The story below is an excerpt from our Nov./Dec. 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
It’s not just barbecue and biscuits that make this part of the world a special place to eat, though they do have their roles.
From soup beans to barbecue and cornbread salad to cobbler, East Tennessee sets a rich and varied table. We’ve made our home here for many years. Here are some of the people, places, and products we’ve learned about along the way.
Quilts and Creamed Corn
Just across U.S. 321 from Watauga Lake, the highest in elevation in the Tennessee Valley Authority system of lakes, Shirley’s Home Cooking has been serving up the cuisine of the country kitchen since 1990. When Shirley Sharpe and her late husband Grant converted their gasoline station to a restaurant, they had three tables. Now there are two large dining rooms, constantly busy.
It’s a success story even Sharpe herself sometimes has a hard time imagining. She and sons Jeff and Forrest and their families have made an honest living serving up the noble dishes of the Appalachian Mountains. Select two meats, and 10 side dishes follow. Friday nights feature steak and gravy. Country ham, fried chicken, and roast beef are always on the menu. And a typical selection of sides might include soup beans, green beans, slaw, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, fried apples, cooked cabbage, macaroni and cheese, cucumbers and onions in vinegar and cornbread salad.
As she oversees the restaurant, Sharpe stops occasionally to work on a handmade quilt, in preparation for cold weather. It’s a time people around Hampton, Tennessee, especially dread, because Shirley’s is a seasonal business, closing in late November and reopening in March. One customer, Larry Rogers, even wrote a poem about it: “Winter is here, she’s going to close. Where I’ll eat, nobody knows.”
Hickory in the Hollow
Round a gentle curve in Bullock’s Hollow near Bluff City, Tennessee, and there it is: Ridgewood Barbecue. Its gravel parking lot is perpetually full, all day, any day, except Sunday.
It was a pretty lonely hollow when Grace Proffitt opened a beer joint there in 1948, with no thought of barbecue. A few years later, Sullivan County went dry, and Proffitt retooled the business from bar food to barbecue. And Bullock’s Hollow is lonely no more.
Guided by Proffitt’s son Larry, a pharmacist, and his daughter Lisa Proffitt Peters, a registered nurse, Ridgewood has taken its rightful place among the best barbecue houses in America.
This is barbecue cooked over hickory wood, some of it right off the Proffitt farm. Gas and electricity play no part in the process. The only pork that is used is fresh ham, smoked about nine hours, then sliced and warmed on the grill with a truly secret recipe sauce that uses tomato as its basis. Only Larry and Lisa know the recipe for the sweet-sour, spicy sauce. After she memorized the ingredients and steps, her father set fire to the recipe.
900 Elizabethton Highway
Bluff City, Tennessee
Staking a Claim on the Volunteers
In Johnson City, the Peerless Restaurant started out serving barbecue in 1938, but its reputation over the years has been built on steak. Greek immigrant John Kalogeros altered the future of the restaurant with a wager, in late 1939. That year, the University of Tennessee Volunteer football team had gone undefeated and unscored upon during the regular season.
So Kalogeros felt pretty safe in betting his friends steak dinners that UT would win the 1940 Rose Bowl game against the University of Southern California. But the Volunteers were shut out, 14-0. From that point on, the Peerless became known for its steaks, and John’s son Jim, who still runs the restaurant in his mid-90s, believes that initial steak dinner was the first time feta cheese was ever served in a Johnson City restaurant. Today, about 6,000 pounds of it a year top Peerless Greek salads.
Jim sums up the philosophy he inherited from his father: “I buy the very best beef available and do as little to it as possible.”
The Peerless Restaurant
2531 North Roan Street
Johnson City, Tennessee
Biscuits All Day
It was a red-letter day in East Tennessee, and I remember it well. It was the day Clarence’s Drive-In in Unicoi announced that scratch-made biscuits and gravy would be available all day long. It was a liberating announcement, loosening up schedules so folks wouldn’t have to race to Unicoi before the morning was up. Biscuits and gravy became lunch. Biscuits and gravy became dinner.
Swaggerty’s sausage, a vital element in Clarence’s light brown gravy, starts frying around 5 a.m. “Over or on the side?” servers ask. Most diners choose “over,” so that their fresh biscuits are covered in country gravy.
Clarence’s serves up one of the region’s best and most extensive breakfast menus, including two East Tennessee essentials, fried pork tenderloin and fried bologna.
Highway 173 East
Beauty and Freshness on the Holston
“Good seafood is not cheap, and cheap seafood is not good.” That motto sums up the fish philosophy of Wayne Michelli, owner of the Riverfront Seafood Company Fresh Market and Grill in Kingsport, Tennessee.
Evolving from fish market and live bait shop to one of the region’s most prolific seafood purveyors, Riverfront has built relationships with suppliers throughout the South, assuring customers absolute freshness, whether it’s North Carolina trout or Florida red snapper.
In addition to traditional seafood sides, Riverfront bakes creamed corn in individual ramekins and tops it with crumbs from the restaurant’s homemade croutons.
Riverfront occupies one of the most scenic restaurant spots in the region, on the South Fork of the Holston River.
Riverfront Seafood Company Fresh Market and Grill
1777 Netherland Inn Road