We returned from Little Rock, Arkansas last night. My sister got married this past weekend. It was a beautiful thing. When people in love truly compliment one another, it is a pleasure to see them not only realize how well they fit together, but also to see them demonstrate that understanding by getting married - which is why everyone truly in love should be able to get married. But that's a post for another day when I'm feeling rancorous.
Today, I am feeling...yucky. It took two days to get to Arkansas and another two to get back. And I don't know if you know this about us, but we are not wealthy people. This means, we can't spend $100/day on food. So, the way home was spent cobbling together cold meals eaten straight from the Kroger bag. Don't get me wrong, today's still-digesting doughnuts (burf!) will be next week's fond memory, but today, they are still digesting.
We did have two splurge meals on the trip, though. One on the way down and one on the way home. Both were eaten at landmark eating establishments in Tennessee and both we had visited before - at least parts of us had. But one was a luxury and one was crap. Dualism, shall we ever escape your two-fisted grasp?
The Loveless Cafe in Nashville is a true treat. It's been there forever and is still a place well worth stopping. The biscuits are yummy. The people are sweet. And the atmosphere is eclectic enough to be interesting without stooping to country cliche. Yes, you may find an enamelware ladle on the wall, but it belongs there. It's not just tossed up with a candle and a cracker box to evoke a place that may have been, but never really was a la Cracker Barrel.
The Loveless Cafe has parlayed its stature as a well-known down-home eatery into all kinds interesting and worthwhile ventures. There's a thriving gift shop and on-line business as well as a great many shops surrounding the cafe in what was formerly the adjacent motel. There is even a new barn built to host events. All of these are examples of how the owners of the Loveless took what they had - a reputation for good food, an empty motel and an outparcel of land - and made the most of it. They didn't raze the building and build a big new, shiny structure and start making their biscuits from a mix straight off the Sysco truck. They took their uniqueness in the industry and branded it, making their identity in the quirk rather than eliminating it.
What started out as a family selling hot meals from their own kitchen to travelers has become a multi-generational business that still shines and becomes more of itself with every year.
Brooks Shaw's Old Country Store at Casey Jones Village in Jackson, however, yeah, they didn't do that.
I don't know what that place used to be. David went there once 20 years ago and remembers it fondly, but twenty is a lot of years and the shine's done gone off that apple...and it went about 19-and-a-half years ago. It just goes to show you can instruct your employees to answer the phone, "Hey, Y'all!" but it's kind of hollow if they follow it up by being asses.
Maybe it's just the nature of a buffet that brings out the worst in both people and food. When you can get all that you can conceivably carry back to your table, people tend to hover like vultures over a splattered opossum, snapping their serving tongs, grabbing up each piece of "Cracklin' Corn Bread"...not because they are hungry, but just because it's there and they can. No food - aside from Brunswick Stew and apple butter, both cooked outstide over a flame - tastes better out of a vat.
I grew up on country cooking. Some of my fondest memories are of my granmother's pinto beans steaming in a bowl flanked by a generous brick of her cornbread. I don't know which fat tasted better, what was floating in the pot liquor or what was soaking into the bread. It's not the milieu I object to, not at all.
I love fried green tomatoes.
I love fried okra.
In fact, I love just about anything that started off green and ended battered and deep-fried.
Mashed potatoes, all the better.
Did you say navy beans? I say, "Don't forget about me."
Turnip greens? Good Lord.
And I got to eat all of those things at the Old Country Store. At least, they rather resembled those things, but they didn't really taste like them and my gut was heavy with regret. Still is. And that banana pudding...well, it sounded good and that was about all the good that could be wrung out of it.
Brooks Shaw's Old Country Store is surrounded by a make-believe village built around the legend of a man that died a tragic death in a train wreck caused by the elevation of a timetable over the value of human life. And the buffet at the Old Country Store is a further manifestation of that misalignment in priorities. There, you can eat as much as you can waddle out with still in you. And you can buy as much faux-country-store paraphrenalia as you can hold, but when you stop and really think about it, did you ever really want all that? And did you enjoy it? Did it enrich your life? Or did it just fill you with regret and flatulence?
It's one thing when David and I, barely erect after a meal, say, "Never again." But when the children, 6 and 9, echo the setiment, then you know that was a dinner gone horribly, horribly wrong.
But then, the business itself was thriving. The parking lot was full and we even waited in line to get seated. (And doesn't that just burn you up? When you wait in line for something that's just bad.) And it wasn't cheap, either. And I may be a fat girl, but I am a fat girl who eats with the skinny people. I cannot for the life of me understand how any human person could return for seconds...or thirds...or fourths. Where I was totally overwhelmed by the sheer volume of food available on my one and only trip to the trough, David overheard a woman seated next to us complain to the waiter that there was "hardly anything on there" to eat.
When we left, our fellow diners, many of whom were surrounded by spent red buffet plates when we arrived, were still making the pilgrimage to the buffet and back again. And like I said, it is pretty clear to look at me that eating too much is something of which I am undeniably guilty, but damn. No one in the world needs to have five plates of "dinner" followed by every dessert.
To get to the eating area, you have to walk through the country store part of the Old Country Store. And I guess it's alright. It's full of stuff - a bunch of bulk candy and cookbooks and electrified lanterns that are made to look like they run on kerosene, children's plastic toy trains, pop guns and "hillbilly" crap.
There wasn't a thing in there that a person would actually need, which is what a real country store would have been full of. Unless you actually have a use of the bisected mug that reads, "Well, you said you only wanted a half a cup of coffee!"
It's like, in America, we've become an imitation of ourselves. We go to places with the word "Old" in the name and call it historical... as if that's how things ever were. Like the foods in the grocery store plastered with claims of the health to be aquired within, if they have to shout it so loud, that's probably because they are lying. The past was not rife with opportunities for gluttony or cheap, plastic crap from China. Food was hardwon from the soil and goods were dear, not disposable.
We fill ourselves up with bad food that should taste good if you look at all the calories, fat, salt and sugar involved, but it doesn't.We, however, are so duped we think it's tasty and end up with diabetes and heart disease. And what if we all just blew our minds a little bit and eschewed the white bread and baked our own from whole grains or made a commitment to authenticity in everything at home and abroad.
This is where Wal-Mart comes in, seductress that she is with her tantalizing prices and more-is-better philosophy. They've figured us Americans out and mass-produced a middle-class lifestyle of coordinating hand towels and soap dispensers that make those of us who are struggling financially look like we are doing alright, at least in the bathroom. And now, we're hooked on appearing wealthy with jack to back it up.
Hey, even though I didn't talk about gay marriage, it seems I got my rancor-on after all. Nice. I wrote through nap-time again and now need to vacuum around Willoughby. But that's alright. The dirt in my house is real dirt we came by honestly, the old fashioned way.
If you're out traveling Tennessee way on I40, do stop in at the Loveless Cafe. You won't regret it. The Old Country Store at Casey Jones Village? Do yourself a favor and just keep on driving. You've already been there a hundred times a hundred other places...and you didn't like it then, either.