Journalism Lessons from Memphis

Neon-Memphis-Sign

“It makes you tremble and it makes you weak/Gets in your blood, that Memphis Beat.”  Jerry Lee Lewis

The historic Peabody Hotel (and their famous ducks) welcomed 120 food journalists and food writers to Memphis, Tennessee, for the annual conference of the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ), September 10–12.

AFJ-Logo

The three-day conference was jam-packed with Southern hospitality from the restaurant, hospitality and tourism industries of Memphis. If you’ve never been to Memphis, you might be surprised by the abundance of history and culture — and great food — tucked into this sultry city on the mighty Mississippi River.

For Elvis fans, there’s Graceland. For music buffs, there is Sun Studio, Stax Museum and Beale Street, which one conference goer summed up as a shorter Bourbon Street with better music.

For everyone else, there is the National Civil Rights Museum — powerfully moving. Oh, and fried chicken (Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken and Jack Pirtle’s Chicken), Memphis-style BBQ (too many to name, but Rendezvous is an experience and I loved Central BBQ), and Southern food — new (Felicia Suzanne’s) and old (Orange Mound Grill).

Memphis-Collage

Food journalists attended this conference to network with each other, dive head first into professional development seminars, and to gather story ideas to take back to their respective cities.

I’m still digesting everything I learned in those three days, but here are a few random bites of wisdom that stuck out to me from the sessions:

Food journalism matters because there is a lot of fast and loose crap out there.” Kim Severson, New York Times. If you produce content for others to read, it’s important to report accurately and disclose any conflicts. Ethics matter.

Speaking of ethics…

“How can you form an opinion if you haven’t been there?” Daniel Vaughn, BBQ Editor of Texas Monthly commenting on “best of” lists not informed by actual experiences.

“Ignorance is expensive and most people can’t afford it.” Fred Davis, retired Civil Rights leader. Mr. Davis was with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his last march. The National Civil Rights Museum is built out from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

“Community cookbooks are artifacts of world history.” Kate Medley, former newspaper reporter and Southern Foodways Alliance oral historian who now works for Whole Foods. Check out A Spoken Dish, an amazing video project Ms. Medley produces, documenting Southern food traditions.

“We’ve raised a generation of kids who think fruit is a flavor.” Tony Geraci, Executive Director of Memphis City Schools Nutrition Services, and subject of the documentary “Cafeteria Man.”

Many others have summarized and captured their experiences in Memphis. Check out the “What Happened in Memphis” section of AFJ’s website for more stories and pictures.

(L-R, clockwise) Watermelon tea, tomato pie, house pickles from Felicia Suzanne's restaurant.

(L-R, clockwise) Watermelon tea, tomato pie, house pickles from Felicia Suzanne’s restaurant.

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