RT9: Backwoods Tennesee Cajun

We are up early this last day we are to spend in Nashville, so that we can head into the pretty little town of Franklin for breakfast and to explore a little. We are breakfasting today at Merridee’s Breadbasket. It is a very busy place on a Saturday.

The atmosphere is warm and homey with blue-checked oilcloth covering the tables, rustic worn oak floors, brick walls and exposed rafters. We manage to snag a just-vacated table and take our spot at the end of a very long line to place orders.

After a long wait of twenty or more minutes our number is called. Both of us are having egg, ham, and cheese biscuits and one of their famous cinnamon rolls to split. The house coffee is fine but has a distinct hazelnut flavour. The orange juice is bottled from concentrate. Our sandwiches are made on an excellent, buttery ham and cheese biscuit which is too crumbly to eat by hand and we have to resort to fork and knife. The thinly sliced ham has been lightly pan fried and has a nice sweet-to-salty ratio. The processed cheese and fluffy egg omelet are delicious.

We savour the soft sweet buttery cinnamon roll that has a nice, loose, icing sugar topping which we prefer over a hard glaze. Overall the atmosphere at Merridee’s is one of hustle and bustle and noise. It’s clearly THE place to be for locals on a Saturday morning, but it is not the spot to enjoy some quiet time with a newspaper. Take your cinnamon bun home and enjoy it in the shade of your front porch. Or hotel.

Merridee's Breadbasket on Urbanspoon

We spend 45 minutes walking Main Street and enjoying the shops before heading over to The Factory, a 12-building complex that is a converted factory most notable for manufacturing stoves. One shop of note in the plaza is a well appointed antique store with numerous relics from the American Civil War. Oh how I would love a cannonball but my luggage was already over the weight limit on the way in. Instead we purchase some frames which contain small bits of the conflict and personalize it and let you feel the ghosts of a time gone by. A bit of pipe, a hand struck nail, buttons, dice, a harmonica reed, a bullet…

As we are leaving to meet our friends, Josee and Trevor for lunch, we get a surprise phone call from a another friend who I have known since she was just 1 year old. We did not think we would get to visit with her this time, but she caught us just as we were leaving the Factory and tells us she lives just three minutes away. After a short but sweet visit we head into town and have a refreshing lunch at Calypso Cafe, which specializes in Caribbean fare and makes a great salad.

Calypso Cafe on Urbanspoon

We are a little early and pop into the Dog and Cat Shoppe around the corner. I am in kitty heaven. They have three cats and multitudes of kittens roaming free and sleeping everywhere. I spend 15 minutes with an adorable baby tortie sleeping in my arms while I look for “presents” to bring home two my two kitties. After lunch the boys head on out to shop at Nashville’s Guitar Center and us girls go on a two mile hike on the lovely walking trails in Nashville.

Dinner tonight has been suggested by Trevor and Josee. They tell us it is really a backwoods hole-in-the-wall which serves pretty good cajun food. We are game, especially if it is a hole-in-the-wall. That’s where you will find some of the best cooking.

Papa Boudreaux’s Cajun Cafe is an hour and fifteen minute drive from Franklin to Santa Fe, Tennessee (the locals pronounce it “Santa FEE”) mostly on a winding two laner through gorgeous country. Rolling green hills, pretty mansions and beautiful more modest bungalows, horse farms and fence rows and even the occasional beat up trailer add spice and variety to this drive. We hit two detours and are completely lost to the backwoods of Tennessee save for Stella 3000, our GPS. She finally pulls us up at a small, yellow building. The parking lot is full of cars and trucks. It is a surprise because I have no idea where they all came from. There is not the kind of population in the area it would seem, to support a restaurant here. We enter, give a name and go outside and wait to be called. No waiting time is given. Several more people show up and put their names in. Some of them are smarter and have brought coolers of beer knowing they will have to wait in the heat for a table.

We sit outside and enjoy a pleasant, warm Tennessee evening. After about twenty minutes we get called in. Papa Boudreaux’s is small, boasting only seven tables. The entire place inside and out is decorated in yellow and purple, with a side of beads and football memorabillia. A flattie on one wall is showing a game between Oregon and LSU. “Papa” alternately yells with approval and swears his disgust at the TV.

Right beside our table, Ronnie Fruge serenades us on his Gibson, and chats between folk, country and cajun tunes and some of his own. Trevor and Rob are a tough audience being guitarists/singers themselves. Ronnie is a treat and is the genuine article. Papa’s is old school and accepts only cash or cheques. There is no alcohol for sale but you are welcome to bring your own in.

As we peruse the small menu on the chalkboard, people continue to pour in and put their names on the waiting list before heading back outside to wait. Our waitress returns to our table with our drinks and some warm baguette and butter to take our food orders. I ask her what the best thing on the menu is as I am tempted by several things. She tells me it’s the crawfish-shrimp etouffee. I order that and skip apps because I want to have dessert here. Rob orders some boudin balls and pasta with chicken and andouille, Trevor orders fried scallops and garlic shrimp and pasta, Josee gets the shrimp creole.

The apps arrive first. Both the scallops and the boudin come with a chunky, spicy, tomato, onion, pepper relish. The scallops are large and perfectly fried. No greasy residue and great scallop texture. The boudin balls are fried as well,  have strong pork flavour and go well with the tomato relish.

Boudin balls with a perfect, lemony, garlicky tomato relish.

The mains arrive shortly and I am not disappointed. My etouffe is homemade, honest, authentic cajun food. The portion is quite large and I’m glad I skipped apps. The dish is chock full of plump Gulf shrimp and tiny crawfish tails. The creamy sauce is delicate yet contains a mild heat, cooled by the rice it is served over.

Shrimp and Crawfish Etoufee.

Rob’s pasta had a light barely there cream sauce that nicely tied together the flavours of the smoky andouille, the chicken and a little cajun heat.

Chicken & Andouille Sausage Pasta.

I tried Josee’s creole and it was a classic, rich, smokey tomato sauce with onion and pepper and a good kick of heat, the kind that makes you sweat a bit eating it. Trevor enjoyed his pasta but I never got a taste. It sure looked good!

Shrimp Creole

I’m glad we saved room for dessert. Louisiana chocolate bread pudding. And four spoons. It is a big portion with warm, rich, not overly sweet chocolate bread pudding with a fudgy sauce and a large scoop of vanilla ice cream all ready melting it’s descent into the goo.

Under all that is Chocolate Bread Pudding. The cuisine of Louisiana has given us new appreciation for Bread Pudding. We’ve had it three times at Cajun restaurants. All were magnificent.

Papa Boudreaux’s is an incredible treat in the backwoods of Tennessee and serves Cajun food as good as any you will find in the bayou state.

Papa Boudreaux on Urbanspoon

 Here’s a local Tennessee TV bit on the place:

 We had a great 3 days in Nashville and in Tennessee. It was a great mix of music, food and friends. The area is captivating and beautiful. Tomorrow finds us moving on to unfamiliar turf as neither of us have been to our remaining road trip destinations before, not counting Rob’s occasional overnight business trips, which are definitely not the way to discover a region and its offerings. Tomorrow the road leads through Kentucky, on to Evansville, Indiana. Goodbye to Nashville.

RT8: Red-eye Gravy & Tunes

Today, Friday is our first full day in Nashville. We are staying in a hotel downtown and have had to contend with jack hammering below our window until 12:30 am and were awakened by it at 7 am. Luckily the hotel can move us to the other side of the building for our next two nights.

I am determined to find cowboy boots here. I love them and every time I am overwhelmed by the selection and can’t choose, so I go home empty handed. I’m going to start a “cowboy boots go with everything” trend back in Ottawa.

Breakfast is at Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant downtown. I order the country ham with red-eye gravy, a biscuit, fried potatoes and two eggs over medium. Rob orders country-fried steak with much the same trimmings but he gets pepper gravy instead. The coffee is decent, the orange juice is watered down.

I love country ham. A big bone-in slab of salty goodness. Why cant we get ham like this back home? This is so far removed from the pressed meat we call breakfast ham. Southern country ham is salt-cured instead of smoke-cured. The red-eye gravy, made from pan drippings and a healthy shot of coffee, is not salty and is excellent. I am no judge of red-eye gravy as this is my first experience with it, but I could drink this stuff. Perfect with the ham. My potatoes are fine and the eggs are perfect over medium. The biscuit is light, moist and fluffy and no butter is needed.

Rob’s chicken fried steak is fresh made and hand dipped not frozen. It comes hot, crispy and juicy. His pepper gravy… flour, cream and pepper, is flavourful, thick and has a nice pepper edge.

Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Shopping on Broadway brought us to Hatch Show Print and one of their two cats, Huey. Apparently he has a favourite spot.

Our afternoon is spent relaxing…well, me reading and Rob doing laundry. We head into Franklin, Tennessee for an evening of BBQ and good music. Mickey Roo’s, a Texas style BBQ joint is recommended to us and seems like a great option. You can smell the hickory smoke as soon as you leave the car. Mickey’s is decorated in late “junkyard” and has comfy picnic tables covered in western handkerchief printed oil cloth. Mexican horse blankets are provided for boney bums. Big Texas atmosphere and a Texas sized stage are in house. Flatties feature Nascar and NFL.

I grab a cold Yuengling beer so I can think after coming in out of the 104 degree heat. Yuengling is the oldest brewery in the US. Good beer, but any beer is good when it is 104 degrees. I swear you cannot get a buzz on in Nashville. It’s so hot the beer just leaks out of your pores. You can’t keep up.

First off we order up some Big Joe’s Diablos, smoked shrimp stuffed into a jalepeno, wrapped in bacon and covered in Monterey Jack. Glad we chose the order of two to share because they are huge. I can see as I’m sure you can, that these have to be fantastic, and they would have been had they been heated up properly. They had obviously been cooked sometime earlier and so were just merely good.

Rob and I both order the baby backs and two sides. I get potato salad and Boot Kick’n beans (hot). Rob gets Bullstrings (fried onion strings) and Lone Star Beans (not hot). The ribs are slow smoked for 8 hours over hickory smoke, so they are more tender than the usual 4-hour ribs. These are really meaty ribs. Hot and sweet BBQ sauce is provided on the side. The sweet still had a nice little mild heat but more vinegar flavour would have been nice. The potato salad is chunky with egg and mustard. It is good, standard fare.

The onion strings are crispy and delicious while they are hot, but because they are so thin they cool fast and are less so. The beans are very good. The Lone Star beans are sweet but not overly so, while the hot beans have a nice heat, larger beans, and good flavour but could have done with a bit of molasses, although a squirt of the mild BBQ sauce fixes them right up.

Mickey Roos Texas Style BBQ on Urbanspoon

After dinner we head on over to the Bunganut Pig to watch Ottawa boy and friend Trevor Finlay perform. We sit outside with his fiancee Josee, and enjoy a few beers and a beautiful Nashville evening listening to Trevor and his guitar.

RT7: Tupelo to Nashville

It’s a cool 80 degrees at 8:00 this fine morning as we prepare to leave. Breakfast is to be at a local bagel shop. We head out and in under two minutes manage get pulled over by Tupelo PD. You cannot drive in parking lanes here. Who knew?  After a “Be careful of those parking lines, ya’ll have a nice day now!” we are off again. Bagel Shop…closed permanently. Sigh. We are back tracking the way we came into town to regain the Trace so we don’t miss mile marker 269, where there are 13 Confederate gravesites. We are quickly running out of breakfast options. There will be even fewer along the Trace. In desperation we turn to Dodge’s Fried Chicken. Dodge’s is a chain originating in Tupelo, which we have never heard of. They seem to be part of filling stations across several states in the South. It will have to do. We order chicken tenderloin, egg and cheese biscuits, crispitos and fried sweet potato pie to share.

The fried chicken, egg and cheese is on a not half bad southern biscuit, but the entire sandwich is a tad salty for my liking. The crispito is a deep fried burrito rolled thin and open ended, stuffed with industrial queso, possibly chicken and some spicy red sauce. Sounds bad but it was just cheesy and spicy with a crisp flaky envelope. Not terrible. Lastly the hot rectangular sweet potato pie had a creamy filling much like pumpkin pie and a crisp shell with a crunchy layer of cinnamon and sugar. All in all not too bad, but too much fried food for my delicate constitution.

We enter the Natchez Trace heading to Nashville. Our first stop is at mile marker 269. We take a five minute hike on a neat trail through sun dappled forest.We come upon a clearing in the woods and there they are: 13 tiny headstones, each one chiseled with the words: Unknown Confederate Soldier. No one is sure how or why they ended up here. The markers are adorned with plastic flowers, tiny, faded confederate flags and stones from visitors pausing to reflect and note the passing of these, probably very young men, during a conflict so long ago.

Our next stop is Cave Spring. Just off the pull over is a collapsed limestone shelf that created a cave. It is believed to have provided shelter and water to natives along the Trace.

We cross into Alabama, our third state on our monster road trip. The Trace cuts across a small corner of the state. Soon after we come upon the Tennessee River and cross the John Coffee Memorial bridge. It is not clear to us how travelers hundreds and thousands of years ago forded this major waterway. We stop on the other side of the bridge to enjoy the view and snap some photos.

Traveling the Trace is a relaxing and pleasant drive through forests and grasslands dotted with mile markers, clean restrooms, and historical sites. It is fun to soak up the history and the ghosts of travelers who endured the hardships of the early Trace, many of whom died in the process. It does not escape me that I have just sent an email to my decorator 1000 miles away in Canada on my iPhone. Mind boggling to me still.

Back on the Trace we come upon Metal Ford, a gorgeous, peaceful trail a few meters into dappled woodland which reveals a swimming hole with warm, crystal shallow waters and a smooth rock floor. A tiny set of rapids babbles upstream. The air is fresh and sweet and the temperature drops slightly to a bearable degree.

Our next stop will be our last before lunch. Meriweather Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, died and was buried on this spot along the Old Trace. His death remains a mystery but it was messy and possibly self inflicted. In 1848 the government erected a monument to commemorate a life cut short. Curiously, he is buried in the middle of a small pioneer cemetery full of tiny flat markers of which no mention is made.

The memorial spot takes us off the modern Trace and leads us into Hohenwald, a little dusty town. As we follow Stella’s instructions we agree it does not look promising for lunch.

Rob struggled last night to find a place worth visiting for lunch off the Trace. After much research he decided that Big John’s Pit BBQ (listed on the town government’s website as one of a dozen places to eat in town including fast food joints) is our best bet. Worst case we have actually passed a McDonald’s and a Sonic. We pull up at the BBQ and there are a number of pickups in the parking lot. A good sign.

A few people are finishing up lunch as we order off hand written menu boards at the cash. We want to try a few things so we order three sandwiches to share, smoked turkey, pulled pork and smoked pulled ham and cheese, deep fried okra, potato salad and coleslaw. The three sandwiches come wrapped in white paper.

All are on soft, white, well made buns and have fresh tomato slices, leaf lettuce, sliced onion and ridge cut dill pickle. They are piled generously high with meat. The ham sandwich has cheddar cheese and the turkey a little mayo. A sweet BBQ sauce in hot or mild is provided in a squeeze bottle. We apply some to our sandwiches and dig in but we know just by looking: these sandwiches are going to be awesome. And they are.

The meats are hickory smoked and they are pull-apart-melt-in-your-mouth juicy. The ham and turkey are my personal favorites and they are one of the best sandwiches I’ve had anywhere. Sandwiches range in price from $1.75 to $3.50. The fried okra is well made and not greasy, but indistinguishable from fried zucchini. It came without sauce and was great dipped in their house bbq sauce. The small side of potato salad was good, eggy and had a little sweet vinegar taste. The coleslaw was of my personal favorite variety. Vinegar based and finely cut and diced green cabbage.

Why would you go to McDonald’s when you have this kind of food two driveways away? What an awesome discovery, especially when we expected nothing from this lunch except to fill our tummies. Big John’s is so unknown it does not have a web presence and does not appear in any food review sites that we could find. You heard it here first! A real treat.

Big John's Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Back on the road to Nashville where the midday temperatures are a relatively cool 97 degrees (it’s all relative after you have experienced 106 degree weather)…our next stop is Fall Hollow. Here you follow a path a little way into the forest and you come upon a pleasant waterfall with a twenty food drop.

We finish our drive on the Trace on the winding roads through the hills of Tennessee. The road terminates at mile marker 444 and conveniently at the Loveless Cafe. We stock up on their lovely peach preserves and head to the hotel to relax before heading to a friend’s home for dinner. Good to be back in Nashville.

The Old Natchez Trace is still present along stretches of the parkway and serves as a constant reminder that this road has been used for over a thousand years.
Local flora and fauna
The hills get bigger on the approach to Nashville.