Words: Ella Buchan
Ducks on parade and dining under hairdryers, Memphis is more than just Elvis
Home to the Blues and some very famous blue suede shoes, Memphis, Tennessee is as rich in chintz as it is in culture.
From watching some very grand ducks parade through a hotel lobby to munching a deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwich in Graceland, here’s our pick of the best ways to experience this wonderfully eclectic city.
See A Quacking Show
Every day, as the clock strikes 11am and 5pm, a strange thing occurs in the lobby of the Peabody hotel.
Crowds of people jostle for prime position around the marble fountain, craning their necks to get a good gander at the star attractions - a small flock of mallards.
The story behind the Peabody ducks is appropriately weird. In 1933, general manager Frank Schutt returned from a weekend hunting trip with friends and, tipsy on whisky, thought it would be a laugh to put some of their live duck decoys in the fountain.
The sight of the three small quackers was so popular with guests, the tradition continues to this day. The ducks live in the fountain and are led on a parade by the ‘Duck Master’ twice daily.
So iconic are the Peabody ducks they appear on the room keys, toiletries and even the toilet roll, while bartenders stir the cocktails with duck-topped swizzle sticks.
Dine Under Hairdryers
Down in the achingly hip Cooper-Young district of Midtown Memphis, The Beauty Shop is a restaurant with a coiffured twist. Built on the site of a 1950s beauty parlour, where Priscilla Presley used to get curled and dyed, it nods to the building’s former use in more than name.
Original mint green wash basins are used as sinks behind the bar, staff wear their hair piled up in beehives, and the choicest tables are beneath hooded Belvedere hair dryers.
The food is pretty good too, from brunch with Bloody Marys and ‘Beneduck’ - Eggs Benedict with crispy spiced duck - to big, satisfying salads and immaculately cooked steak for dinner.
Be A Greedy Pig
One of Memphis’ many nicknames is ‘Barbecued Pork Capital of the World’. Who knew that was a thing?
There are BBQ joints on every corner, and one of the most popular with locals is Corky’s on Poplar Avenue. The queues are always massive, but it’s worth it for the lip-smackingly tasty wet ribs, served with generous sides of bread, beans and coleslaw.
Or try Payne’s, a mother and son joint located in an old gas station in Midtown. Their pulled pork sandwich is revered throughout the city.
See The Pyramid
What’s that massive, shiny, pointed structure glinting in the sunlight? A pyramid, you say? In the centre of Memphis?
This 32-storey arena was built in 1991 as the home court for the university men’s basketball team. Memphis took its name from the necropolis of ancient Memphis in Egypt, so it’s not completely random.
Nevertheless, it is an incongruous sight - and one that can be seen from almost everywhere downtown.
Walk In The Footsteps Of Giants
Memphis does a good museum, and Stax is one of the best. On the site of the Stax recording studio, founded in the late 1950s, it tells the story of the iconic soul label and its heroes, from Otis Redding - who first arrived at the studio as a chauffeur for another singer - to Isaac Hayes. Check out Hayes’ unapologetically bling Cadillac, gold plated, upholstered with white fur and complete with mini fridge and TV.
Also worth a visit is the Civil Rights Museum, on the site of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr was shot in 1963. It takes you on a humbling journey from the beginnings of the slave trade, through the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins (when black students refused to move from all-white lunch counters despite abuse and often violence) and Black Power movement to the present day.
You can see King’s motel room recreated as it looked on that fateful day, from the newspaper on the bed to the undrunk cup of tea.
Eat An Elvis Special
It might seem a bit obvious to visit Graceland during a trip to Memphis, but do it. It’s brilliant.
Self-guided iPad tours take you through this bling, kitsch but not altogether tasteless palace, allowing you to watch extra videos and uncover gems of information en route. Travel from the plush living room, past the retro-fitted kitchen and through the Jungle Room.
The best bit is browsing the glass cases of rhinestone jumpsuits, wedding outfits and posters from Elvis’ movie career.
You leave with a renewed respect for the prolific artist. Something to ponder as you munch on his favourite snack, a deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, in the classic diner - complete with table jukeboxes loaded with Elvis songs, of course.
[All photos Ella Buchan unless credited]