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.

TAGS: Arnold's Country Kitchen- Jack Arnold, Arnold's Country Kitchen- Kahlil, Bolton's Spicy Chicken and Fish, brewery, Dandgure's Classic Southern Cooking, Hap Townes Restaurant, Mayo's Fried Pies and Mahalia Jackson's Chicken, meat and three restaurant, Nashville Eats, pie, Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, restaurant, Swett's, Tennessee, The Pie Wagon, Wendell Smith Restaurant, Yazoo Brewing Company