Maureen’s a creature of habit. Same thing for breakfast and lunch for months at a time. So you can imagine my surprise when she asks for something different. Of course my surprise turns to nodding approval when I find out what it is.
On One of our monster road trips, this one from New Orleans to Chicago, we took a 440-mile stretch from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee on a National Park road called the Natchez Trace. Because it’s a National park, there’s no where to eat on it.
One day we pulled int the only nearby dot on the map — Hohenwald, TN, to grab lunch and we were resigned to breaking a road trip rule and to eat at any fast food chain by the highway. On the main 3 block-long drag, we found Big John’s Pit BBQ (no web link, no website) and discovered a plethora of pulled, smoked meats, including pork, ham and turkey. Our favourite was the ham — moist, lightly sauced and perfectly smoked. It made an amazing sandwich.
When we discovered one of our local butcher smoked their own hams and then cut chunks off of them to sell as “nuggets”, we started smoking and pulling our own ham, whenever we felt like something different for lunches.
I start the BBQ on low and slow – about 250°F with cherry wood in the smoker drawer, and then I set to make a slather for the ham. It’s a small piece, weighing a few pounds. But it’s real. It’s not the molded ex-liquid meat of the commercial hams. It used to be a chunk of a pig leg. That’s important if you want to pull it later.
Then I rub the ham with a good pork or rib rub and put it on the smoker, replenishing the smoke wood for the first 90 minutes (after that the bark is formed and there’s no point doing any more because the smoke won’t penetrate.
After about 5-6 hours I take the ham off and pull it with bear claws. You can use large forks, too. Once pulled I place it in a bowl and add a couple tablespoons of rustic mustard, hot sauce and BBQ sauce and mix well. Then I place in a large plastic bag to keep in the fridge. I don’t know how long it keeps as it’s always gone in a couple days.
I make one of these every month or so. It’s easy to do, even on a busy day — the ham just sits in the smoker for 4-6 hours. It takes about 10 minutes to prep and another 10 to shred the ham and sauce it.
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.
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.