It’s not often you find ostrich, rabbit, frog legs and fried green ‘maters on your lunch menu — at least, not in Wisconsin. But these entrees are just par for the course in the South, and y’all can bet they’ll be served up with a hearty helpin’ of down-home hospitality.
Our travels along the Allis-Chalmers tractor trail took us to eastern Tennessee in April. We had set one day aside for sightseeing before a feature story interview at a dairy and beef farm, then three days manning our Old Allis News magazine booth at the Gathering of the Orange national A-C show in Gray.
Just days after Wisconsin was pummeled with 15 to 30 inches of snow and 40 mph winds, we were happy to hop a plane for more pleasant climes. And with all the craziness as I prepare for my first child to graduate from high school and head off to college in the Chicago suburbs, the more laid-back pace of life in the South was just what the doctor ordered for this harried mom.
Due to commitments back home, we flew in and out of Knoxville to save time, renting a car for the week. Day one was spent exploring the Great Smoky Mountains; we bypassed the glitz of Dollywood for a more serene experience. Unfortunately, our mountaintop views were more often than not concealed in fog on this rainy day, but the drizzle and mud didn’t deter us and plenty of others from hiking out to the waterfalls along the Chimney Tops Trail.
We stopped for lunch at a little café in Cherokee, N.C. Reminiscent of the Amazing Grazing Cows of Thorp, dozens of painted bears are stationed throughout this little tourist town. Next stop was the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill, where Dave couldn’t help but ask if any of the old mill equipment had been manufactured by A-C — once the biggest manufacturer of flour mill equipment. It wasn’t.
Posted signs promised elk sightings for lucky motorists, and we weren’t disappointed on our drive back up into the mountains that afternoon. About a half-dozen elk grazed alongside the road, totally unfazed by gawkers.
We wrapped up the day in Gatlinburg with some moonshine tasting and rocking-chair relaxation while listening to free, live bluegrass in the square. Interesting to us, many moonshine producers offer full lines of delicious dairy-based cream liquers.
The next day, it was time to get to work. After our interview at their farm, the Yates brothers treated us to lunch at a neighborhood joint, where they seemingly knew everybody and our waitress checked in regularly with “Y’all doin’ OK, babies?” I indulged in catfish and sweet tea, but fried okra was another tempting option.
We were indeed foreigners here. The Yateses’ elderly mother asked us if Wisconsin is in the U.S. and wanted to know what strange language we were speaking.
“I hope y’all are able to learn to speak a little more English while you’re here,” someone teased us later, but to our advantage, we also found out that Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant, “don’t understand Southun.”
Every chance we got, we escaped the highway for roads less traveled. Ramshackle outbuildings, grazing beef herds, white country churches and roadkill ‘possums were common sights along the ultra-narrow, winding rural roads deep in the Tennessee hills.
We had to chuckle when we got behind a one-ton pickup hauling a van with about a third of it hanging precariously off the bed — certainly, a major DOT violation. Hence, the backroads route. Later, we saw two teens standing, fully clothed, waist-deep in a creek in the pouring rain; there were no indications that they were fishing or swimming.
Sampling the local cuisine is a highlight of our A-C adventures, and one thing we’ve learned is that the crummier a place looks on the outside, the better the barbecue. We had some of the best we’ve ever had at The Shack in Kingsport, which doesn’t look like much from the outside but was packed with patrons.
A few weeks later, we’re still enjoying our fleeting time in Tennessee through a mason jar of root beer moonshine, a jar of apple butter made by the Yates brothers and, of course, the great memories. Y’all better believe we’ll be back.