May 2012 Archives

The Atlantic followed up this week on the inspiring story of the Memphis "Fly Boys" -- Wooddale High aviation students Wesley Carter and Darius Hooker -- who competed recently in the elite Team America Rocketry Challenge. In an article titled "Meet the 'Fly Boys' of Memphis, the Future of American Education," writer Brian Reskin places the accomplishments of Carter and Hooker in the context of policy efforts to increase the number of students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- the "STEM" fields. Reskin asks: What counts for their success?

In the face of the recession and declining numbers of skilled technical workers, a key piece of the Obama administration's education plan is a renewed emphasis on Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, just like the one Carter and Hooker attended at Wooddale. Today's CTE programs are not the vocational curricula of the past, which focused solely on trade education. They include college prep as well, giving students more options after graduation. To fund them, the Education Department is calling for the renewal and retooling of the Perkins Act. The act was last renewed in 2006, under President Bush, but Obama wants to push it further, calling for increased collaboration between high schools, colleges, industries, and states.

"It seems very clear that when you give young people an opportunity like at Wooddale High School to engage in this kind of learning, it turns something on," James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education, tells me. "I truly believe this, even though I can't point to empirical evidence that's research based."

In the end, the boys' rocket launch was unsuccessful, but they already have inspired the younger members of the school's aviation program:

Although disappointment hangs on their faces, Hooker and Carter are well versed in science and know that failure is just an opportunity to learn. "The center of gravity may have been off on it to give it that spiral," Hooker says. "It's not the end, there's still a lot of work to be done, a lot of knowledge to be passed on, but this is capping it off for us seniors."

Barbecue legend Pat Burke stepping away after Memphis in May

A reader sent in a tip this week that perhaps the winningest barbecue competitor of all time has decided to hang up his mop after this last weekend's 2012 Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Pat Burke of Pat's BBQ in Murphysboro, Ill., "has won more barbecue titles and championships than any living person," according to an article in the Murphysboro American, which provides a detailed list of awards.

The Murphysboro native may not have hit a home run like Ruth, nor thrown a football like Unitas or dunked a basketball like Wilt, but he has done something they never even dreamed of -- cooked barbecue like no other human being.

Burke is a barbecue legend...a prodigy that comes along just once in a lifetime. But, like the great ones in other fields, there comes a time when even a master barbecuer has to hang up his brush and step away from competing and begin enjoying the fruits of their labor. And that time has come for Pat Burke.

Pat's last competition was this month with Memphis In May. For now on, you'll see him spending time with his family and still working at Pat's BBQ, which he founded.

Almost sounds like it'd be worth the drive up to Southern Illinois ...
On The New York Times' In Transit travel blog, New Orleans-based photojournalist Pableaux Johnson sends a "Postcard: Memphis" from this past weekend's Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. His subject, the Fatback Collective, a culinary "dream team" that made the finals last year in the whole-hog division, was competing in its second MIM contest.

Members of the Fatback Collective, an all-star team of Southern chefs and pitmasters, competed in their second Memphis in May Barbecue World Championship last weekend. The eclectic team brought together a wealth of culinary knowledge and a healthy respect for American barbecue traditions, including the heritage-breed pigs raised by small-scale farms. The members gathered in Memphis to smoke three pigs for competition in the "whole hog" category.

The hogs spent about 24 hours over smoldering hickory, leaving plenty of time for the team members to consider the sauce that would be served alongside their contest entry. Each member concocted his own version for consideration. The chef Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady's restaurants in Charleston, S.C., fine-tuned his sauce before the team tasting on Friday afternoon.

On The Huffington Post, Chicago newspaper columnist and "Bobblehead Dad" author Jim Higley writes about his first experience competing in the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. He and some fellow journalists got hooked up with North Carolina barbecue star Chris Lilly to cook as the Kingsford "On Asswinement" team.

My grilling skills -- on the experience thermometer -- fall somewhere between steak tartare and rare. I'm our team's grilling newbie. But that doesn't matter. Because Team Kingsford has Chris Lilly.

We've just finished day one of an intensive two day grilling boot camp Chris put together for us to master our category -- ribs. We're being schooled not only in the art and science of competitive grilling, we're also being given an crash course in competing at a world-class level. And right now, my brain is overcooked. Well done. I'm hanging out in my hotel room at the famed Peabody Hotel -- above the sounds from Beale Street below, trying to process what all I learned today.

Higley wraps up the first in his series of dispatches with a couple of nice "random thoughts":
  • Barbecue people are like country music people. The best.
  • Memphis knows how to put on a show.

The Smoking Section previews Nike Air Penny 5

PENNY-HARDAWAY.jpg The Smoking Section is giving an advance look at the new Nike Air Penny 5 "Orlando," the latest basketball shoes in the signature line of former Treadwell High national player of the year, Memphis Tigers great and NBA All-Star Penny Hardaway. In the mid-'90s, Hardaway, starred in a classic series of Nike TV ads with a smack-talking marionette doll named Lil' Penny (pictured), voiced by Chris Rock. His latest Air Penny shoes pays tribute to his time with the Orlando Magic, his career peak. The black color with blue trim would work for a Memphis Tigers player. Lately, Hardaway has been working on a host of community improvement initiatives in the Memphis area, most recently a plan to build a $20.5 million indoor youth sports facility. Here's what The Smoking Section has to say (yes, I am old enough to remember ;):

If you're old enough to remember, at one point people thought Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway was going to be the next BIG player in the few years following Michael Jordan's first retirement. Sadly, the Memphis-raised Magic superstar's flame never fully blazed. Penny was plagued with injuries and never really accomplished what many hoped he would. The one thing Penny did manage to capitalize on was getting a pretty popular signature sneaker line with Nike. This year a brand new, fifth model - dubbed the Air Penny 5 - will be hitting stores. This Orlando inspired colorway has yet to get a release date so stay tuned for more information as it becomes available.
Rhodes College economics professor and columnist Art Carden is leaving Memphis to take a position on the faculty at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and today he dedicates his column to all the things that he and his family will miss about our city. Rhodes was Carden's first academic job out of graduate school, so Memphis will always have a special significance for him. He begins his appreciation -- for the city's restaurants, kid-friendly activities and Fellowship Memphis church, among other things -- by noting that Memphis is doing better these days even by Forbes, whose city rankings haven't always painted Memphis in a positive light:

Forbes catches occasional flack around town for ranking Memphis on its "most miserable cities" list.

It's not as miserable as you might think, though. We like Memphis, and it's improving; Jane Donahoe of the Memphis Business Journal notes that the city fell to #16 on the 2012 list from #6 in 2011, #3 in 2010, and #2 in 2009 and points out how city leaders have responded.

We're going to miss Memphis. We've had fun here, we've made a lot of friends here, and we started our family here. Here are a few things we're going to miss about Memphis, and a few things you should look for the next time you're here.

On, the companion blog to the stunning four-volume cookbook set "Modernist Cuisine" (just $456.09 on sale at Amazon!), author Nathan Myhrvold recounts "My First Memphis in May." His story involves learning the finer points of competition-style barbecue from one of the masters: multiple-time Memphis in May barbecue champion, former Shelby County commissioner and local political gadfly and sometime-restaurateur John Willingham. Keep in mind that "Modernist Cuisine" explains the "molecular gastronomy" phenomenon in which food preparation seems to involve as much chemical engineering and conceptual art as actual cooking. It turns out that technology -- here in the form of Willingham's patented smoker -- is as important to a perfect slab of smoked pork ribs as it is to flavored foams and powdered oils.

We had about a three-hour phone inter­view in which I had to jus­tify that I was wor­thy of acquir­ing a cooker. He also had con­cerns about the rainy weather in Seattle, and how that would affect the cooker. In the end, I did get my cooker, and with it I made the best ribs I'd ever made. But they weren't as good as John's. So I tried again, and I tried again, and I called him on the phone. Clearly, I was not quite get­ting all the ele­ments together.

Exasperated, I said, "John, why don't I just come down to Memphis and maybe you can teach me."

He said, "Oh, that's great. Why don't you come down in May. We have a lit­tle con­test coming."

On my way there I thought, okay, I'm going to have a cou­ple hours of bar­be­cue instruc­tion, and then I'm going to go over to Beale Street and hear some jazz, and then maybe I'll tour Graceland, and then I'll go home. It'll be pretty straight­for­ward, a fun week­end. Well, it turned out his lit­tle con­test was the Memphis in May World Championship of Barbecue Cooking Contest.

John handed me an apron and said, "You're on the team; it's the only way you'll learn."

The Washington Post's All We Can Eat food blog notes today that the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, set for this weekend, is returning to its rightful home after last year's move to the fairgrounds due to the flooding:

Launched in 1978, the MiM barbecue contest is widely regarded as the granddaddy of 'cue competitions. It has grown from 26 teams its first year to around 250 teams now, with an attendance upwards of 100,000.

Last year, massive flooding forced the contest from its longtime home at Tom Lee Park on the banks of the Mississippi River to the higher ground of the Mid-South Fairgrounds. The festival is back at Tom Lee Park this year, along with its fabled Ms. Piggie Idol Contest, featuring men in dresses and plastic pig snouts performing barbecue-themed songs.

"It's wonderful," MiM Vice President Diane Hampton told Smoke Signals about being back at Tom Lee. "This is where it's supposed to be: on the river. People come from all over the world to eat Memphis barbecue. The river is part of the Memphis experience."

The Huffington Post is running a series of blog posts focusing on the success of the Project SAFEWAYS initiative in cleaning up the once notoriously crime-ridden Autumn Ridge apartment complex in Hickory Hill in Memphis. Today's first part was written by Melody Barnes, former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, along with consultants Willa Seldon and Jennifer Mrowka:

There, 95 percent of the people stayed put and signed a lease agreement as part of a community-wide change effort and have seen an 80 percent overall decline in crime, along with the emergence of a true and growing community.

The people most responsible for crime moved. In place of gangs, after-school programs are now available to children. Mothers helped form a Girl Scout troop. And the complex, once 30 percent vacant and teetering on foreclosure, has attracted hundreds of engaged new residents. Meanwhile, throughout Shelby County, where Autumn Ridge is located, a related effort has reduced robbery by 42 percent since 2006 and burglary by nearly 22 percent, also making Autumn Ridge safer.

The story of Autumn Ridge is a classic example of a "community collaborative" -- a coordinated effort among many stakeholders to tackle big, complex social issues. These collaboratives aim for significant change; engage residents as well as business, community and political leaders; use data to improve over time; and are committed long-term.

The essay goes on to mention the Memphis Police Department's data-driven policing strategies as well as the contributions of a host of other parties, some public, some private, but all with a stake in creating safe communities in Memphis.


A University of Memphis history scholar was a featured expert on this past Sunday's episode of the PBS celebrity genealogy series "Finding Your Roots," hosted by well-known Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Susan O'Donovan, a specialist in antebellum history, spoke during an episode exploring the roots of comedian Wanda Sykes and R&B singer-songwriter John Legend (pictured), both of whom discovered in the show that they are descended from free black Americans. One of Legend's ancestors who had been freed by his master sought out his still-enslaved children and bought them himself, putting them on their own path to freedom. O'Donovan explained that this was common practice before the Civil War, when free black Americans sought to protect their loved ones who were subject to being kidnapped and sold back into bondage.

I have done my best to transcribe the first of O'Donovan's segments. View the entire program on the embedded video player below. The first segment with O'Donovan comes on around 19 minutes in:

GATES: To understand why a former slave would buy his own relatives, we headed to the University of Memphis, where historian Susan O'Donovan studies antebellum American history.

O'DONOVAN: Free people of color sometimes find it in their best interest to own their families. I mean, for starters, this is, you know, they're living in a system that's structured around the protection of slave property, so you've got to have law on your side.

In buying one's family, you have control over that family, and then you can, you know, free them.

Watch John Legend and Wanda Sykes on PBS. See more from Finding Your Roots.

Ahead of Mother's Day, CNN invited its iReporters to share their memories of their mothers and of celebrating the special day. Memphian Nicholas Pegues called me to let me know about his iReport, which recalled Mother's Day 2010 when he and his brother Aaron Davis took their mom, Marilyn Hegman-Davis, to Paulette's, the long-running Memphis restaurant that has been a favorite for special-occasion dining for decades. Pegues' iReport happened to selected for's "8 ideas for a memorable Mother's Day." Here's what CNN wrote:

The National Retail Federation reports that about 54.3% of Mother's Day celebrants say they'll be going out for brunch or dinner.

When iReporter Nicholas Pegues and his brother took their mother, Marilyn Hegman-Davis, to brunch in 2010, they didn't choose any old pancake spot. They surprised her with a trip to Paulette's, a Memphis institution for nearly 40 years. Even more special, Pegues said, was that his mother often spoke fondly of dining there when she was younger.

"I'm a college student. Even if you're on a tight budget, you can still give your mother a quality gift," Pegues said. "Paulette's means something -- it's a trademark. She was real surprised. 'You're listening!' "

As Pegues points out, that Mother's Day dinner was significant furthermore since Paulette's moved last year out of its longtime Overton Square digs to a new location Downtown in the River Inn on Harbor Town Square. Now all those Mother's Days, proms, Valentine's Days and after-concert desserts at Paulette's can fade into memory along with so many other good times on old Overton Square.

scrocket1.jpg NPR follows up today on one of the true feel-good stories out of Memphis so far this year. Recall the Wooddale High School "Fly Boys," two top-notch students in the school's aviation program who won the chance to compete in the elite nationwide Team America Rocketry Challenge, which takes place this weekend in Washington. Darius Hooker and Wesley Carter beat out thousands of other hopefuls to earn a berth in the competition, but they and their school lacked the money to pay for the trip to Washington and back in time for graduation. Sure enough, though, Memphis came through with donations to support these two impressive young men, their sponsors and classmates on their quest.

Here are some excerpts from Hooker and Carter's chat with NPR's Michel Martin; transcript and audio available here.

MARTIN: I'm imagining that being in the rocket club, particularly when you were younger guys, was probably like being in the glee club, not the coolest. I don't know. So I just wanted to ask - did you ever have that experience and how did you, you know, overcome the usual?

HOOKER: My ninth and 10th grade year, to be honest - yeah. We were counted like the outcasts of the whole thing. My 11th and 12th grade year, me and Wesley kind of turned that around 100 percent. We were like the guys on campus. We are what's happening and, I mean, people see that we have things going for ourselves, so everybody wants a piece of what's going on. I didn't let anybody's worries get me down. I always knew what I was waking up to go to school for at the end of the day.

MARTIN: Wesley, what about you?

CARTER: We came in our ninth grade year and we would sit in class and, you know, everybody would be like, oh, hey, Darius - or hey, Wesley, can you give us the answers to this, this, this? And we would be completely nice about it, but once we got out of class, we had no friends at all, so me and Darius had to keep each other up.

PICTURED: Wooddale High School seniors Wesley Carter (left) and Darius Hooker, show off the rocket that qualified their team to go to Washington DC for the finals of the Team America Rocketry Challenge.

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