- Beth Ellis & Bryan Santos
Dinner in Nashville
Hot Chicken Wings
Nashville is famous for hot chicken. Legend has it that an angry lover tried to exact revenge on Thornton Prince III for his cheating ways (he was married five times, and reputedly always on the lookout for the next wife!), and so she covered his beloved fried chicken in a mix of fiery spices. Rather than being tortured, though, Prince loved the chicken so much that he opened a restaurant featuring it in the mid-1930s. The chicken caught on like wildfire! It makes people sweat and cry and laugh hysterically, but its cult following just keeps growing. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is still operated by his great-niece, and ships hot chicken all over the world. Today, there are “hot-chicken” versions of everything from pizza to ice cream, and the Music City Hot Chicken Festival celebrated its 15th year this summer. The hot chicken we’re bringing you today, while not fried like the original, is dry-brined, roasted, and seasoned with our own blend of spices for a smoky, sweet, and spicy finish! Try it with a biscuit and some dill pickles if you’d like to cut the heat a little. (No gluten, no dairy.)
The word “biscuit” comes from the Latin “bis coctus”, which means “twice baked.” In the days of the Roman Empire, bread was baked once and then dried at low temperature to create a hard and sturdy food that could accompany soldiers on long marches. There were no leavening agents, and the biscuits were the precursors to the hard tack that sustained sea voyagers beginning in the 17th century. This food has little in common with the fluffy Southern biscuits of today. A golden, buttery biscuit, steam emanating from the top, is an iconic image of Southern cookery, and Nashville takes great pride in its biscuits. There are several biscuit houses - including the Loveless Café, Biscuit Love, and Rise - that specialize in baking these beloved breads. Southern bakers will tell you that the secret to fluffy biscuits is using soft red winter wheat flour, which is lower in protein and gluten than the hard wheat flour that is available in the northern states. We’ve done our research, though, and managed a pretty good Southern biscuit, if we do say so ourselves! (Contains gluten, dairy.)
Cornmeal Crusted Pork Chops with Tomato Gravy
Nashville is the home of the Southern tradition of “meat and three” - a quick plate lunch where diners go through a cafeteria line to select a main meat (like fried chicken, catfish, meatloaf etc.), and three vegetable sides (like okra, green beans, sautéed greens etc.). The tradition started at the employee cafeteria of the May Hosiery Mill in the 1930s (back when the meal cost a quarter!), spread throughout the south and now has come to define what we Northerners tend to think of as soul food / comfort food / Southern food. The hills and hollers of Tennessee, though fertile, did not lend themselves to sprawling agriculture. Hence, most of the farms are historically small and diverse, relying on chickens and hogs which were easiest and cheapest to raise. For this dish we take large pork chops and brine them in buttermilk and mustard overnight. We then give them a good coating in spiced cornmeal and bake until juicy. The pork chops are coated with a tomato gravy (no, not like Italian tomato sauce!) made with bacon drippings and cornmeal. Tennessee, and especially Grainger County, is known for its amazing tomato harvest and is actually where we source all our tomatoes! (Contains dairy; no gluten.)
Chef Sean’s Mac and Cheese
Though the traditional “meat and three” meant one meat and three vegetable sides, for some purely Southern reason, mac and cheese (like jello, and cottage cheese) can count toward the “vegetables.” Mac and cheese’s journey from royalty to everyday Southern staple is surprisingly well documented. While pasta is rooted in Italy and this specific cheese sauce in France (it’s technically a Mornay sauce), the dish took off in the US when president Thomas Jefferson and his Monticello cook James Hemings (who was a slave) visited France and Italy. Hemings, who was a classically trained chef in France (and who is often uncredited as being one of the most influential chefs of early American history) recreated the dish and Jefferson began serving it at state dinners. From there it gained popularity as an elite Southern food before the industrialization of dairy products democratized the dish. The version we’re serving to you today is our very own Chef Sean’s secret recipe - cavatappi pasta wrapped in a decadent sauce made of over four different cheeses, topped with sharp cheddar and baked into a luxurious side “veggie.” (Contains gluten, dairy, fish (from the Worcestershire sauce).)
Sweet Corn with Charred Pepper Vinaigrette
Corn, rooted in centuries of pre-Columbian history, is the lifeblood of the Tennessee diet. From cornmeal, to grits, to hominy, to whiskey, to animal feed that allows for a system of agriculture known as corn-hog, there’s no overstating the importance this staple crop has had on both the economy and subsistence of the people of Tennessee. This dish takes advantage of the summer corn season and uses a simple preparation of quickly charred kernels tossed with a light and refreshing lime juice and shishito pepper vinaigrette in order to bring out the inherent sweetness of the corn. (Vegan, no gluten.)
Summer Melon with Country Ham
Cured ham and melon is a combination that originated in the 2nd century CE. In ancient Roman times, cold and juicy foods had to be paired with warm and dry foods in order to remain compatible with the medicinal teachings of humorism (the belief that health revolved around the four humors, or essential fluids, of the body - Google it if you really want to get into it with your melon salad!) Though prosciutto did not exist yet, to say nothing of Southern country ham, salted meat was often paired with juicy fruit. Prosciutto and melon is a classic Italian combination, and in this Southern iteration, we’ve paired sweet summer honeydew and cantaloupe with salty country ham. Country ham is a ubiquitous presence in Southern cooking, though the preparations vary throughout the South. It makes sense that early pioneers would have cured ham in much the same way that ancient Romans and Greeks did, in an effort to preserve protein in the absence of refrigeration. The pork is salted in the late fall, and a properly cured ham can last for two or three years. The melon is tossed in a honey and peanut oil vinaigrette and is garnished with spicy roast peanuts. (Contains peanuts; no gluten, no dairy.)
Jack Daniel’s Caramel Chess Pie
Chess pie is part of a tradition dating back to frontier days, when bakers “made do” with whatever pantry ingredients they had on hand - usually staples like flour, butter, eggs, vinegar, and sugar, while fruits and nuts were more rare. It is sometimes grouped under the heading of “sugar pies” or “transparent pies”, along with buttermilk pie and pecan pie. The boundaries are not clear, and different regions lay claim to various iterations of the pies throughout the South. Chess pie, though, is a classic, and minimal in its list of ingredients: eggs, sugar, butter, vinegar and cornmeal. Even under the heading of chess pie, though, there are variations: chocolate chess pie, lemon chess pie, orange chess pie, and (gasp!) chess pie without cornmeal! If you use milk? Then it’s not a transparent pie… it’s more likely a sugar pie. Unless the milk you used was buttermilk… in which case it’s a buttermilk pie. In any case, chess pie is a favorite, and if you’re wondering about the name, there’s not a clear background on that either. There are many origin stories - many of them based on misheard words (maybe “chess” is actually “just”, as in “it’s just pie”; or maybe “chess” is actually “chest”, as in “the pie is in the pie chest”; or maybe “chess” is actually “cheese” in a reference to the similarly hardy cheese and onion pies of northwest England). No matter the origin of the name, this pie has nothing to do with the game of chess. It’s supremely sweet, pale golden in color, and beloved throughout the South. For this menu, we’ve added a dash of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey to the pie, and cooked up a Jack Daniel’s whiskey caramel sauce to drizzle over it. The Jack Daniel’s distillery is located not far outside of Nashville, and the legacy of whiskey distillation in the South is too broad and full of intrigue for us to tackle here! (Contains gluten, egg, dairy.)
Sweet Peach Ice Tea
Sweet peach iced tea is about as Southern as it gets and is perfect for this end-of-summer Nashville menu! While tea is obviously popular around the world, the concept of ICED tea is uniquely American. Green tea was originally brought to South Carolina in the late eighteenth century and as early as the mid-1800s there were popular recipes for iced green tea and alcoholic punches. But the popularity of the drink took off at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis when Richard Blechynden (who is often mistakenly credited with inventing the beverage) brewed black tea and then cooled it over ice to combat the summer heat. Regardless of origin, nowadays it's a staple at any BBQ or get together. Take advantage of the last bit of peach season and take a look at the Featured Recipe Section to make your own!
Available at A&L Wine Castle
Nothing ends this meal better than a pour or two of Tennessee Whiskey. While most Tennessee whiskeys are technically the same as bourbon, the real deal can 1) only be produced in the state of Tennessee and 2) follow the Lincoln County Process for filtering the whiskey before aging. This is when the whiskey is filtered through (or steeped in) charcoal chips and is named after the town where the original Jack Daniel’s distillery was located.
A&L has about 8-10 Tennessee Whiskeys available, but we recommend Nelson’s Green Brier ($35) made in Nashville. Prior to prohibition, this was the largest brand of Tennessee whiskey in the world, defining the product nationally and internationally. Now, nearly a century later, his great-great-great grandsons have revived the original recipe and with notes of cinnamon, vanilla, and caramel we’re happy they did.
When you think “Nashville”, you probably think “country music”, and when you think “Nashville food”, you probably think “fried chicken.” You’re not wrong on either count, but Nashville is so much more than country music and fried chicken.
Native Americans first settled in central Tennessee about 12,000 years ago, hunting and gathering from the area’s productive forests and streams. Around 3000 BCE, agriculture began with the growing of gourds and squash, and eventually corn and beans. There is little documentation of these tribes, but burial mounds and ceremonial sites remain around the state. With the first European explorers came disease that likely wiped out these prehistoric people, clearing the path for the Cherokee and Chickasaw people to move into the region in the early 1700s. The European fur trade and further demands for land and resources eventually meant that by the 1840s, very few native people remained in the area (more on this history in the resources below). Tennessee gained statehood in 1796, and its economy and population grew rapidly, largely due to a flourishing agriculture industry that relied heavily on slavery. The fertile rolling hills of central Tennessee were an ideal environment in which to grow cotton, tobacco, and corn.
Nashville itself was founded in 1779 on the Cumberland River, and became the state capital in 1843. It is among the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the entire country. A huge portion of the city’s population are transplants - the city draws a mix of creatives, makers, and entrepreneurs. It is an emphatically racially and ethnically diverse city, and a recent city-commissioned report predicts that Nashville will be a “majority minority” city within 20 years. In 2019, Tennessee ranked 18th in the nation in terms of refugee resettlement, with the vast majority of those refugees settling in the Nashville metropolitan area. The city is more socially progressive than most of the surrounding state, but not without racial tension, of course. Nashville has a long history of civil rights protest, integration, and coalescence. In the 1960s, the Nashville lunch counter protests and Looby House bombing led to the successful desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters, making it the first major Southern city to begin desegregation of public spaces. More recently, a 2020 march against police violence and white supremacy - organized by six teenaged women - drew over 10,000 people, making it the largest such march in the city’s history.
Nashvillians pride themselves on being welcoming - to travelers and visitors, refugees, doers, and dreamers. There are countless stories of people providing nourishment and support to those in need - serving food on the side of the road, from food trucks and cafes, and from their own homes. During disasters and difficult times (of which Nashville has had more than its fair share over the last two years, including floods, tornadoes, a bombing, derecho thunderstorms, and of course, the pandemic), Nashvillians come together to share food and encouragement. Recently transplanted chefs (of which there is no shortage, as Nashville is becoming more and more of a food scene) tell of the welcome they have received for their newly established restaurants and endeavors.
Southern cooks often talk about the ability (and need to) “make do.” If you don’t have the ingredients you had hoped for, have to cook for more people than you had planned, need to provide for neighbors in the event of a calamity - you just have to “make do”, and therein lies an ingenuity and resourcefulness that still characterizes the more contemporary population of Nashville today. Southern cooks have passed recipes down from generation to generation, often with very little eye to precise measurement (instead using pinches, hairs, and palmfuls). Of course, this is changing in Nashville today, but the culture persists, and families and restaurants guard their recipes quite seriously. Unlike the canning-curing-smoking-salting preservation of Appalachian cooking, and the barbecue of Memphis, middle Tennessee does not have a strongly defined cuisine. Rather, it is an intermingling of Southern influences, fresh produce, and farm-raised meats. Two of Nashville’s food legacies include hot chicken and the “meat and three” plate, and we’re bringing them both to you on this menu.
So there you have it! Music City has got so much more than music going on! You can read about its music industry in a gazillion different places (we’ve got some links in the resources below), but our Spotify playlist will also give you a good window into the scene. This menu is curated to help kickstart your Labor Day celebration, so kick back, put that music on, and dig in to this delicious Southern meal!
Featured Recipe: Summer Melon Salad
Serves 8 people
For the vinaigrette:
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
2 tbsp high quality, unrefined peanut oil
For the salad:
2 2lb melons, quartered, rind removed, and cut into 1 inch cubes (we used ~500g cantaloupe and ~500g honey dew, but you can use any combination you like)
2 tsp grated lime zest
8-10 very thin slices of country ham (available at Zingerman’s)
½ cup roasted peanuts
In a small bowl add the honey, vinegar, salt and pepper and whisk to incorporate. While whisking continuously, slowly drizzle in the peanut oil and blend until emulsified.
Combine the melon pieces, lime zest, and the vinaigrette in a large bowl and gently toss to combine. Top with country ham and peanuts
Featured Recipe: Sweet Peach Iced Tea
Makes 8 cups
Adapted from the Minimalist Baker:
220 g / 1 cup cane sugar
1 cup water
2 ripe peaches, thinly sliced
1-2 tbsp loose leaf black tea (or 2-3 tea bags, depending on how strong you prefer it)
8 cups water
1 ripe peach for garnish
Bring sugar, water, and peaches to a boil in a small saucepan. Then lower heat and use a wooden spoon to stir and crush the peaches to infuse the flavor.
Once the sugar is dissolved, cover, remove from heat and let steep for 25-30 minutes.
Meanwhile, brew the tea by boiling the remaining water and then adding the tea.
Once brewed, remove tea bags or strain out loose leaf tea and transfer to a pitcher. Refrigerate to cool.
Once your simple syrup is finished, pour into a bottle or container over a fine mesh strainer to strain out peaches.
Combine the peach syrup with the tea to taste. We prefer our tea sweet, so we only mixed about 6 cups of the tea with all the syrup.
Serve over ice and garnish with a peach wedge
Recipes Inspired By:
Heritage and South, both by Chef Sean Brock (check him out on Netflix) is on a mission to revive Southern ingredients.
Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking by Toni Tipton-Martin.
Chris’ YouTube channel has a ton of great recipes, and seriously check out Joshua Weissman’s “But Better” video series.
More information on the Native American history of middle Tennessee.
An analysis of refugee resettlement across the United States, with state rankings.
Details on the lunch counter sit-ins, the Looby House bombing, and other civil rights milestones that occurred in Nashville.
A moving article on the June 15, 2020 Black Lives Matter march, organized by Teens for Equality.
Check out Bourdain’s awesome episode in Nashville, featuring Sean Brock and Alison Mosshart.
My wife and I re-created the Nashville episode of Master of None (season 1, episode 6) a few years back and highly recommend spending a night at a honky-tonk!
Music is a $16 billion per year industry in Nashville, employing over 60,000 people in the Nashville area. It is home to The Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, the Bluebird Cafe, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and countless dive bars and stages where supremely talented musicians play every night in hopes of a big break. If you want to learn more about the history and roots of Nashville’s music scene, the culture of country music, and how it all links to politics and culture today, the 11-part podcast Dolly Parton’s America is an entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking listen. Nashville didn’t only nurture the country music industry - Jefferson Street in the 50s and 60s was the epicenter of a thriving Black music scene in Nashville - Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, and Little Richard all played there. The Everly Brothers were the first major rock and roll act to emerge from Nashville, and helped expand the music scene to what it is today - a blend of country, folk, rock, pop, and punk.