Chinquapins, Elderberries, Dandelion Jam
In California I often hear the term “slow food.” But in Tennessee, I imagine such a term would be redundant. From grits to ribs to greens, Tennesseans simmer and smoke and stew their cuisine. Vegetables are often still grown on small farms and picked by hand: lima beans, butter beans, collards, sweet corn, melons, cabbage, peaches. Hogs are butchered locally and made into chops, hams, pickled trotters, ribs, souse, hocks and bacon. From the woods come ramps, morels, cressy greens, poke salad and dandelion greens, pawpaws, black walnuts, hickory nuts, dewberries and blackberries, wild persimmons. Game and fish, sorghum and wildflower honey, hominy and peanuts—the ingredients are simple, their flavors enhanced primarily by heat and salt.
Because the food of Tennessee has retained its emphasis upon native and/or local ingredients, it is an intrinsic part of the state’s culture (or “cultures,” since there’s a lot of difference between Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis). Some of the signature local dishes haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. I’m reminded of Campbell McGrath’s poem “What They Ate,” in which he lists the staples in the diet of this country's early European-born settlers:
What They Ate
All manner of fowl and wild game: venison, raccoon, opossum, turkey.
Abundant fishes, excepting salmon, which ws. found distasteful.
Meat of all sorts, especially pig, which roamed free and was fatty.
Also shellfish: quahogs and foot-long oysters; lobster, though considered wasteful.
Wild fruit: huckle and rasp, blue being known as "skycolored" berries.
Parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions: these sown loosely and rooted out;
while these were cultivated in orchards: apples, peaches, apricots, cherries.
Cabbage—favored by the Dutch as koolslaa, by the Germans as sauerkraut—
was boiled with herbs brought from England: thyme, hyssop, marjoram, parsley.
Pumpkin, dried, or mashed with butter, where yams grew sparsely.
Corn, with beans as succotash, called samp when milled to grist;
in the South, hulled and broken, as hominy; or fried with bacon as grits.
Maple ws. not favored; loaves of white sugar worth considerable money
were kept under lock, cut with special sugar shears. For honey,
bees were imported, called "English Flies" by the Narragansett.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
On a Saturday evening, my friend J. Peter "Le Chigger" Moore and I were driving around Tennessee Ridge, and we stopped at The Ridge Restaurant to see if the menu was inviting. Peering through the glass door into the main dining room, I noticed the "specials" board had the word "gizzards" written first on the list, in dry-erase marker. "This looks like the place," I said, and we went in.
Each of us ordered a beverage. Chig had Diet Coke. I had unsweet tea. The plastic cups that they arrived in were the size of crawfish buckets.
Though I had been tempted by the thought of a big plate of fried gizzards, I ended up ordering the fried shrimp plate. Chig chose catfish: two flaky, golden fillets, served with hushpuppies and fries. My shrimp also came with fries and pups. The hushpuppies were giant brown orbs, hot and corn-flavored, with big chunks of white onion and scallion.
I have lived long enough on the West Coast that I have acclimated to vegetables cooked al dente, with one exception: I have never been able to abide what I consider to be “underdone” green beans. When I prepare them, I throw them in my slow cooker, with a chunk of hamhock or a smoked turkey neck, and let them simmer for about 8 to 10 hours. The Ridge Restaurant served us a fine mess of green beans. They were jade-colored, thoroughly done, so that the fibrousness had given way to a smoky tenderness.
We also shared an order of white beans (sometimes called "soup beans") which are a favorite in this area of Tennessee. The only legume I recall eating more often in Tennessee is the black-eyed pea. The white beans had simmered for a day or possibly two. They were soft and buttery in texture, swimming in a gravy of their own making.
Our meal also came with a trip to the salad bar. Total price tag: Twenty dollars and twenty-five cents. When the waitress came to clear our plates, I told her how much we had enjoyed the food. "But did you get your favorite? That's what matters." Yes, I said, I did.
For the next few days, we ate local fare at places like B.J.'s Diner in Erin and David's restaurant in Waverly. Cat's claw biscuits. Country ham slices as big as the plates they were served on, fried in a skillet. Turnip greens with their earthy pot liquor and a dash of sweet vinegar. Fried okra, lima beans, roasted yams, chicken and dumplings, cornbread.
In her poem "Knoxville Tennessee," Nikki Giovanni celebrates greens, buttermilk, barbeque and homemade icecream. Food that is sustenance, that is the return to a summer from youth, that is slow in its making and lasting in the memory of mind and body.
All the time
Not only when you go to bed
Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a...