Nashville Eats

New Orleans Eats - Tabasco Guardian's Skillet

Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition: Nashville, TN

On August 11, 2006, the SFA awarded Guardian of the Tradition Awards to Andre Jeffries, E. W. Mayo, David Swett, and Hap Townes. And, of course, we collected their stories.

In 2012, Tandy Wilson, Tyler Brown, and Sean Brock led a charge to drum up support for the SFA in Nashville. With the funds raised at this first gathering, we knew we wanted to give back to Music City by further exploring its meat-n-three tradition. We collected more oral history interviews, and Nashville is now an official host of our Stir the Pot dinner series.

Thank you, Nashville. Here are your stories behind the food.

Mystery of the Meat-and-Three Mecca
By John T. Edge

For years I have tried to make sense of why Nashville is so blessed with great plate lunch places, why this middle Tennessee town is a meat ‘n’ three mecca, with more than a half-dozen great restaurants to choose from, while cities of equal or larger size—say Atlanta or Birmingham or Charlotte—can claim only a couple or three truly great lunch spots.

And then it hit me: Nashville is a country-come-to-town kind of town, drawing backwoods pickers and small-town singers to Music City like bees to a hive. Out of the hills and hollers of Appalachia they came, guitars slung over their shoulders, dreams of a date at the Grand Ole Opry dancing in their heads. And with them came a host of friends and family, in town to trade in the city’s markets or visit their congressman at the state capitol. Doesn’t it stand to reason that they brought along a taste for the foods of their birth, the foods of the hills– salt-cured ham and skillet-fried corn, kettles of cabbage and pones made of sweet potato? And what is a meat-and-three restaurant after all? I mused. Why it’s nothing more than country cooking come to town, the noonday groaning board feast replicated for the modern age.

It was a good theory, or so I thought until I tried it out on my friend John Egerton, author of the wonderful book, Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History. Back in 1987 he had pondered the same question and come up wanting. Kind man that he is, John let me down gently. “I like the theory,” he said. “But it just won’t hold water, especially when you think about a town like Birmingham that drew people from the surrounding rural areas to work in the steel mills and coal fields. Why don’t they have the same tradition of meat ’n’ three restaurants? No, I think this is the kind of thing you just thank your lucky stars for, the kind of blessing you chalk up to unearned grace.”

And as for hot chicken, here’s a primer:

Nashville is the only American city where an appreciation for hot fried chicken can reach fullest flower. Here, devotees take pride in the fact that, while Buffalo wings owe their piquancy to a toss in sauce, the fire in local chicken comes at you from any number of sources, including one or more of the following: a dose of cayenne in the frying oil, a splash of Tabasco in the batter, a dash of powdered habanero in the breading, a sprinkle of dried and powdered pepper atop the finished bird, even a sluice of pepper-infused oil on the pickles that crown that same bird.

In Nashville, at least among the drinking class, folks appreciate the kind of heat that compels you to grab the Physician’s Desk Reference, thumbing wildly for a passage that differentiates between second and third degree burns.

Prince’s Hot Chicken is the local fave for their four-in-the-morning weekend closing times; for their devotion to gargantuan iron skillets from which emerge some of the crispest, savoriest chicken around; for the architectural precision with which they stack a quarter-chicken atop two slices of white bread, crowning the whole affair with a couple or three pickle slices; and for their heavy hand with the pepper wand, their tendency to swab a thigh with enough hot stuff to prod a drunken patron into a stunned semblance of sobriety.


JOHN T. SCOTT 1940-2007
It is with great sadness that we note the passing of artist John T. Scott. Mr. Scott, a native of New Orleans and recipient of a prestigious McArthur “Genius” Fellowship, created the print we use to celebrate the life and work of our Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition.


Interviews conducted by John Egerton, Amy C. Evans, Jennifer Justus, Mary Beth Lasseter, Ronni Lundy, and Joe York.

Interviews

Arnold's Country Kitchen - Jack Arnold

Arnold’s Country Kitchen – Jack

Born on a kitchen table in 1937 at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Jack Arnold must have been destined for the food business. Coming from a long line of home cooks, Arnold shined shoes at a local farmers market before taking his first restaurant job washing dishes as a teenager at his hometown diner.

Arnold’s Country Kitchen - Kahlil Arnold - Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition: Nashville, TN - Nashville Eats

Arnold’s Country Kitchen – Kahlil

Kahlil picked up his chops in the kitchen from longtime cooks, busboys, and of course his father. And though he keeps one foot firmly planted in the tradition of the place with mainstays on the menu like the roast beef and turnip greens, you’ll also find Kahlil’s personal spin on dishes as he carries Arnold’s Country Kitchen into the future.

Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish - Dolly Bolton - Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition: Nashville, TN - Nashville Eats

Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish

The late Bolton Polk had a family recipe for spicy fried chicken and used it to open The Chicken Shack in East Nashville in the 1980s. Bolton’s chicken—and his wife’s chess pies—was a hit. But Bolton took ill, and the restaurant closed in the 1990s. Before he passed, Bolton shared his hot chicken recipe with his nephew, Bolton Matthews.

Dandgure’s Classic Southern Cooking - Dandgure "Dan" Robinson - Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition: Nashville, TN - Nashville Eats

Dandgure’s Classic Southern Cooking

Everybody knows about Dan Robinson’s homestyle cafeteria, Dandgure’s, just outside of downtown Nashville. Since 1991, Dan has served his smothered chicken, fried cabbage, fresh greens, strawberry shortcake, skillet corncakes and “The Best Lemonade in Town” to an ever-evolving clientele.

Hap Townes Restaurant - Hap Townes - Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition: Nashville, TN - Nashville Eats

Hap Townes Restaurant

In pretty much the same manner for almost sixty-five years, the two Hap Towneses of Nashville, father and son, served up Southern home cooking to a long line of faithful and appreciative customers. Hap the elder started the tradition in 1921 with a curbside eatery on wheels, literally a movable feast. Hap the younger took up the spoon and spatula when he returned form the war in 1946.

Mayo's Fried Pies and Mahalia Jackson's Chicken - E. W. Mayo - Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition: Nashville, TN - Nashville Eats

Mayo’s Fried Pies and Mahalia Jackson’s Chicken

E. W. Mayo built Mayo’s Fried Pies and Mahalia Jackson’s Chicken as a culinary tribute to his favorite singer, and he’s been serving chicken livers and fried pies six days a week ever since. His headquarters on Buchanen Street in North Nashville boasts a large kitchen, but customer space is limited to a small foyer.

Prince's Hot Chicken Shack - André Prince Jeffries - Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition: Nashville, TN - Nashville Eats

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack

The line at Prince’s Hot Chicken can be longer at 10 p.m. than at lunchtime. Owner André Prince Jeffries calls it a “late night” place. They don’t advertise and haven’t in the past eighteen years, but word of mouth has allowed customers to keep up with Prince’s as they’ve moved locations throughout the city.

Swett's - David Swett, Jr. - Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition: Nashville, TN - Nashville Eats

Swett’s

Swett’s has been an icon of the Nashville meat-n-three scene since 1954, but the business did not begin as a soul food restaurant. In fact, the family didn’t intend to go into the restaurant business at all when they began. Walter and Susie Swett arrived to Nashville in 1920 and opened a tavern.

The Pie Wagon - David Biggs - Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition: Nashville, TN - Nashville Eats

The Pie Wagon

David Biggs might have a thing for music — but he also has a thing for meat-n-threes. David grew up amidst the rich music culture of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and later followed the tunes to Nashville where he worked in both the music and restaurant industries. He purchased the 1920s-era Mack’s Cafe when he was only 33.

Wendell Smith Restaurant - Jakie Cook - Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition: Nashville, TN - Nashville Eats

Wendell Smith Restaurant

Born in 1933, Jakie Cook was the son-in-law of Wendell Smith, Sylvan Park entrepreneur and founder of the eponymous Wendell Smith Restaurant and adjacent businesses. Jakie came on as a clerk in the liquor store in 1958, a few years after marrying Wendell’s daughter, Beverly.

Yazoo Brewing Company

Yazoo Brewing Company

There, amidst walls covered with their favorite Delta folk art, Linus and Lila serve their specialty beers with a menu of local breads and cheeses. “Beer and cheese” may not initially have the same ring as “wine and cheese,” but it’s all a part of the Yazoo plan to elevate the concept of beer as a pairing with good food. “When you have good beer and good food, the flavors marry very well,” says Linus.