Vittles in the Volunteer State: What to Eat in Tennessee

 Hot chicken, fluffy biscuits, dry-rubbed ribs and potent moonshine are a few of the great-tastes in Tennessee. 

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Whiskey and Beyond

There’s no getting around the fact that Tennessee is a long ole state. From mile marker 0 at the Mississippi River to number 455, where Interstate 40 enters North Carolina, if you’re driving across Tennessee, you’d better pack a lunch. Fortunately that also means that there is plenty of geographic diversity among the state’s cuisine, so there is an abundance of excellent choices for you to stop and get that lunch, or breakfast or dinner. Maybe instead of a lunch, you’d better pack a cooler...

Dry Ribs

While there’s nothing technically wrong with slathering a slab of spare ribs with sauce like they do in other states, Memphis barbecue fans have learned to complement the flavor of the pork with a dry rub instead of concealing it under sweet, sticky sauce. The Vergos family revolutionized ribs by developing a spice mix based on the rubs their Greek ancestors used to flavor lamb. At their Rendezvous restaurant, they still serve hundreds of racks every day cooked over charcoal and seasoned with their proprietary rub.

Go to: Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous

Ramps

These powerfully pungent alliums are halfway between a leek and garlic, and only appear in the spring, growing in the wild near forest streams at higher altitudes. Foragers hunt them like hillbilly truffles, and restaurants such as Knoxville’s J.C. Holdway are experts at harnessing the strong flavors to create delicate dishes that lure rabid ramp fans. In the home kitchen, fry up some Benton’s Bacon and then cook sliced potatoes and ramps in the bacon grease for a doubly authentic taste of Appalachia.

Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich

Legend goes that Nashville Hot Chicken was invented in the 1930’s when a scorned lover tried to exact revenge by spicing up Thornton Prince’s fried chicken with an insane amount of pepper until it was an infernally dark red color and blazingly hot in flavor. It turned out he loved it and asked his paramour to cook more of it for him and his friends, eventually opening a restaurant to serve it to the masses. Today, there are multiple places to buy and try the piquant poultry, but the current generation of the Prince family still serves the original version, which many consider to be the best.

Go to: Prince's Hot Chicken Shack

Goo Goo Clusters

The Goo Goo Cluster is a confection that was invented by the Standard Candy Co. more than a century ago when they combined marshmallow nougat, caramel and roasted peanuts into a disc-shaped bar covered in milk chocolate. Associated with Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry, the Goo Goo has spread in popularity around the country, especially thanks to its availability in airport gift shops. The company has recently opened a retail location in downtown Nashville, where visitors can buy the original and premium versions of their products.

Cornbread

While Southerners may argue (ardently) about whether sugar belongs in a recipe for cornbread, there is little disagreement that a proper quick bread is made with cornmeal and baked in a cast iron skillet until golden. And nobody makes better skillets than the good folks at Lodge in South Pittsburg. They even invite fans to their hometown every April to visit their manufacturing plant and celebrate the National Cornbread Festival.

Fried Pickles

It’s easy to say that just about anything tastes better when you dunk it in batter and deep fry it, but sliced pickles are especially improved by the process. The crispy coating over crunchy, salty, sweet and tangy pickles creates the perfect balance for a food that pretty much mandates that it be consumed by the handful. With beer. Lots of cold beer. The Pickle Barrel in Chattanooga has plenty of both.

Banana Pudding

While there might be lots of different styles of barbecue ranging from regional sauce preferences to even what sort of meat hits the smoky pit, there is little controversy over what dessert defines a great ’cue joint. If there’s not a fine example of creamy banana pudding on the menu, it’s as big of a red flag as an absence of cords of firewood stacked outside. Central BBQ in Memphis passes all the tests with a fluffy whipped pudding and crumbles of wafer cookies, similar to this homemade version.

Meat and Three

Nashville is known as the center of the universe when it comes to Meat and Threes, a sort of plate lunch where diners go through a cafeteria line to select a main entree from a list of meats like fried chicken, catfish or meatloaf to be accompanied by three choices of vegetables from a cornucopia of options. Curiously, when it comes to the “and three” part, macaroni and cheese, jello and cottage cheese sometimes count as vegetables. Open only for lunch on weekdays, Arnold’s Country Kitchen is such a popular example of the genre that lines often stretch out the door, and you may see patrons dragging suitcases on the way to or from the airport after getting their fix.

Go to: Arnold's Country Kitchen

Greens and Potlikker

The Volunteer State is fortunate to have a climate that is perfect for growing all sorts of greens, including turnips, mustards and collards. Stewed for hours in smoky broth flavored with chunks of bacon or hog jowl, these healthy greens turn tender and delicious, and it’s reputed that drinking the “pot likker” they simmered in will cure whatever ails you. Get your prescription filled at Sweet P’s Barbecue and Soul House in Knoxville.

Biscuits and Gravy

A properly baked biscuit is like a little buttery golden kiss on a plate. The creamy and savory sawmill gravy that smothers is it is more like a hug. It’s a Southern classic that appears on nearly ever diner menu, but few places master that hug-and-kiss combination better than the talented bakers of Nashville’s Biscuit Love.

Go to: Biscuit Love Brunch

Bushwacker

While others might claim to have invented this frozen concoction of vodka, Kahlua and coconut, or even to have imported the recipe from the islands of the Caribbean, nobody makes a better version of the adult milkshake than the bartenders at Edley’s Bar-B-Que. Ideal alongside an order of smoked chicken wings, a Bushwacker is a fine way to take the edge off of a hard day’s work. Beware, though. If you drink two of them, you might forget to go to work tomorrow.

Cheese Dip

While diners in other parts of the country may enjoy the occasional bowl of queso at their favorite local cantina, cheese dip is an absolute obsession in the Mid-South, particularly the spicy and creamy American-Mexican concoction invented at Pancho’s in West Memphis, which is technically in Arkansas, though there’s a location in Tennessee, too. The dip is available to buy by the pound at local groceries, and if you get four Memphians in a room together, there’s a good chance that there will be some chips and cheesy goodness on the table.

Fried Bologna Sandwich

While it might not be the healthiest lunch in the world, a slab of bologna cooked on a flattop or in a fryer — and then served on white bread with mustard, pickles and onions — is a favorite guilty pleasure of many Tennesseans. While you can find some fine examples of this culinary treat served in out-of-the-way gas station delis across the state, Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint takes the extra step of smoking their bologna over hickory before cutting thick slices to run through the fryer.

Go to: Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint

Tennessee Whiskey

Kentucky is deservedly proud of their bourbons, but Tennessee whiskey satisfies the same production requirements as bourbon, plus an extra step of mellowing by dripping it through vats of sweet maple charcoal before bottling. The big players in the game are guys named Jack (Daniel) and George (Dickel), but the Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery of Nashville is releasing a new version of Tennessee whiskey based on a family recipe that hasn’t been tasted since before Prohibition.

Fried Catfish

Although this bottom-feeding fish can have a bit of a strong flavor if not properly prepared, in the hands of a master, catfish can be a real treat. Pond-raised catfish have a delicious clean flavor and delicate meat. Marinated in buttermilk, dredged in a spicy cornmeal mix and expertly fried to a golden brown, the version at Hagy’s Catfish Hotel in Shiloh is the finest seafood Tennessee has to offer, and the cooks have been serving it for generations.

Country Ham and Red-Eye Gravy

Saltier and more deliciously funky than its city cousin, country ham comes from the delightful combination of good pigs, smoke, salt and time. Add a little coffee from the bottom of the pot to the pan drippings along with some butter to create the ideal gravy to coat a thick slab of ham. Or better yet, let The Loveless Cafe in Nashville fix it for you.

Go to: Loveless Cafe

Hot Fish Sandwich

A water-born cousin to Nashville’s iconic hot chicken sandwich, hot fish sandwiches usually feature oversized fillets of whitefish or catfish overshooting the edges of the white bread slices that attempt to contain them. Torqued up with splashes of hot sauce and neon yellow mustard and accompanied by pickles and raw white onion, the best hot fish sandwiches are golden and crispy on the outside with a tender interior. They are usually encountered off the beaten track in places like Ed’s Fish & Pizza House, which stopped making pizzas years ago because the sandwiches were too darned good to justify a pie.

Krystal Burgers

Although the headquarters have moved to Atlanta, the first Krystal hamburger restaurant opened in Chattanooga in 1932, and the state of Tennessee is proud to claim the company’s provenance. The chain was founded on the promise of clean stores, fast service, good food and low prices, and loyalists still line up to order a sackful of the small, square burgers, traditionally topped with steamed onions, pickles and mustard. The current record for eating Krystal burgers is 103 in eight minutes, set by professional competitive eater Joey Chestnut in 2007.

MoonPies

Designed as a snack sized to fit in a coal miner's lunchbox, this beloved marshmallow-stuffed cookie sandwich has been a staple for more than a century. Whether frosted with chocolate, vanilla or banana, the MoonPie still has legions of fans. Baked in Chattanooga, the MoonPie gets its due each year in the quaint hamlet of Bell Buckle, where locals host the RC Cola and MoonPie Festival each June.

Barbecue Nachos

This seemingly odd combo of pulled pork and a Tex-Mex specialty surprises a lot of people when they spot it on a menu. It turns out that a tortilla chip is a very effective delivery device to bring delicious barbecue from plate to mouth. At the Peg Leg Porker barbecue restaurant in Nashville, a heaping helping of pork arrives topped with tangy barbecue sauce, creamy cheese sauce and jalapeño slices for a dish that’s big enough to share.

Go to: Peg Leg Porker

BBQ Spaghetti

When you consider that the traditional preparation of spaghetti tops the pasta with tomato sauce and ground meat, it’s not that odd to think of substituting barbecue sauce in for the ragù and pulled pork for the meatballs. OK, it’s still a little weird, but it’s also delicious and popular in barbecue joints all over Memphis. The Bar-B-Q Shop offers what it probably the best-known version.

Moonshine

Originally invented as a way for farmers to convert their corn crops into a product that they could more easily carry from way back in the hollers to market, moonshine has an authentic agricultural heritage in Tennessee. Plus, it’s delicious and can provide a good buzz. Short Mountain Distillery actually hired a few old-time moonshiners and took them legit as distillers in their modern new facility. Visit them and hear their stories near Woodbury, in Cannon County.

Fried Chicken

You can’t make Nashville Hot Chicken without first starting out with some great fried chicken. At Gus’s Spicy Fried Chicken they eschew the crazy heat levels of the Music City version in favor of a spice profile that tantalizes the tongue without rendering it numb. Originated in the tiny town of Mason and made famous in Memphis, Gus’s has expanded to locations all over the country and chicken lovers everywhere are the better off for it.

Go to: Gus's Fried Chicken

Whole Hog Barbecue

You don’t need much special equipment to smoke a whole hog, but few restaurants serve barbecue cooked using this primordial method, because it takes years to learn how to manage the fire, control the smoke and feel when the pig is ready to pull, and only the best of the best can pull it off. Scott’s-Parker’s BBQ in Lexington is among them. The barbecue joint cooks multiple hogs every day in simple cinderblock pits covered with sheets of cardboard to hold in the clouds of the smoldering hickory heat.

Vinegar Pie

Vinegar in a pie may seem like a clerical error to outsiders. But consider the popularity of apple pie. Apple cider vinegar contributes those fruity and tart nuances to what is basically a sweet custard pie. If you still need convincing, try a slice of the prototypical pie at Clinch Mountain Lookout Restaurant in Bean Station.

Craft Beer

Tennessee was late to the craft beer game, with only a handful of breweries across the state until the past decade. Local laws and regulations have been changed to make the state friendlier to the needs of brewers, and Tennessee is now in the midst of a beer boom. The Sergio brothers of Sparta’s Calfkiller Beer are producing some of the most creative beers you’ll find anywhere.