The tastes of Tennessee are much more than its iconic confectionary delights of Goo Goo Clusters and Moon Pies and the savory taste of Bush's Baked Beans, all of which originated and are made in the Volunteer State. A Southern meal is a special thing, and finding unique places with great plates and ingredients sometimes requires the effort of detouring off the beaten path and wandering the back roads to find authentic culinary gems.
Just west of the Smokies, clustered roughly in the corridor of rich, fertile lands paralleled by Interstate 75 and the southwest to northeast state line boundary of North Carolina, lie the ancient hills and verdant valleys of East Tennessee.
Beginning in Chattanooga and then zigzagging northwestward toward Knoxville, in between the two cities is a patchwork quilt of back roads and small towns that beckon like a siren for an old-fashioned road trip, sort of a culinary ramble where you can find plenty of opportunities to sample Southern goodness of whisky and wine, ham and honey, and chocolate and cheese.
Any journey to East Tennessee should begin among the soaring stone cliffs of the Bluff View Art District, a pretty and trendy neighborhood perched high above the banks of the Tennessee River. A meal at the Back Inn Cafe, housed in a Colonial Revival mansion, begins with a global menu that changes seasonally and with what's available locally. On one visit, I had Carolina rainbow trout, so sweet and delicious, but on another I went for the Southern specialty of shrimp and grits. Weather permitting, ask for a table on the terrace so you dine to the soft rippling of the Tennessee.
Just steps away is Rembrandt's Coffee House, a cool little coffee shop that has the ability to rocket the senses into overload. Its aroma is a confectionary amalgamation of strong coffee, vanilla, chocolate and hazelnut. Each tasty, delectable morsel is a culinary masterpiece, whether it's a rich pastry or a hand-dipped chocolate.
For historical ambiance, there's the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. You can overnight in an actual Victorian train car, but go for the restaurants, too, such as Stir. Stir is big on its creative cocktails made with purified artisanal ice. Yes. That's a thing. But the food is fabulous, too, with a special nod toward their creative desserts such as the apple-cornbread cheesecake made of caramel apples, buttermilk cornbread pudding, fresh whipped cream and traditional cheesecake. Sounds weird, but it works, delectably so.
Before you head north to Knoxville, take a tour of Chattanooga Whiskey Co., and sample a dram from its "experimental distillery." It's the first legal whiskey distilled in Chattanooga in more than a hundred years and sure beats the moonshine, once the elixir of choice for imbibing Tennesseans.
If you have a cast iron skillet, chances are it was made by Lodge. Just to the west of Chattanooga is the Lodge Factory Store, chockablock with cast iron pots, pans and skillets. Your grandmother probably fried untold numbers of chickens to a perfect golden brown in her Lodge skillet. I know my granny did, as did Mama. Now sold worldwide, legendary Lodge products are probably among the most durable ever made. While the foundry where the cookware is made is nearby, it isn't open to the public, but still you can fill a shopping cart at the factory store.
Travel to Delano for some mighty fine sweet wine at Savannah Oaks Winery. But the showstopper of the winery isn't just the wine but a cantilever barn, built by 40 men in one single day during 1861 and that attests to the durability of Tennessee architecture. This historical masterpiece of a barn is where Savannah Oaks has its tasting room and gift shop. The winery offers free daily tastings of its muscadine and scuppernong wine, and the gift shop features Tennessee-made jewels of jams, jellies, butter and cheese.
More divine wine is at Morris Vineyard and Tennessee Mountainview Winery in Charleston. The tasting room affords picturesque panoramas of the Cherokee National Forest and the Appalachians. The family-owned winery, gently rising and falling over 50 acres of hillside, grows more than two dozen varieties of muscadines along with aromatic blackberries, blueberries and raspberries to produce whites and reds, both sweet and crisp, floral and spicy.
To bees or not to bees? That is the question of Appalachian Bee, the bee's knees with its 100% pure honey creations — lusciously sweet artisan honey products, handcrafted skin care and heavenly soaps — that are fashioned from wildflowers, spring blossoms and sourwood honey, the premium honey of the South. Appalachian Bee's "honey house," where these wondrous products are made, is surrounded by mountains and the lush forests, so these bees have plenty of fragrant, fresh nectar to gather from native plants and flowers.
Move over, butter and biscuits and make way for chocolate gravy and biscuits. That's a thing, too. Sample this sweet treat at Tellico Junction Cafe, which is known also for other eclectic menu items, fried hot dogs and cornbread salad among them. Long a tradition on local breakfast tables, think of chocolate gravy as a "gravy" with the consistency and taste of warm chocolate pudding and then rained in heaping amounts over fluffy, handmade biscuits.
Next moo-ve over to Athens, the hometown and heartbeat of Mayfield Dairy that's widely known for its flavorful milk and ice cream, for a behind-the-scenes tour of ice cream-making. Enjoy a scoop of your favorite flavor in the dipping parlor and snag a Mayfield-inspired T-shirt from the extensive gift shop.
Take a drive to Madisonville and pop into Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Ham. From this tiny corner of Tennessee, Allen Benton's gourmet hams and hickory smoked bacon are shipped to some of the finest restaurants from Atlanta to New York to California and all points in between. This is some seriously smoky meat, and if you ask real nice, Benton will give you a tour. Just don't ask what type of wood he uses, as these hills have many secrets and are intended to stay that way.
With a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there, the herds of Sweetwater Valley Farm cows number in the hundreds. The farm specializes in udderly delicious farmstead cheeses — think rich cheddar, gouda and Colby — that puts their rivals to the test. The Harrison family has been farming this sweet spot of Tennessee land for generations and serve as tour guides for anyone who wants to learn the cheese-making process from cow to counter.
Almost 20 years ago, I happened upon Knoxville for the first time. It was spring. And there were flowers, all blooming at once in a riotous kaleidoscope of color and sweet scents. Dogwoods of pink and white were everywhere, their petals swirling in the cool, fresh breeze. I go back when I can but not often enough.
I say that to say this. Knoxville is a fabulous town, clean and wonderful, and when it comes to restaurants, coffeehouses and bakeries, the choices are myriad. While great restaurants dot the city — the Western bistro of Lonesome Dove and Rebel Kitchen that specializes in local fare — I've always been drawn to the pedestrian mall of Market Square for not only its sheer number of things to do, among them a farmers market, outdoor concerts and Shakespeare on the Square, but also its collection of eateries from casual to fine dining. The blackberry jam at Tupelo Honey Cafe is amazing, and so is the pizza at The Tomato Head. Try Emilia for authentic Italian and pasta made fresh daily.
Most of East Tennessee doesn't try to refine its food, except for perhaps those trendy restaurants in Chattanooga and Knoxville. Instead it relies on the traditional, the unique and the locally grown and harvested. In other words, it's food to soothe the palate and the soul.
IF YOU GO
For more information on Southeast Tennessee, visit www.SoutheastTennessee.com or call 1-423-266-5781. For Knoxville, visit www.VisitKnoxville.com or call 1-800-727-8045. For Chattanooga, visit www.ChattanoogaFun.com or call 1-423-756-8687 or toll-free 1-800-322-3344. For Tennessee, visit www.TnVacation.com or call 1-615-741-2159.
WHERE TO STAY
Chattanooga Choo Choo
1400 Market Street
Historic hotel offering traditional style rooms and train car accommodations.
The Oliver Hotel
407 Union Avenue
Historic boutique hotel on Market Square.
The Tennessean Hotel
531 Henley Street
Downtown luxury hotel convenient to University of Tennessee, Market Square and the Old City
WHAT TO DO
1 Broad Street
Features an IMAX theater and 10,000 animals.
WDVX Blue Plate Special
301 S. Gay Street
Free live performance radio show at the WDVX studio inside of Visit Knoxville visitor center each Monday through Thursday at noon.
Museum of East Tennessee History
601 S. Gay Street
Located at the East Tennessee History Center in the heart of downtown Knoxville.