There is a legend born deep within the mountains of East Tennessee. Outsiders who have traveled to those hills tell tales of pancake houses, mass-produced dinner shows, and chain restaurants. At least that’s what I read on the chowhound.com travel boards about the final leg of our spring break journey. I would not go hungry, but I was not expecting much, either. However, a glimmer of hope remained, and I am pleased to testify that you can eat well in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge if you try.
We timed our arrival in Pigeon Forge to meet The Parents and Friends at the Old Mill Restaurant. Last time we ate there I arrived not-too-hungry, ate anyway, and left all-too-miserable. I was determined not to do that again, and this time I showed some degree of restraint. This was no easy feat — the Old Mill puts on a big spread. I went non-traditional (for me) and ordered spare ribs and sauerkraut, and I am in debt to the pig who spared his (or her) ribs for me. Just that would have been sufficient, but with most meals they also serve homemade corn chowder, fritters, salad, green beans, mashed potatoes and dessert. Should you go, I recommend running a few laps around the parking lot before dinner to balance out the intake. You certainly won’t be able to walk very far afterwards.
Full as I was (not miserable, but a smidge beyond comfortable), Daddy and I set out for a grocery run later that evening. As we turned onto the highway, I saw the “Hot Donuts Now!” sign light up at Krispy Kreme across the street. Naturally, I made a beeline for the parking lot, expecting (as most Krispy Kremes do when the sign turns red) to be given a hot, glazed, and gratis ring of dough-liciousness. I was disappointed to learn that this particular franchise did not play by the same rules. But I was already there and the donuts were still hot, so I bought a dozen and finished one off before exiting the lot. I’m all about freshness, and it had been at least thirty minutes since I had last eaten — it was safe to get in the pool again.
The next day for lunch we went to the Wild Plum Tea Room, a little wooden house on the Craft Loop in Gatlinburg. The first thing they brought to the table was a basket of Plum Walnut muffins. I’m usually turned off by nuts in muffins, but these seemed to have a toasted texture, therefore tolerable, and with the plum jelly spread liberally on them, I was won over. The side salads that day were a dilled pea with horseradish (not a bad way to make the English pea more palatable) and a collard green salad of blanched greens, red onion and a balsamic vinaigrette. (If you’re going to eat your collards cold, this is a pretty good way to do it.) My entrée was a lobster-artichoke pie with a puff pastry shell — the last one they had that day. To wash it all down, I had the Wild Plum iced tea, a citrus-flavored drink with notes of plum flavor, or so I thought. Turns out not a single plum ever got near that tea pitcher, but it reminded me of my Granny’s iced tea, and I guzzled a good bit of it.
Brother and Family arrived later that weekend, and after a hard day at the outlets — and nothing but a Corky’s barbecue sandwich to tide us over — the 10 of us descended upon the Bullfish Grill. The Parents had already eaten there once that week (they were our advance team — no scandals reported) and were so impressed they suggested we all go back. Our starter, aside from the hot, dense loaf of bread that The Parents raved about, was a dish of deep-fried asparagus. Regular readers know that I am always on the lookout for new things to enjoy breaded and fried. This one was a winner, and you could almost taste the asparagus. My entrée was also a variation on one of my favorite themes: shrimp and grits. Their translation of the low-country dish included lightly-breaded shrimp, bacon, mushrooms, baby spinach, green onion and red pepper spooned generously over stone-ground cheese grits. It was a little tangy and a bit on the salty side, but hey — that’s what sweet tea is for.
We closed the week out at the Applewood Farmhouse, another big spread in Sevierville that has satisfied our palates several times before. We missed the breakfast hour by just a few minutes, but we managed to find something to eat, anyway. I could have been pretty happy just munching on the apple fritters slathered with apple butter and washed down with the apple julep. (You get the theme, right?) But no, that would have been too smart. I moved on from the apple-tizers to a vegetable quiche — about as light as I could get aside from the salads. Wife and Son rolled the dice on chicken pot pies, which spread out almost beyond the plates they were served on. Thankfully they were not as deep as they were wide.
You’re probably wondering if we ate any sweets besides the donuts, and indeed we did. The dessert special at the Wild Plum Tea Room was a tasty amaretto bread pudding, and the Applewood Farm candy shop always gets a visit. When it was downtime back at the cabin, we worked on a Sugaree’s Rainbow layer cake I had carefully brought from home. Like I said, there was a glimmer of hope that we would find good food in “them thar hills,” but it doesn’t hurt to hedge your bets now and then.
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 email@example.com .