Food and fun in the South

April 1, 2012 • 10:37 am

As usual, I tried to investigate as many indigenous comestibles as I could during my trip last week to Nashville, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia.  As A. J. Liebling argued, “Each day brings only two opportunities for field work, and they are not to be wasted minimizing the intake of cholestorol.”  Mindful of time’s wingéd chariot and my few brief days in the South, I fed:

For years I’ve wanted to go to the famous Loveless Motel and Cafe on the outskirts of Nashville. It’s famous for its southern food: fried chicken, country ham, and the like, but most famous for its breakfasts, especially its biscuits.  The motel part of the operation has long been closed, but the diner is thriving, and there I went with some graduate students for breakfast (click all photos to enlarge):

Note “hot biscuits and country ham” emblazoned on the sign. That is your key to paradise.  As the late Persian poet wrote: “A plate of biscuits underneath the bough/A slab of ham, a swath of grits, and thou/Besides me singing sweetly of a pickup truck/O, Tennessee were Paradise enow.”

Here’s the restaurant itself:

The walls inside are completely covered with photos of famous country singers and other luminaries who have made the trip out to the Loveless for its incomparable nomz. As Wikipedia notes:

Many of the celebrities who have eaten at the Loveless Cafe have left signed photographs which now adorn the entry way. Some of Loveless’s fans include Willard Scott (of NBC Today) who stated that the restaurant has the “world’s greatest scratch biscuits,” and Martha Stewart who said “it was the best breakfast I’ve ever had…” In a volume of Country America, the magazine noted “Al Gore, Princess Anne, and just about any Country Star you could name have all pulled up a chair to Loveless Cafe’s red checkered tablecloths.”

The Loveless Cafe serves southern style cooking, and is most famous for its biscuits, country ham, and red-eye gravy. The biscuit recipe was created by Anne Loveless and is still closely guarded today.Many of the ingredients are farmed and produced in Tennessee, and all menu items are made from scratch.Loveless serves a full breakfast all day, every dayand the supper menu is served from 11:00am-closing daily. The Loveless Cafe also provides a catering menu for large group events.

The great glory of the Loveless is its biscuits. For many years they were the purview of Carol Fay Ellison, the famous “biscuit lady,” and biscuits were all she made. Sadly, she died two years ago.  Here’s a shot of her taken from the Loveless website:

Although the Biscuit Lady is gone, the biscuits are still made according to her methods. And man, are they good! As soon as you’re seated, a plate of hot biscuits arrives, accompanied by homemade peach, blackberry, and strawberry preserves, along with sorghum molasses if you so desire.  Really, one needs nothing else beyond biscuits, jam, butter, and coffee for a perfect breakfast:

After a few plates of these wonderful biscuits, it was hard for me to make big inroads on my real breakfast: a slab of country ham, two eggs, grits, and red-eye gravy (made with coffee):

Have a gander at the Loveless menu here.

Nashville, is of course, the country music capital of America, and is bedecked with recording studios and honkey-tonk beer bars where both unknowns and stars come to play.  Here’s where it all started: the Rhyman auditorium, home of the “Grand Ole Opry” (a weekly live performance of country music that was broadcast on the radio) from 1943 to 1974:

The Rhyman sits just two blocks from Broadway, a colorful streeet lined with music stores, dive bars, and places to buy cowboy boots and hats:

The most famous venue for music on Broadway is, I’m told, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.  Apparently many stars were either discovered here or go to jam here after a local performance:

And although Tenneseee is a religious state, the music was already playing, and the beer flowing, on Sunday morning at 10:30.  We stopped by Tootsie’s for a beer and a listen, and the band was really good.  I took a few videos to show the quality of music on tap.  I’m told that nearly every barista and waiter in Nashville is an aspiring musician.

The band had a great electric guitarist and a fine singer:

A famous place for a “meat-and-three” dinner or lunch (meat and three vegetables) is the Sylvan Park Restaurant in Nashville, an unprepossessing place that has been around for over eighty years:

The menu:

And my dinner: baked chicken with rice, fried corn, stewed apples, mac and cheese, corn muffins, and, of course, sweetened ice tea, that indispensable elixir and grease-cutter of the South. (Do remember that food is not medicine):

On to Atlanta and a visit to Emory University, where my first stop was the famous Mary Mac’s Tea Room:

Lunch begins with a nourishing bowl of “potlikker”: the juice from the bottom of a pot of collard greens stewed with pork, served with a corn muffin.  It’s a healthy preprandial amuse-bouche, and very hard to find, even in the South:

My lunch was a fantastic chicken pot pie (look at that crust oozing down the ramekin!), with a side of squash soufflé and one of fried okra (with corn muffins and sweet tea, of course):

All topped off with a slice of peanut butter pie (it was a tough choice between that and the banana pudding).  You can see Mary Mac’s menu here.

I much enjoyed my visits to Vanderbilt and Emory, particularly the opportunities to talk to graduate and undergraduate students, who were impressive at both places.  At Emory I had the privilege of speaking with a group of high-school teachers, who are on the very front lines of the evolution-creationism battle in the hottest salient of the war.  They are admirable folks, working at low pay to bring enlightenment and science to a dubious population.

One other task that befell me was to introduce Richard Dawkins at his talk at the Gwinnett Center outside Atlanta.  He spoke about evolution: “Darwin’s Five Bridges”, which dealt with the advances in understanding evolution produced by Darwin, his contemporary Alfred Wallace, and their forebears.  Here’s a summary I got from Richard when I asked him what he’d talk about:

Bridge 1 is natural selection as a purely negative force, which lots of people got before Darwin.
Bridge 2 is natural selection as a positive force, but missing the power of the idea to explain all of life. Patrick Matthew got there.
Bridge 3 is natural selection as a positive force, with the power to explain all of life. Darwin and Wallace got there.
Bridge 4 is same as 3 but convincing the world at large with massive evidence. Darwin did that but not Wallace.
Bridge 5 is the neo-Darwinian synthesis where evolution became changes in gene frequencies in population. Nobody in the nineteenth century got that.

The talk was great, and was preceded by a ten-minute speech by Sean Faircloth on the importance of rationality and evolutionary biology.  Richard really shone in the question-and-answer session, which was accompanied by much applause and laughter.  Being pretty ill with a virus, I fear that my introduction didn’t do him justice, but I tried.

Here’s Richard in the Green Room before his talk, signing a copy of The Magic of Reality for a starstruck fan:

And, at the end of the evening, Richard had an hour of book-signing. He looked pretty beat after that, but revived over dinner with a beer and a steak (I am sad to report that he ordered it well done).

You can catch the good professor (RD, not me!) at the Rock Beyond Belief meeting, and thereafter on the US West Coast.  Then he’s off to Oz with Lawrence Krauss.

37 thoughts on “Food and fun in the South

  1. A query:

    Most every picture (none in this thread, sadly) I have seen of out good non-blogger/host shows him to be maintaining himself as quite trim – definitely not contributing to the obesity epidemic in the country. Yet he shows us this gawd-awful super-caloric, &c., food and evidently eats it, reporting on how good it is.

    How does he manage these entirely contradictory activities?

    Perhaps by vigorously exercising his free will?

      1. I think Jerry has explained this before: eat healthily and sensibly at home (i.e. most of the time) – get the grease and carbs down like a hero when off on conferences/trips. It obviously works.

    1. Perhaps eating abstemiously most of the time allows one the leeway to indulge on special occasions?

    2. No, it’s by exercising his deterministic will to have good health. Unconstrained eating isn’t compatible with a slim torso (unless the meaning of “unconstrained eating” is redefined).

  2. Glad to know that Loveless is still in business; I used to frequent that place when I was at college in Nashville during early to mid 80’s.

  3. “I am sad to report that he ordered it well done.”

    I know it’s irrational, and that de gustibus non disputandum est etc., but I genuinely couldn’t help losing just a little respect for him when I read that.

    1. I’ve always wondered how chefs react when they receive an order for well-done steak. If I were a chef, I’d probably grieve a little as the meat passed the stage ideal for consumption and entered the stage ideal for shoe repair.

      1. Perhaps, this is an English thing, regardless of age (of the person, not the comestible). The French serve their steak still showing signs of life. A friend of mine, a brilliant linguist, who likes her slabs of meat well done, orders her steaks in France “carbonisés”. It works for her.

    2. Well done doesn’t necessarily mean dried out and as tough as boot leather. It just needs to be cooked well. After all, burger meat is always cooked well done, and it’s not necessarily tough either.

  4. Jerry,

    One of your better blogs. Since I love biscuits!

    However, great biscuits scream for great gravy.

    But, you don’t tell us if the gravy was great or mediocre?

    Do tell?

    PS Great photos.

    1. Some of us, while we like cream gravy on biscuits, feel that red-eye gravy on biscuits and grits (when it’s good) is unsurpassable.

  5. Sorry we missed your Nashville talk, but you came on the same day as Eugenie Scott’s talk at MTSU on the creationism nonsense in the legislature. Glad you got a good meal.

  6. You always find such great places to eat at wherever you go and do such a wonderful job of documenting your dining experience. Much appreciated.

  7. I always worry as your food seems never to have any green in it! Do you not like broccoli (or peas or beans or salad or or?)

    1. Monsieur Cobb

      a. I eat plenty of green food at home. So don’t worry.

      b. Did you miss the potlikker? It was VERDANT!

      c. I had a salad for lunch on my last day. But would it have been fun for me to post a picture of a bunch of lettuce?

      1. Indeed it is. I grew up on okra. Only crop that grows in August in Texas. Steamed okra and tomatoes is a good low fat alternative to fried okra.

        But a warning here. Do not overindulge on okra. If you eat a little okra every week, you can handle a big helping of okra. But careless indulgence in large amounts of okra when you are not used to it can be quite inconvenient. Those seeds want you to disperse them, and that lubricating gel that surrounds the seeds seems to survive every type of cooking process.

  8. He ordered it well done because, being an englishman of an older generation he must only eat food that has had the flavour cooked out of it.

  9. Now THAT is the way the HAM should look, when ordering ham eggs & grits. Was the gravy sweet? Pls tell me it wasn’t.

    Never been to the Loveless, but, as seen on a colleague’s file cabinet, they have a great refrigerator magnet of that sign with a ’49 Buick ragtop below it (4th pic down).

  10. Hey Jerry, why aren’t you coming to Australia for the GAC? Yeah I know, it’s a long trip, but worth it for a food lover, we have some of the best food in the world in Melbourne. You really should see if you can’t manage an expedition Downunder sometime.

    All that food makes me wish I could go to Nashville, looks fabulous.

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