Field Trip: Noshing in Nashville

I learned a number of things on a recent trip to Nashville (my first visit to what I consider the real South). Among them: Mentioning a fried baloney sandwich gets people moving nearly as well and as swiftly as yelling “Fire!”

The difference being people move away from a fire; people move toward the aforementioned sandwich like moths to a flame. My colleague and I discovered this as we were walking in downtown Nashville, digesting and discussing the fried baloney sandwiches we had just consumed at Robert’s Western World, an establishment that wears its honky tonk on its sleeve, when a woman came up from behind and interrupted us, “Did you say, ‘fried baloney sandwich’?” there was both pressing urgency and disbelief in her voice. We pointed her in the direction of Robert’s, and she and her family were gone, so propelled by the promise of a white trash delicacy they nearly jaywalked to get to it.

It was also at Robert’s that I learned that a fried pickle is a fine thing. Shouldn’t be surprised – anything fried tends to be better, right? Although, we can be sorry later as the grease is re-released back through our pores, giving us an extraterrestrial glow. Still, these pickle spears, dipped in a batter that cooks up crunchy (similar to the coating on fried mozzarella sticks), and served with ranch dressing for dipping, were an appropriate, albeit, salty opener to our main attraction meal combo of baloney sandwich (slices of bologna grilled and served on white bread with, ironically enough, lettuce and tomato), French fries, and a Moon Pie (a made-in-Tennessee confection-meets-cookie of marshmallow sandwiched between two soft graham cracker-like rounds coated in chocolate…the chocolate tends to flake off when you eat it. This would have been more appropriate at a crusty establishment like Robert’s rather than my bed at the hotel where I chose to eat mine later). We did manage to burn some calories toe-tapping to the country rhythms of that night’s house band, A-11.

Robert’s sits on Broadway in an area known as The District, sort of a heart and soul of Music City, as every few steps, live country music twangs out into the street from some different club bedecked with colorful, kitschy signs so gaudy they would make Dolly Parton’s ensembles seem pale. In Nashville, I accepted that I am a country music fan after years of resisting it (when you grow up watching “Hee-Haw” you have a love-hate repulsion for the whole genre; however, its corny charms have finally won me over). The conference I was attending put me smack dab in the middle of Country Music Fan Fest in Nashville, where, despite the 90-plus degree heat, the cowboy boots come out to be worn with dresses and yes, shorts. And if you didn’t show up in Nashville with a cowboy hat, you sure as shootin’ won’t leave town without one. The artfully battered, side-crushed brimmed, antique-stained straw hat on my bookshelf may look like a sore thumb in California, but in Nashville, it swam in tandem in a school of kindred counterparts.

In Nashville, I revisited the notion that you can become taken with a place. I learned I more or less fell in love with a place called The Loveless Café, named for its original owners in the early 1950s. This establishment took us into more of the Tennessee countryside and gave me my first taste of red-eye gravy, an elixir concocted of the juice of a country ham slice (the bone in the slice being the “eye”) and black coffee (yes, coffee, which I always thought to be the wake-up needed for those of us with sleepy red eyes). It made for a delicious dipping sauce for the famous Loveless Café biscuits. A lady named Carol Fay Ellison put the restaurant’s biscuits on the map, appearing over the years on morning news shows, national talk shows and the Food Network.
Sadly, Carol Fay died in 2010, but her biscuits live on, served immediately to just-seated guests along with a sampler of blackberry, peach and strawberry preserves. Here, in this quaint restaurant resembling a country kitchen, I had a fine Southern breakfast of country ham (saltier and chewier than “city” ham), eggs, the red-eye gravy and a bowl of creamy yet hearty grits. And for entertainment, one can wander to a window to watch biscuits being stamped out by hand, a biscuit nursery of sorts (see photo at the top of this blog), where the newly born biscuits’ tops are buttered before they are sent off to bed (baked conjoined in a pan, the biscuits are rather diminutive in size but tender and full of flavor). The Loveless Café sits among a merry compound of shops, a barbecue shack and a barn where weekly concerts are held. The place is encircled by lush timber where, in the heat of a summer mid-day, a redbird chortled as clear as a church bell. Between the green humidity, the bird, the smell of hickory smoke and my full belly, I felt right at home.

In Nashville, I learned the meaning of “meat and three.” I had run across this term in my pre-trip research, but garnered its full definition by experience (and realized I had been raised on “meat and three”…we just always called it supper). Country music star Keith Urban, it turns out, knows a good meal, and recommends a little place called Arnold’s Country Kitchen. Other reviews I found also praised the place, so in the heat of mid-day (Arnold’s closes at 2:30), I ventured out to find it. An unexpected construction detour made my walking directions moot, but I kept moving anyway; good food carries its own magnetic pull for me, and I felt confident that I was meant to lunch at Arnold’s, so I wandered forward, a hungry stranger in a strange land. I had seen a photo of the small, ruddy orange building, so it was unmistakable when I came upon it. My first mistake was waiting to be seated; part of the charm of many “meat-and-three” establishments is that you sidle up to the food – cafeteria style — right away and make your choices. At Arnold’s, I was urged forward by other courteous patrons (Tennesseans are about as genuinely friendly a people I have ever met) and found myself gripping a tray, staring at a glowing golden piece of pie (the desserts are first in this particular lineup). I asked the fellow behind me, “What kind of pie is that?” “It’s chess pie,” he had given me the right answer, “And boy, is it good.” Chess pie had been a dessert goal of mine prior to coming South, so I slid a slice onto my tray.

Along with some roast beef (freshly carved), I selected “two” rather than “three” of Southern tradition: stewed turnip greens and macaroni and cheese. A yeasty dinner roll accompanied the meal. Sitting before the massive plate(s) of food, I could not imagine finishing it all, but before I knew it, I was staring at my reflection in a pool of the juices left behind. When had I polished it off? I had just kept eating, as it was all so good, like a home-cooked meal on a lazy Sunday afternoon, washed down with cold iced tea. The calm inside me gave new meaning to comfort food. The roast beef had been exceptionally juicy and well-seasoned, the greens tender and flavorful. Most macaroni and cheese I had experienced, both made by home cooks and in restaurants, was just that, macaroni and cheese that had, by all good intentions, meant to be one but had separated into two entities by the time all was said and done. Not so here, the dish was as creamy and melt—in-your mouth as you can imagine.

I think culinary writers Jane and Michael Stern have written the best explanation of what makes the “chess” in chess pie. When asked what kind of pie was being made, the cook replied, “It’s jes pie,” and the name morphed (as names and words do) into “chess.” Chess pie is a Southern sweet custard pie composed mainly of eggs, butter, sugar, vanilla and cornmeal. Variations may contain vinegar, buttermilk or brown sugar. I did not dissect or question what went into Arnold’s chess pie…I merely lapped up its glorious goldenness, a sweet slice of buttery heaven.

And would you believe I had a second slice of chess pie that same evening at another Nashville eatery, Jack’s Bar-B-Que? Here, I learned more of meat and three, this time trying an interesting side of fried apples to go along with my pulled Tennessee pork shoulder (I think that happened to me once…quite painful). Jack’s provides a smorgasbord of barbecue sauces distinctive to each region: from Tennessee sauce (more vinegar based) to Kansas City (sweet and smoky).

Fried green tomatoes gained national fame from the 1991 film of the same name. I had eaten these summertime delicacies growing up in Kansas (I’m starting to believe I had a Southern childhood in the middle West). So upon discovering a menu featuring fried green tomatoes as an appetizer, my friend and I could not resist. Merchants restaurant, slightly more upscale than our fried pickle purveyor, Robert’s, features an elegant platter of thickly crusted, firm and tart young tomatoes served with a red pepper sauce and pimiento cheese. Who knew something so downhome could be so elegant?

My trip was not all about eating, though that took center stage. Some experiences can be just as good as good food, I’ve learned. I saved the best for last. In the newspaper game, they call that burying the lead (journalists must hit the high point quick or readers might wander off). In food blogging, leaving a pinnacle detail ‘til the end might be OK….after all, you finish a meal with something sweet to leave a lasting impression, even though this detail has nothing to do with food. Walking through my hotel lobby in Nashville one morning, my friend and I were met by a man being escorted in a wheelchair toward the hotel entrance. The chair and its passenger came right up beside us.

“Hey, how you doin’?” he called up to me as if we had known each other well in some time, some place (perhaps he thought I was Sheryl Crow, in town for the CMA Fest. This mistake happens all the time – ha.). And I responded as if greeting someone familiar in the grocery store, “Well, all right, how are you?” His face was a beaming smile, completely recognizable, dark hair coiffed to perfection. How did I know him?

Unmistakable, legendary, he was wheeled away, sequined boots sparkling. Little Richard! I had just spoken with Little Richard! I stood still and my friend and I stared at each other, wide-eyed, then laughed with the thrill of such a divine moment. I felt like I’d heard from Elvis – or God – directly.

Be ready for such moments, friends, and savor them.

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