When last we saw our heroine, she was about to embark for the wilds of Nashville, wondering if, for the three days of her stay, she would be doomed to hotel breakfast buffets, conference boxed lunches and dining at evening with large groups eating "cutting edge cuisine" of the sort that just tries way too hard.
Something in her (or in me, actually) rebelled at that prospect, and I was determined to have at least one good regional meal. I had done a bit of research before leaving New York, and had fixed on the Loveless Cafe as my one destination dining locale on this trip. I would go whether others came with me or not.
We landed in Nashville on a stormy afternoon. Two colleagues (one of whom is my site director and therefore my boss) happened to be on my flight. I proposed that they accompany me that very night to the wilds of Highway 100, to seek deep-fried bliss at the Loveless Cafe. They eyed me with skepticism. "We'll see," they said. And a short time later, as I had just gotten installed in my hotel room, a phone call came. "The others are waiting for us," my director said. Our beloved former site director, who now works for our national office, had commanded us to appear with all haste where she and some other colleagues were dining -- at an Italian restaurant in town.
Do I go to Nashville to eat Italian food? I do not. Do I, however, obey the commands of those who are higher up in the, ummm, hierarchy than I? Well, yes, at times I do; when I'm at a conference, at least one, and sometimes two nights out of three. So my first night was spent at a perfectly good sort of so-called Italian restaurant of a certain kind. I suppose if Italian-trendy-fusion were a category, this might be how you'd label it, since the pastas were combinations that no Italian ever invented, and the menu was full of popular dishes that would be anomalies on a true Italian menu. But the food was reasonably good. Even if the bruschetta weren't particularly authentic, and even if no Tuscan has ever made something called "Tuscan-Style Crab Cakes with White Bean Salsa," everything was just fine. My cedar planked fish (another not-so-Italian specialty) was smoky and well-coooked. Most important, the company was sparkling and the conversation, which centered around the the results of the election and its implications for public education, was fascinating.
That was our first night. On our third night, I had been commanded to find a restaurant for a party of ten that would suit everyone -- the healthy eaters, the hearty eaters, the drinkers, the live music aficionados, those who want to shoot the moon, those who don't want to spend too much. Somehow I always get saddled with this completely impossible task at conferences, despite my helpless pleas that writing a food blog does not mean I know where to eat in a strange town. I mean, it's hard to find a place that's decent for a party of ten here in NY. So I got some recommendations and settled on a local place, a restored old house with live jazz and what turned out to be sort of mediocre food. Again, it was the company that counted.
The evening in between, however, I was determined to have my way, alone or accompanied. I was going to go to the Loveless Cafe for meat 'n' three, a true southern institution consisting of a heavy, meaty, often fried main course, two rich side dishes and bread -- usually cornbread or biscuits. It's the sort of meal that I can eat only once in a while, since its heaviness generally makes me feel as if I don't want to eat again for a month. But every now and then, a craving for really good fried chicken arises. And truthfully, really good fried chicken isn't something I know to be available in NYC.
I rushed back to the hotel from a scouting expedition in town, since I was to co-facilitate a writing marathon the following day. I was late, stuck in traffic, and my friends were waiting for me. I'd called the restaurant earlier in the day to find that reservations weren't accepted for parties under 12. During that conversation, everyone at the restaurant called me sweetie. "No, sweetie, no reservations for groups under twelve. But you know, sweetie, call us about an hour before you want to eat and we'll put your name on the list, okay sweetie? What's your name? Julie? Okay, Julie sweetie." It turned out to be a good thing that six of my colleagues wanted to accompany me, since the cab fares back and forth from Highway 100 were a bit daunting. Split between seven of us, however, they were nominal. A few of my cohort were worried about the cuisine we would find. I was honest; I told them that there would be no tofu on the menu, although I'd heard there were salads as well as vegetable plates. Fortunately for them, they decided to come along for the adventure, and had a very good time indeed.
The Loveless Cafe was quite a trek from where we were staying. My colleagues mumbled a bit on the way out as we were stuck once again in some traffic. And when we pulled up in front of the shabby former motel building, they positively looked askance at me. Yes, there were indeed some askance-type glances in my general direction. But once we were seated at checked-gingham tables with hot biscuits, butter, homemade preserves, and waitresses who called us all "sweetie," their savage breasts were soothed. Once we'd ordered (I'd long known that I was going to have the fried chicken, despite the fact that pit-smoked pulled pork, fried catfish and country ham all called out to me as well), my friend Ronni and I made our way to the shop, Hams 'n' Jams, which was still open to catch susceptible tourists (read: suckers) like myself. I loaded up on kitsch and food, feverishly gathering mugs, t-shirts, grits and preserves, all to be somehow fitted into my luggage. Sadly, I gave up on the idea of trying to shove an entire country ham into my suitcase and settled for some vacuum-packed slices. We went back to the restaurant in time for our suppers to be set down piping hot in front of us.
That was some fried chicken that had to have flown down on its crispy little wings directly from heaven. It was my holy grail of chicken -- the kind of chicken where it isn't just the coating that's crisp, but the actual skin is fried to golden crackly crunchiness, and yet underneath lies meat that is so moist, so juicy and tender that it defies cliché -- even the breast meat. And, of course, it's seasoned to perfection, simply, nothing interfering with the pure flavor of chicken fried in what are probably ham or bacon drippings. Or maybe just plain, good ol' lard. (I'm sure you'll all be thankful to know that I refrained from buying a t-shirt proclaiming "Praise the Lard.") Every now and then I looked up from my chicken to have another bite of perfect biscuit, or to fork up some creamily delicious macaroni and cheese or a mouthful of turnip greens in pot likker (G, a transplanted quasi-southerner, actually moaned when I told him I'd had turnip greens).
Momentarily sated, I started making the rounds of the rest of my party. Everyone was laughing, enjoying the food, the company, and the fact that we were doing something we couldn't and wouldn't do in our own home towns. I tasted Debi's pit-smoked turkey, which was moist and smoky, but honestly not a patch on the fried chicken. Melanie's fried catfish, however, was phenomenal, as were the hushpuppies that came with it. Darshna tempted me with fried okra, addictive as candy, and exhorted me to let readers know that vegetarians would have plenty to eat at the Loveless, since she had just had a full plate of mac 'n' cheese, beans, greens, okra and other goodies. Felicia let me taste her squash casserole, a special of the evening that was a salute to the way in which cream, butter and cheese make everything taste good. Even those in terror of fried food, like my dear former director Linette, had found the special of pit-smoked stuffed chicken to be delicious without overwhelming her cholesterol count.
It was one of those moments where not having room for dessert filled me with regret. Darshna, however, broke down and ordered the apple pie with lots of extra forks. The one bite I could force on myself was simply extraordinary -- spicy and juicy with a fervently flaky crust. Ever since Thursday night, my imagination has been occupied with how I can get back down to Nashville, purely in order to stay long enough to try everything on the Loveless Cafe menu -- including all the pies. Even now, I'm hatching a plan for a long car trip -- perhaps during summer vacation, perhaps using the New Orleans Writing Marathon as an excuse to bring G in a southerly direction...
But although I could only get in one meal at the Loveless this time, I brought a bit of it home with me. This morning we had (as pictured above) country ham and grits with red-eye gravy, biscuits and coffee in our new Loveless mugs. You see, I had even broken down and bought biscuit mix at the Loveless store, despite my hatred of mixes. And this morning's breakfast proves that biscuits from the Loveless Cafe's mix are just great. They so far exceed the soap-powder taste of Bisquick and the spongy layers of tube biscuits as to be quite comparable to homemade, especially since you use fresh buttermilk in the preparation. I'm not quite a southern girl in the way I make my biscuits -- I don't love them as much when they're those high-risers placed close together in the pan. I give them space on a baking sheet, and even though they don't rise quite as high, I get more surface area, more crusty exterior, which is the part I love best. The stone-ground grits I bought at the Loveless are fantastic as well, and the ham was salty and chewy as country ham should be, making a perfect red-eye gravy after only a few minutes of pan-frying.
The one disappointment is the blackberry preserve, which was superb in the restaurant and is not at all that way in the jar. I must have gotten a burnt batch, because mine tastes overcooked, more of super-caramelized sugar than of berries. I may drop the nice folks at Loveless a line, and let them know how good everything was and is, despite the fact that we did have this one disappointment. Just so they'll know who I am, I should probably sign my note with love from "Sweetie."