The tastes of Tennessee are much more than its iconic confectionary delights of Goo Goo Clusters and Moon Pies and the savory taste of Bush's Baked Beans, all of which originated and are made in the Volunteer State. A Southern meal is a special thing, and finding unique places with great plates and ingredients sometimes requires the effort of detouring off the beaten path and wandering the back roads to find authentic culinary gems.
Just west of the Smokies, clustered roughly in the corridor of rich, fertile lands paralleled by Interstate 75 and the southwest to northeast state line boundary of North Carolina, lie the ancient hills and verdant valleys of East Tennessee.
Beginning in Chattanooga and then zigzagging northwestward toward Knoxville, in between the two cities is a patchwork quilt of back roads and small towns that beckon like a siren for an old-fashioned road trip, sort of a culinary ramble where you can find plenty of opportunities to sample Southern goodness of whisky and wine, ham and honey, and chocolate and cheese.
Any journey to East Tennessee should begin among the soaring stone cliffs of the Bluff View Art District, a pretty and trendy neighborhood perched high above the banks of the Tennessee River. A meal at the Back Inn Cafe, housed in a Colonial Revival mansion, begins with a global menu that changes seasonally and with what's available locally. On one visit, I had Carolina rainbow trout, so sweet and delicious, but on another I went for the Southern specialty of shrimp and grits. Weather permitting, ask for a table on the terrace so you dine to the soft rippling of the Tennessee.
Just steps away is Rembrandt's Coffee House, a cool little coffee shop that has the ability to rocket the senses into overload. Its aroma is a confectionary amalgamation of strong coffee, vanilla, chocolate and hazelnut. Each tasty, delectable morsel is a culinary masterpiece, whether it's a rich pastry or a hand-dipped chocolate.
For historical ambiance, there's the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. You can overnight in an actual Victorian train car, but go for the restaurants, too, such as Stir. Stir is big on its creative cocktails made with purified artisanal ice. Yes. That's a thing. But the food is fabulous, too, with a special nod toward their creative desserts such as the apple-cornbread cheesecake made of caramel apples, buttermilk cornbread pudding, fresh whipped cream and traditional cheesecake. Sounds weird, but it works, delectably so.
Before you head north to Knoxville, take a tour of Chattanooga Whiskey Co., and sample a dram from its "experimental distillery." It's the first legal whiskey distilled in Chattanooga in more than a hundred years and sure beats the moonshine, once the elixir of choice for imbibing Tennesseans.
If you have a cast iron skillet, chances are it was made by Lodge. Just to the west of Chattanooga is the Lodge Factory Store, chockablock with cast iron pots, pans and skillets. Your grandmother probably fried untold numbers of chickens to a perfect golden brown in her Lodge skillet. I know my granny did, as did Mama. Now sold worldwide, legendary Lodge products are probably among the most durable ever made. While the foundry where the cookware is made is nearby, it isn't open to the public, but still you can fill a shopping cart at the factory store.