Chronological / Destinations / Tennessee / United States

Navigating Tennessee’s Thunder Road

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, grew up in the area.

The Cumberland Gap Overlook

Ferociously independent farmers often made their own whiskey called moonshine, delivering the bottles filled with spirits from hidden stills to the urban customers in large cities like Atlanta. Federal agents chased them on rural blacktops that came to be known as “Thunder Road.” These outlaw whiskey makers with their customized high-powered cars were the forerunners of Nascar racing..

Dandridge, Tennessee’s second oldest city has deep roots extending to the Cherokee nation and the Revolutionary War. Washington’s veterans were ultimately paid by land grants, conveying property of the local Indians and deeding it to settlers. The local history incorporates the Civil War, big food industries like Bush Beans, headquartered here, along with bluegrass, gospel and country music and the romance of moonshine making which Hollywood labeled “White Lightnin.’”

Dandridge is lake country. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s rural electrification effort, one of the most monumental engineering and construction feats in American history, created spectacularly beautiful lakes that remain unspoiled. Douglas Lake is part of the Dandridge experience and is a fisherman’s paradise, rich with small mouth bass and deep-water pike.

I came here to learn about the land and people, but the food and cooking traditions of the region soon transcended all curiosities.

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 with a Malbec from Argentina.

Wonderfully Curated Museum

Breakfast was a Museum Extra

The feast was just beginning.

Russellville’s Longstreet Museum is a tribute to authenticity. The Civil War Sesquicentennial is a big part of Tennessee’s tourism effort and the well-marked Civil War Trail here includes the home where Confederate General James Longstreet set up headquarters during the winter of 1863-1864. The facility is perfectly preserved, highly accessible and curated in ways superior to many other Civil War attractions in other states. Early one morning, breakfast was served at the museum: local country sausage, fresh eggs, genuine grits (made from coarse ground corn) conjured up images of the area’s culinary history.

After a stop at Bethesda Church with a walk through the hauntingly beautiful church cemetery with graves of unknown Civil War soldiers, Morristown was the next destination. This lively city brings in visitors with a top attraction. It 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 Davy 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 dinner 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.

The Cumberland Gap National Park encompasses the routes explored by Daniel Boone and others opening up the westward expansion of early America. 20,000 acres with 50 miles of hiking trails make this a vacation dream. Pinnacle Overlook allows you to walk from Tennessee into Virginia and Kentucky in just a few steps. Webb’s Country Kitchen in historic Cumberland Gap, Tennessee offered 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.

Museum of Appalachia

According to local folklore, breakfast was Davy Crockett’s favorite meal. Carla’s Café is New Tazewell’s version of your favorite breakfast place. Cozy, beautifully appointed and serving fresh everything with a Paula Deen-like “Howdy Y’all.” You are well advised to eat a hearty breakfast of Tennessee ham, country sausage homemade biscuits with red-eye gravy prior to viewing the exhibitions at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on the campus of historic Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate. It’s the world’s largest Lincoln and Civil War collection.

Two other breakfast experiences merit praise. Highly-regarded Golden Girls in Clinton, is family owned restaurant in a log cabin and Pete’s Coffee Shop near the University of Tennessee campus in downtown Knoxville where an unusual number of early morning diners colourfully attired in orange tinted clothing enjoy ham and eggs.

Georgia has Vidalia onions and Tennessee showcases full-flavored popular Grainger county tomatoes. Ritter Farms in Rutledge is a major grower and supplier and worth a visit for those who want to see first-hand the practical advantages of farm-to-table in action.

East Tennessee’s folk art and self-taught crafts rank with bluegrass music and country cooking. Hidden deep in the hills is Joppa Mountain Pottery where visitors can observe a lump of clay or a bulb of molten glass carefully molded into a vase, face jug, serving tray or other object d’art.

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.

Maynardville earned a prominent place on Tennessee’s Moonshine Trail through history and Hollywood. It’s in the lyrics of the theme song in the movie “Thunder Road” and is the home to Country Music Hall of Fame’s Roy Acuff. Union county’s Caryville Moonshine Exhibit is within walking distance of Cove Lake State Park and the owner has on display the jacket his father was wearing showing the bullet hole where he was fatally wounded during a Moonshine raid shootout.

Refreshments never tasted better than at Norris Lake’s Beach Island Resort Marina, a great choice for pub-style dining, particularly if you like live music featuring Southern rock and country songs popularized by Lynrd Skynrd and Hank Williams, Jr.

The Museum of Appalachia encompasses 65 bucolic acres of those things embraced by the heritage of east Tennessee. Music, folk art, livestock, early American architecture, history and food are presented with warmth and authenticity. On a distant porch, I heard a trio singing and old spiritual, “Mary Don’t You Weep.”

Bavy Crockett's Boyhood Home

Crockett Tavern in Morristown

If I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep

The Museum, while not a restaurant, does host special events and festivals consistent with its cultural mission. We were served al fresco a fabulous lunch of signature dishes prepared by local cooks. The fresh vegetables, casseroles, salads and desserts showcased the produce from nearby gardens and the cooking skills of local kitchen wizards. Tomato pie, Charlotte Ruse, ham-seasoned crisp green beans and pork chops as tasty as my grandmother’s were just a few of the dishes. For more than two centuries, sustainable agriculture has been de rigueur in the region.

Clinton’s Green McAdoo Cultural Center, much like Little Rock’s Central High School, memorializes the struggle to break the yoke of racial segregation, particularly in public education. After a spellbinding tour, there was time to visit nearby Hoskin’s Drug Store, a step back into America of the fifties. The inviting soda fountain, staffed by a group of good-natured ladies, “persuaded” us to enjoy a genuine milkshake. The nostalgia made the refreshing ‘shake even more enjoyable.

Fine dining isn’t what you might expect in Knoxville’s eclectic and hip Underground, but it is here in the casual environment 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 artisinal cheese. An Oregon Pinot Noir paired nicely with the buffalo rib eye steak.

Learning about food is more meaningful by immersing yourself into local culture and lifestyles. Every dish tells a story. Much of what I enjoyed was similar to what Davy Crockett likely ate during his years here until his journey to Texas. And for a few summer days in east Tennessee, we were, at least in spirit, dining companions.

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