Blame it on my hummingbird metabolism, but I’ve always had a hard time gaining weight. So imagine my surprise when I returned from a trip to the South last fall and discovered I had gained seven pounds in just one week.
Specifically, I had spent a highly-saturated week reporting on the record for a magazine south of the Mason Dixon Line, eating my way through the rolling green hills of Upper Cumberland, a collection of hometown counties east of Nashville where the wine, quilt, Tennessee Civil War, beer, moonshine and bluegrass trails rule and it’s not unusual to see American and Confederate flags flapping in the breeze from the same flag pole.
My assignment was to find out if the sort of home-style Southern cooking Paula Dean used to show us All how to make (before she got booted off the air) was having its final hurrah in the Southern hinterlands as the deadly effects of demon cholesterol became more widespread? And nothing says cholesterol louder than lard, a key ingredient in Southern cooking that’s essential for flaky buttermilk biscuits, creamy gravy and crispy Southern fried chicken. Or was Southern cooking still with us, and guaranteed to be so until the lard or the Lipitor runs out?
According to redoubtable sources like Lard cookbook and “Grits” magazine, scientific studies show lard is not only better for you than butter and vegetable oils but tastier, too. Good Earth Magazine claims in “The Lost Art of Cooking with Lard” that if you you’re going to go whole-hog on lard, you’re better off eating lard that comes from happy pigs raised in green pasture rather than lard from discontented pigs raised in industrial confinement.
LARD ON IT
The only thing I love more than traveling is eating, and the only thing I love more than eating is spending time with my BFF Katy, who just happens to live in the Upper Cumberland metropolitan area (Knoxville) and who also happens to be a health writer who understands the dietary excesses of Southern cooking from a scientific and personal level and has spent the last 25 years trying to sidestep them.
Katy, who grew up near me in the Philly suburbs, only to later become a Southern girl minus the drawl, picked me up in her cute little coupe in the quirky burb of Cookeville. It was her birthday and we intended to get the goods on Southern cooking as well as celebrate.
Located about an hour from the bright lights, aptly-named Cookeville is where Nashville cats come to escape the edgy city scene with its recent influx of gluten-free corn cakes (there oughta be a law) and get back to their artery-clogging roots. In aptly-named Cookeville, home to 100 restaurants and counting, our search began at Ralph’s Donuts, a tiny shop that’s been named one of the 25 best donut shops in America since it started making buttermilk donuts, butter twists and sticky buns 50 years ago.
Katy was on a diet and (mentally) muzzled, but there was no stopping me from perusing the merchandise. “Let’s see, I’ll take one of those sticky buns, one of those butter twists, one of those Red Velvet thingies and two cream puffs! “The waitress swaddled my pastries in tissue paper like they were lacy bras from Victoria’s Secret and then placed them in a pretty white box. I told Katy that eating them would be an ideal great way for us to celebrate her birthday while determining if Southern donuts were still loaded with lard, but she just grabbed the box and locked it in her trunk.
With 99 more restaurants in town, we were barely getting started. Over at Crawdaddy’s West Side Grill, the waitress served us heaping portions of jambalaya, crawfish étouffe and fried green tomatoes that Katy said was way too south – like New Orleans south-- to qualify as real Southern cooking. At Father’s Tom’s Pub, the fare was unapologetically Irish, as in Classic Irish Style Beer Cheese Soup Garnished with Red Pepper and Toasted Baguette. The Cooke Restaurant was sticking to its Southern roots with duck tacos made with duck fat, smashed ‘tatoes that were creamy-chunky all at once, braised brisket with creamy white truffle grits and chocolate and vanilla crème burl. Alas, the nitrogen carbonated iced coffee was a wee bit too edgy to pass as Southern, although we had a feeling it would fly in Scottsdale.
After sampling the goods at four more restaurants (it’s a hard job but somebody has to do it), we popped into Cream City Ice Cream & Coffee House for black coffees to go and discovered we still had room for at least two of its 30 flavors of homemade ice cream, including several we had never heard of before, including toasted coconut, Dulce de Leche cheesecake, Tennessee fudge…
Katy said her scoop of Tennessee fudge and my scoop of pecan praline were definitely Southern ice cream, although the sugar-free sherbets was more Malibu.
Back in our hotel room, Katy began calculating the calories she had consumed that day. “Donuts, cheese soup, a baguette, a scoop of Tennessee fudge and half your pecan praline – it’s a good thing you only visit once a year!”
ON TO IRELAND
After a scenic drive on backroads in full Appalachian Spring, we steered into The Bull & Thistle Pub in Gainesboro. The name didn’t sound encouraging, and when Chef Barry O’Connor from Cork, Ireland, pushed icy pints across the bar and insisted we try “a little nip” of his authentic Guinness Stew and his sticky toffee pudding (I should have just sat in cause that’s where it stuck), we knew there wasn’t an ounce of Southern in his entire menu.
We drove on to Cumberland Mountain State Park, settling into charmingly rustic cabins that had been built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps – the architects of many of America’s spectacular national park lodges. After unpacking, we suddenly realized it had been an entire two hours since our last meal.
We decided to drop in for a before-dinner cocktail at Short Mountain Distillery, located in the small town of Woodburn and founded in 2010 as Tennessee’s sixth moonshine distillery. Without quite losing its illicit rep, moonshine (we’re talking the legal version made from corn mash) is making a comeback as a luxury spirit in the U.S. and leading a whisky renaissance, and we wanted to see how it was done.
When we arrived at the distillery, co-owner Billy Kaufman, dressed in baggy pants, suspenders and a hillbilly hat, was pitching hay to the horses. I nudged Katy. “Check him out, he’s the real McCoy.” After shoving his pitchfork in a hay bale and wiping his brow with a red bandana, Billy gave us the grand tour of the joint, showing off his ultra- high-tech distillery, his swank tasting room where he insisted we take a nip of each of his variously flavored moonshines, and then inviting us to join him for lunch in his tres elegant Stillhouse Restaurant, a farm-to-table eatery perched on a hill overlooking his 300-acre spread.
I couldn’t quite nail the menu – it had sophisticated California cuisine like chef salads and grilled chicken and salmon, carb-bomb dishes like chicken and waffles – and beverages made with moonshine, including moonshine lemonade. “When in Rome!” we agreed, although I was already pretty well snookered from the tasting room nips.
As we were served our drinks, Billy explained that he and his brother had founded the distillery in 2010 to create jobs for the local community, create a new Tennessee brand and generate income that would stay in the area.
In the early 20th century, moonshine became a key source of income for many Appalachian residents because one horse could haul ten times more value on its back in whiskey than in corn. During prohibition when moonshine was banned, regions where it had been produced, including Woodburn, fell on hard times.
What a guy, I thought. He’s not only following his heart and helping people, but he’s doing it all in his own back yard holler. But when I asked him what part of Appalachia they were from that had instilled in them such a passion for producing moonshine to help their community, he just snapped his suspenders nervously.
“Actually, we’re from Beverly Hills.”
Bill explained that he and his brother were heirs to the Samsonite luggage fortune. After graduating from college, they had decided to use their inheritance to move to Tennessee, buy a farm and build a moonshine distillery.
“You’re like the Beverly Hillbillies in reverse!” I blurted out, an “ah ha” moment obviously fueled by moonshine. Billy picked up my glass, gave it a whiff and motioned over a waiter. “No more lemonade for her!”
It had been at least two hours since our last meal: “Time for dinner!” we agreed, and we knew just where to go. We had heard the BBQ Shack in the wee town of Grimsley (population 1,600) was awesome, but good enough to stand in line with what appeared to be the entire town?
We were on our second helpings of beef brisket, pulled chicken with homemade slaw, pulled pork with savory baked beans, buttery biscuits, fried pickles and homemade macaroni and cheese before we came up for air long enough to agree that the cooking in this unadorned (except for a Jesus Loves You-type poster pasted on the front wall) hole- in- the- wall was not only that good but the finest example of authentic Southern cooking we had come across yet.
It was also concrete proof – we could feel it solidifying in our stomachs if not yet our hearts -- that home-style, made- with- lard-and-proud-of-it Southern-style cooking was alive and well in America, and still guaranteed to send your cholesterol to Mars.
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