In addition to being the food editor of Memphis magazine, and a dear friend and colleague, Pam Denney has become an ambassador for Memphis' burgeoning food scene. Through her writing for Delta magazine and most recently her book, Food Lovers' Guide to Memphis, Denney sings the praises of our fair city, its rich history, and the kitchens that keep it fed.
Flyer: A city's food guide sounds definitive, authoritative. Where do you start?
Pam Denney: The book is one in a series. There have been 10 or 12 done in other cities — Brooklyn, Miami, Phoenix, a number of different ones — and so the nice thing was that the format had already been determined. The publisher, Globe Pequot, wanted it done by neighåborhood, so the first thing I had to do was compile a list of restaurants and divide it up. I did downtown, Midtown, East Memphis, suburbs — Bartlett, Collierville, Cordova, Germantown — and then a section called "Worth the Drive" for those restaurants I love in Oxford and Hernando.
How did you select the restaurants to cover?
Everybody who picks up this book looks at me and says, "What's your favorite restaurant?" or "What's the worst restaurant in Memphis?" and I just won't answer those questions. It's a subjective list. That is important for people to know. I didn't write about any restaurant that I don't like. Why would I write about restaurants that I don't like? It's simply restaurants that I feel are the best at what they do.
How did you feel when the publisher contacted you about writing the book?
I was thrilled that Memphis has gained the national recognition — that it's a foodie town. In many ways, Memphis has been the unsung Southern city of regional cuisine, because so much of the interest and credibility has gone to Charleston and Atlanta and New Orleans, but the editor, when I first started speaking to him, was already so informed about Memphis food. It came right on the tail end of the piece I wrote for Delta magazine, which focused on Memphis food. I feel like there's a synergy going on. Now we've got National Geographic saying we're one of the top 20 must-see places.
Is the goal, then, to bring food tourists to Memphis?
My real goal was that the book appeal to visitors and residents. That was the challenge, because in a sense it's a travel-style book. But I didn't want it to be something that only visitors would be interested in. So I decided to put a lot of local history in it. That's the part that makes it unique, and that was the fun part of writing it.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while writing?
My biggest fear was who I left out. This was written on an incredibly tight deadline. I did the whole thing in less than four months. Beyond that, it was a challenge not to be repetitive. As anybody who writes about food knows: How many ways can you say "delicious"? The way I got around that was by working history into the descriptions. Menus change all the time, so when I talk about a restaurant, I talk about the chef and the culture and the history of the restaurant.
What was one of your favorite lessons from Memphis' food history?
I was so impressed with how food has been an integral part of the culture in Memphis for decades and decades. We tend to think that the food culture here is relatively new, because there is an emerging foodie culture for sure. But when you sit down and compile 200 restaurants, you realize that we have this deep food culture that goes back all the way to country cooking and barbecue and into today's sophisticated New American food. That made me very proud. Memphis brings this reality to the table, which I love. There's not a lot of bullshit here, so the food, even as it becomes more sophisticated, is still grounded in strong family traditions and real food.
Food Lovers' Guide to Memphis is available at local book stores and on Amazon.