By Doc Lawrence –
KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE—This friendly city has long been a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains and is the epicenter of the indigenous culture associated with the early American pioneers beginning with veterans of George Washington’s Revolutionary War army who settled much of the land in this largely unspoiled paradise of mountains, lakes and valleys. Explorers like Daniel Boone crossed into east Tennessee through the Cumberland Gap, opening westward expansion and Davy Crockett, made even more famous on television by Fess Parker (as Davy), who grew up in the area.
I came here to learn and the food and cooking traditions of the region soon became part of my enlightenment.
A highly regarded restaurant, Angelo’s at the Point in Dandridge fronts on Douglas Lake, one of the TVA’s chain of pristine reservoirs. I joined a group of tourism officials and distinguished writers for a memorable meal that, for me, began with an obligatory Jack Daniel’s on ice, followed by crab cakes and filet mignon nicely paired Malbec from Argentina.
The feast was just beginning.
Early the next morning, breakfast in nearby Russellville was at General James Longstreet’s Civil War headquarters, a museum wonderfully curated. During the winter of 1863, the Confederate General had his command post here as the battles for Knoxville raged. The country sausage, fresh eggs, genuine grits (made from coarse ground corn) conjured up images of the area’s culinary history.
Morristown was the boyhood home of Davy Crockett, a U. S. Congressman who broke with Andrew Jackson over the events leading to the “Trail of Tears” and died an American hero at the Alamo. Crockett Tavern, where he lived, is a popular museum and after a few hours here, it was time for lunch at Morristown’s Jersey Girl Diner, so named because the owner is a Garden State native. The table featured menu samples and the large, beautifully battered onion rings earned unanimous acclaim.
Lookout Restaurant sits on top of Clinch Mountain and along with a breathtaking view we ate some vinegar pie which harkens to Tennessee’s pioneer days. The modern version had a nice crust and was topped with meringue. It looked like a lemon custard pie and the vinegar added tartness, leading us to guess that it contained this due to an absence of lemons.
Webb’s Country Kitchen in historic Cumberland Gap, Tennessee is dining near the footprints of Daniel Boone and legions of Civil War soldiers. The menu was vast and included staples of Appalachian cuisine like fried green tomatoes, pinto beans and cornbread and fried catfish. The lagniappe was a roomful of local leaders who extended warm Tennessee hospitality.
According to legend, breakfast was Davy Crockett’s favorite meal. At Carla’s Café in New Tazewell, I beheld a platter of country ham, grits, red eye gravy (made with coffee), local sausage and made to order eggs with unlimited cathead biscuits. Two other breakfast experiences merit praise. Golden Girls in Clinton is family owned and in a log cabin and Pete’s Coffee Shop near the University of Tennessee campus in downtown Knoxville is where folks wear a lot of orange while enjoying ham and eggs.
McCloud Mountain Restaurant in LaFollette provides first-rate dining with a stunning panoramic view of the Cumberland and Great Smoky mountains, adding nature’s grandeur to a lunch of local-grown vegetables with mountain trout as delicate as fine silk. It’s a good drive upward to get here, but for those who love wholesome dining nearer to heaven, it’s worth the effort.
Fine dining isn’t what you might expect in Knoxville’s eclectic and hip Underground, but we found it at highly regarded The Crown & Goose. Just as I was getting into my first Jack Daniel’s (cocktails are made with a “Tennessee Pour.” Figure it out.), a platter of Benton ham, one of the top country ham producers, appeared along with an array of artisanal cheese. An Oregon Pinot Noir paired nicely with the Buffalo strip steak.
The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, while not a restaurant, served a fabulous lunch al fresco of signature dishes prepared by local cooks. The vegetables, casseroles, salads and desserts showcased the produce from nearby gardens and the cooking skills of several kitchen wizards. A tomato pie. A Charlotte Russe, green beans still garden crisp, and pork chops as tasty as my grandmother’s. Sustainable farm-to-table agriculture and dining has been here for more than two centuries.
Learning about food is more meaningful by immersing yourself into what is served. Every dish tells a story. Much of what I enjoyed was similar to what Davy Crockett likely ate here until his journey to Texas. And for a few summer days in east Tennessee, we were, at least in spirit, dinner companions.