From ham to honey, chocolate to cheese, and whiskey to wine, the tastes of Tennessee are much more than its iconic GooGoo Cluster candies, Moon Pie treats, and savory barbecue. Hidden throughout the rolling hills and fertile valleys of the Tennessee River and in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains are Southern food gems that are worth planning a road trip around. A gourmet meander through East Tennessee from Chattanooga to Philadelphia and points in between, with plenty of delicious stops along the way, is packed with flavor and the sort of soul you can only find in handmade products.
CHATTANOOGA: Any journey to East Tennessee should begin among the soaring stone cliffs of Chattanooga’s stunning Bluff View Art District, a lively neighborhood perched high above the banks of the Tennessee River. Here, simply follow the piquant scents wafting from the Back Inn Café for a fabulous meal not soon forgotten. Housed in a Colonial Revival Mansion, the Back Inn Café is among this great Southern city’s most distinctive restaurants, not least because of those incredible views of the river. The global menu changes seasonally, but one can never go wrong with local specialties such as Carolina rainbow trout or Creole shrimp and grits. The food and the view, coupled with an extensive wine list and cocktail choices that include the Chattanooga Whiskey-made 1816 Whiskey Sour, make for a complete and well-rounded Tennessee dining experience.
CHATTANOOGA (part II): Oh, goodness. Make that lots of goodness. Rembrandt’s, a cool little coffee shop nestled in the Bluff View Art District, is warm and inviting, welcoming you with a confectionary perfume, a blend of chocolates, coffees, and nuts. Each delectable treat is a homemade masterpiece, whether it’s a freshly baked loaf of bread, buttermilk biscuit, cup of fragrantly dark coffee, or hand-dipped chocolate. It’s like having all the sweets of Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one place year-round.
SOUTH PITTSBURG: Culinary travel should include more than just cafes and restaurants. And that’s why a trip to East Tennessee should absolutely include a visit to the Lodge Factory Store, a clearinghouse of Lodge cast iron pots and pans. Just about any cook who grew up in the South has at least one Lodge cast iron frying pan in the kitchen; any Southerner's grandmother probably fried untold numbers of chickens to a perfect golden brown in hers. Now sold worldwide, these legendary seasoned pots and pans, undoubtedly among the most durable ever made, come from the oldest family-owned cookware company in the country. While the foundry isn’t always open to the public, tours are held every April during the International Cornbread Festival, a locally beloved event complete with cookoffs, arts and crafts, classic cars, and cornbread eating contests.
PHILADELPHIA: There’s nothing cheesy about Sweetwater Valley Farm in Philadelphia for local Tennessee-made farmstead cheeses that rival those made in France and Switzerland. Truly. The Harrison family has been farming this spot of Tennessee land for generations and they are a model family business to this day. Any member of the family could serve as your tour guide if you want to learn the cheesemaking process from cow to counter. Hundreds of mostly Holsteins roaming the dairy and producing up to 15,000 gallons of milk a day, so chances are pretty good that you’ll see a calf born at the farm. Plus with more than two dozen cheese varieties to choose from--delicacies from cheddar to gouda to Colby and more-- it’s an udderly delicious way to spend a day.
MADISONVILLE: Popping into Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Ham in Madisonville is a hootenanny for the senses. If the sight of all that ham and bacon doesn’t get your mouth watering for a big ol’ country breakfast, then the redolence of it wafting throughout the store will. From this tiny corner of Tennessee, Allen Benton’s gourmet hams and hickory smoked bacon have made their way to some of the finest restaurants from Atlanta to New York and California and all points in between. Makin’ bacon (and ham) is his craft, and he’s quick to give tours showing how he does it, hillbilly-style, right down to the type of wood he uses for smoking the meat. The taste is strong, as it was intended, and Benton jokes that his tasty pork pairs well with Jack Daniels, another famous--or infamous--Tennessee product.
ATHENS: At Mayfield Dairy, you'll be moo-ved to see for yourself just how products such as milk and ice cream are processed for the grocery store and ultimately to the consumer. Famous for its yellow jug packaging that was designed not so much for aesthetics as for protection against light to preserve the flavor of the milk, the dairy offers a look behind the scenes of ice cream-making and the creation of other dairy products. After the tour, you get a scoop of your favorite flavor in the dipping parlor, as well as a chance to snag a Mayfield-inspired tee-shirt or other items from the well-stocked gift shop.
OCOEE: After more than a quarter-century of working with bees, Diane Ravens of Appalachian Bee knows her way around a hive. Her 100% pure honey creations--lusciously sweet artisan foodstuff, handcrafted skincare, and heavenly soaps--are made from the sourwood honey. Counter-intuitive as that may sound, it's actually the premium honey style of the South. Appalachian Bee’s “honey house,” where Ravens works her magic, is surrounded by the mountains and verdant forests of southeastern Tennessee, so her bees have plenty of fragrant, fresh nectar to gather from native plants and flowers.
ENGLEWOOD: Gourmet, it is not. Simple yet different Southern food, it is. The family-owned Tellico Junction Café is known for its eclectic menu items, fried hotdogs and cornbread salad among them. But plenty of folks also come for the chocolate gravy and biscuits. The roots of chocolate gravy--and yes, it’s actually chocolate and not just chocolate-colored--grow long in the region's culinary culture. Just don’t think of it as dessert, because it’s not. Its origins are unknown but just about everyone’s granny in these parts served it at breakfast time and then passed the tradition down to her children and children’s children. Suffice it to say, it's exactly what it sounds like: a “gravy” the consistency of warm chocolate pudding and then poured in heaping amounts over fluffy, handmade biscuits.
CHARLESTON: A little Tennessee vino with a view, anyone? A drive into Morris Vineyard and the Tennessee Mountainview Winery offers views of the Cherokee National Forest and the nearby Appalachians. The family-owned winery, gently rising and falling over 50 acres of Tennessee hillside, grows more than two dozen varieties of muscadines and scuppernongs along with aromatic blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries, all of which are used to produce whites and reds, both sweet and crisp, floral and spicy. The tasting room offers picturesque panoramas where the views seemingly reach all the way into an Appalachian tomorrow.
DELANO: Savannah Oaks Winery is yet another farm winery that has been in the same family for generations. Its showstopper, a cantilever barn built by 40 men in one single day during 1861, is a testament to the durability of Tennessee architecture. This historical masterpiece houses the tasting room, which offers free daily tastings, and gift shop, where you can buy everything from the winery's vino to Amish-made butter. But it’s not all about the wine and history here. There are also activities such as painting classes and music on the tasting room porch. The Savannah Farm, home to the winery, once encompassed an astounding 11,000 acres.
CHATTANOOGA (part III): Yes, the full circle of an East Tennessee food tour ends right back in Chattanooga in the historic ambiance of the terminal station known as the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. This completely unique resort features diverse rooms, including accommodations in an actual Victorian train car. The Choo-Choo hosts several restaurants, the newest of which is Stir. It quickly earned a top ranking among the city’s trendiest cocktail corners thanks in part to drinks made with artisanal ice. But its restaurant is just as stylish. Its ever-changing menu leans classic. Think: seared scallops, plump oysters, and fried shrimp. For dessert, try the banana pudding cheesecake, a rich fusion of two favorite classics and a staple on the menu.
CHATTANOOGA (part IV): The perfect ending of a Tennessee tasting trip might well be hoisting a glass of Chattanooga Stillhouse Whiskey from the Chattanooga Whiskey Co. which is responsible for the first legal whiskey distilled in Chattanooga in over a hundred years, dating back when moonshine was the drink of choice. Chattanooga Whiskey, a young company established only in the spring of 2015, is located in downtown near the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Whiskey lore and legend run as deep as the spring water in Tennessee, and there’s no better place to learn about it all – and raise a dram in their honor – than this place where the next chapter of Chattanooga’s whiskey history begins.