black American history begins with slavery and ends with the Civil Rights Movement. Thankfully, writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski approached this project the right way and told a harrowing, oft-simplified tale with nuance, humanity and compassion. The story follows a squad of freedom-seeking slaves who fled the Macon plantation and made a 600-mile journey to liberty. The difference between this and so many other slave narratives we see on screen is that the folks here weren’t presented as victims. We only watched the pilot episode, but it was refreshing to see us portrayed as our striving, powerful and endlessly creative true selves, as whole damn laughing, crying, lusting people, and not the passive, predictable two-dimensional types who exist merely as accessories/foes/friends of the porcelain-skinned lead.
The screening was followed by a brief panel, hosted by the lovely Shaun Robinson. Surprisingly, Jurnee and her costar Alano Miller are fifty times finer in person than expected.
This series, which showcases the brilliance and resilience of Black folks and the casual horrors of 19th century plantation life, is a breath of fresh air. I’ll be watching when it premieres next spring on WGN.
That night, I wound up at eighty3, the hotel’s restaurant, drinking whiskey with the gang. Thanks to a generous, talkative rocker at the bar beside us, I now know what moonshine tastes like: despair and Iggy Azalea’s deferred hopes and dreams.
When three people demanded I try the chicken and mac-n-cheese waffles, I was morally unable to refuse. Three of my favorite things on the same plate? Sign me the fuck up.
First of all, the waffle was made out of macaroni and cheese. Correction: well-seasoned macaroni and cheese. I wasn’t expecting that. The chicken, too, was well-seasoned and gloriously juicy. And I shall summarize the brilliance of the parmesan cheese sauce and that merciful pecan-bourbon sauce drizzle with two words: mouth party. I will definitely be attempting to recreate this.
If I had accepted friendly rocker’s offer for a second shot of life-wrecking moonshine, I would have probably offered the chef some head. It was that good.
Hours later, ‘round midnight, the spirit called unto me and said, “Alex, my chile…”
“Call up room service and see about that shrimp and grits,” the spirit directed.
And so, I did. And the French toast, too.
The sistergirl at the front desk has had the French toast and recommended it, but had only heard "nice stuff" about the shrimp & grits. What she was clueless of, sadly, was the gravy situation.
Me: "What's the gravy situation like? How much sauce is involved?"
Her: "Hmm. Don't get me lying on this phone. I'm not sure, but I can check."
Me: "Nah. That's okay. Based on what you heard, would you feed it to your mama?"
Me: "I'll take it."
The French toast was serviceable, thankfully. But let me talk to you about these grits. Primero, the yellow grits were fried into a sweet and delicious light-and-fluffy fried cake-of-magnificence. My soul ejaculated with glee. And the skrimps and the creole sauce set everything off perfectly. That sauce — sure to be the source of many a daydream or wet dream going forward — could probably fix Ben Carson. Along with some nice electroshock therapy. And voodoo. It was the most delightful thing I have eaten in ages. May the chef live long and may his dick never falter. Ashé.
Like a true glutton, I licked that plate, set the tray out in the hallway and stretched out pon the bed, offering my belly rub of approval yet again as I let sleep overtake me.