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From hillbilly to hermitage

March 27, 2012

Nashville, Tenn. — Music City, U.S.A. This spring break was my first trip to Nashville proper in decades. The last time I went, I spent the entire day in the Opryland amusement park and rode the Wabash Cannonball roller coaster. This time I took a 15-minute boat road through the Opryland Hotel — and I think it cost about the same. That childhood trip with my maternal grandparents did not generate a lot of food memories — those were the days when I was still young enough to be thrilled by a trip to McDonald’s. In fact, the one intact food memory that may be from that trip is Pappy’s surprising decision to allow Little Brother to eat a patty of sausage and an order of fries for breakfast, no less. This year’s trip was (as the cool kids used to say) way different.

Our first full day in the big city was a day of extremes. We were staying in a place that was equipped with a kitchen and was also a bit off the beaten path. In other words, any breakfast provided was provided by us, and we had not yet made it to the grocery. However, I did partake in a little convenience store grazing on the way there, picking up unique, interesting and highly processed foods that I would not ordinarily purchase on the fly. So breakfast was something of a redneck buffet: blue GoGurt mixed with my homemade granola (brought from home), followed with a package of Mrs. Freshley’s Banana Pudding Cupcakes. I had been eyeing the fancy cupcakes in a variety of locations for quite some time and allowed myself the indulgence, being on vacation and all.
The GoGurt added moisture to the granola — that’s about all I can say. And Mrs. Freshley makes a tolerable cupcake. I’m glad I tried it. I wonder no more. If you want a satisfying processed cupcake, I say stick with the orange cream-filled ones from Hostess. But if you are looking for a true banana pudding experience in a cupcake form, I suggest you keep looking.

After the Clampetts got sufficiently organized to leave the house, we loaded up the truck (er, van) and headed into Music City. I think we might have done something touristy before eating again, but I don’t remember. Actually, I think we just took our time getting out of the house, and ended up going straight to lunch just so we wouldn’t miss the window of opportunity at the restaurant I had chosen. 

Today we were headed to the Capitol Grille, the house restaurant for the historic Hermitage Hotel, right in the heart of downtown Nashville. And if we felt like hillbillies in the privacy of our own lodging, we really did now. We were not dressed inappropriately, just comfortably, but this was a white-tablecloth restaurant in the same neighborhood as banking behemoths and state government buildings with columns and everything. Almost everybody in the place had on a coat and tie. The hostess was reassuring, however, telling us that she had seen guests come down to eat in their bathrobes. Though Daughter did go fishing in her bathrobe the next morning, she was not wearing it at the moment, and we were seated with virtually no discernible funny looks. 

I chose the Capitol Grille for several reasons. First, I had run into Chef Tyler Brown at the last Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, or at least experienced some of his cooking, thus was confident he knew what he was doing in the kitchen. We would eat well. I was also intrigued by what I had learned about his kitchen garden. Just a few miles from the hotel, Chef Brown morphs into Farmer Brown and grows fresh produce (and raises beef) that he serves in the restaurant. We would eat sustainably. The strongest reason, however, that I was determined to eat lunch there (as opposed to dinner) was for his chicken-fried steak. “Southern Living” had recently featured Chef Brown’s recipe for chicken-fried steak with Uncle Ellis’ cornmeal gravy in an article about updating comfort foods. We would eat literarily. 

When they brought it out, it was one of the biggest pieces of chicken-fried steak I had ever seen live and in person. The multiple servers that were bringing out our lunch plates all had something to say about it. As it was set in front of me, the waitress said she had never seen the kitchen produce a piece that big, then paused and said, “Winner!” And I was. The girth of the meat just allowed me to share a few bites around the table without hesitation. The crust, I confess, would have been pretty good on its own — rest assured, not a crumb was left. But the meat was also tender, which is not always the case with run-of-the-mill chicken-fried steak. It was served over a fabulous sweet potato and butternut squash hash, cooked with caramelized onions and some flavorful herbs. Though the hash was completely hidden at first by the enormous piece of steak, once found, it was a sweet complement to the savory steak, all of which was brought together by the cornmeal gravy. From now on, my motto will be, “Winner, winner, chicken-fried steak dinner.”

Other highlights of the lunch: Daughter got chicken tenders and actually enjoyed them, despite the fact that our lunch table was not illuminated by glowing golden arches. Son ate a Tennessee Double-Stack Burger dressed with bacon marmalade. Yet another way to make something better with bacon, I guess. Wife’s club sandwich didn’t just have ham and turkey — it had country ham and a thick chunk of turkey breast. 

We all ate well, then proceeded on to do something else touristy, I suppose. I forget. I think we went in search of the Antique Archeology store, where there was actually nothing to eat. Go figure. 

Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist.  The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff.  He    welcomes your comments at eatsoneate@gmail.com.

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