The story below is an excerpt from our Jan./Feb. 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Our dining writer, just back from his time away, makes some delightful discoveries in an area he’d never visited before.
After a stop on the state line in Otto, North Carolina, for some country butter and farm-fresh milk at Spring Ridge Creamery, we were into North Georgia, a region pleasantly removed from Interstate highway traffic.
It’s a land where cyclists huff through mountain passes and where agritourism signs are as plentiful as those warning of sharp curves ahead. It’s a place of prolific apple orchards and thriving wineries.
North Georgia is a roadside shopper’s paradise, where you can pick up kudzu baskets, fried pies filled with Georgia peaches and apples, and amber-colored sorghum syrup. Along busy Highway 441 or quiet, curving mountain two-lanes, side-of-the-road commerce is a year-round experience and a celebration of regional culture.
Few families have been part of the culture of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Little Tennessee River Valley for as long as the Dillards. Their presence in North Georgia dates to the late 18th century. And they are among the region’s best ambassadors for Southern Appalachian cuisine, a style of cooking the family describes as “honest,” with its foundations in the love of the land.
Today’s Dillard House, in the town named for the family, evolved from Carrie Edwards Dillard’s World War I-era boardinghouse. Near the restaurant, flowers still grow in the gardens Carrie laid out long ago. Sit down for a feast at the Dillard House and one of the first dishes you see on the table, in addition to apple butter and green tomato relish, is Calico Salad, made by Carrie’s original recipe when tomatoes are in season. Cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes are bathed in a simple dressing of white vinegar and water, with a little salt, pepper and sugar.
The Dillard House is one of those places diners plan trips around. Often the trip, of several hours’ duration, consists of driving there, eating and driving home.
At the table, no ordering is required. You take a seat, and the food comes. And comes. It’s like eating in the home of good friends. Seconds are a given. Thirds even.
Many of the vegetables are grown within sight of the restaurant, or at best a short drive away. Mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, green beans, fried okra and a sweet potato “soufflé” filled our table alongside yeast rolls and cornbread, chicken soaked in milk and buttermilk and fried, country fried steak and gravy and pickle-topped barbecue ribs.
And then there is the country ham. The Dillard House has its own USDA-approved ham-curing plant. That country ham launched The Food Network’s Alton Brown into a flurry of adjectives when he covered it in one of his “Best Thing I Ever Ate” segments. In his “tasting notes,” Brown says that after the saltiness, “Butter comes out and then a nuttiness comes out, and then you start getting spices. I could swear there’s pineapple there. And then a deeper sweetness, a very kind of almost primal sweetness that comes out at the end. It makes you very glad you’re a carnivore. So fruity, nutty, buttery, meaty, and, heck yes, salty.”
For the satiated return trip home, in the restaurant’s shop there are jars of apple butter and green tomato relish, the latter a surprisingly good topping for hot dogs. Another recommended purchase from the shop that will last long after the jars are empty is “The Dillard House Cookbook and Mountain Guide.” I have the fifth edition. This book is a rich compendium of mountain cookery. And not only do its recipes reflect the Dillards’ long-standing love of their homeland, so do the many additions you would rarely find in a cookbook, such as a map of area wineries, a list of suggested day trips and a directory of hiking trails. Sidebars on North Georgia history and Dillard family lore are interspersed with recipes that are, indeed, honest.
Dillard House Broccoli Casserole
- 3 cups chopped, steamed broccoli
- 1 finely chopped onion
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup sour cream
- Salt and pepper
- 1 ½ cups grated cheddar cheese
- ½ cup buttered bread crumbs
Put broccoli in a greased 2-quart casserole dish. In a sauté pan, cook onions in butter until tender. To the onions add heavy cream, sour cream, salt and pepper. When hot, stir in 1 cup grated cheese. Stir continuously until cheese melts. Pour over broccoli. Top with ½ cup grated cheese and bread crumbs. Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees until lightly browned. Yield: 6-8 servings.
From The Dillard House Cookbook and Mountain Guide, fifth edition. Copyright © 2012 by The Dillard House, Inc.
The Dillard House
768 Franklin Street