Soul Kitchen

A Deep South journey puts some meat on our bones.

50 lbs. cornmeal 10 lbs. bran (optional) 200 lbs. sugar 12 oz. yeast 200 gal. water

In Eastern Tennessee, that recipe will mix you up 36 gallons of "artisanal" moonshine, a local, sustainable, slow-food beverage cooked exactly so for many generations. You can proof your liquor by adding a bit of gunpowder and setting this witches' brew alight. If it burns bright, you've got yourself something like 50- to 100-percent alcohol.

The quest for moonshine whiskey is one good reason to take a road trip through the Deep South these days. Another is that places like Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia, are knocking each other out to grab the culinary ball that New Orleans dropped when it found itself recently under many feet of water. But we're leaving Gatlinburg, Tennessee, without ever tasting a drop of bootleg, because the only moonshine still we know of, operated by an old German lady named Mary Janette Teague, was busted last year on Dark Hollow Road in Cosby. The place she ran was known as Fort Marx, and I have friends who remember it as a double-wide trailer set up on blocks with a handful of stools inside. At Fort Marx, you could throw back several dozen kinds of flavored homemade moonshine, berry wine, or high-octane white whiskey, and you could eat booze-soaked maraschino cherries out of a jar. Supposedly you'd get through the door only if your car had Tennessee plates. People drove long miles to get to Fort Marx: truckers and boozehounds and college brats and, in the end, some special agents from the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

In Eastern Tennessee, nobody thinks anything of taking a day off to do one single thing — a four-hour drive to pick up bushels of the famous Grainger County tomatoes to make your salsa or a half-day's wait in line to buy a truckload of dirt at Monterey Mushroom Co. in Sweetwater to finish your asparagus patch. Last time my friends Lisa and Sue picked up their dirt at Monterey Mushroom, they came home and dumped it in their garden and about a month later found a strange plant the size of a magic beanstalk growing in the middle of it.

"You know, that sure looks like..." Lisa said.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Sue replied.

Before they knew it, they had a nine-foot-tall marijuana plant towering over their little asparagus spears.

In Eastern Tennessee, you just don't want any ganja growing in your patch, because the black helicopters fly over with their special infrared equipment, and they can pick out the good stuff from a forest of basil with pinpoint accuracy. Before you know it, you'll end up like Mary Janette Teague, with a load of bail to pay. So my friends dug up the beanstalk and put it in a pot inside their house and grew it until it hit the ceiling and bent over. After that, I don't know what happened.

Gatlinburg is the new "Gay Mecca." Last week, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal called Lisa and said he wanted to do an article about the queering of East Tennessee. There are lots of gay people in Gatlinburg, I guess, but there is also the tall white spire of a Baptist church on every corner, and the Louise Mandrell Dinner Theater. My favorite show in Pigeon Forge is the "stunning faith-based musical of epic proportion," Miracle, which bills itself as "The Ultimate Battle Between Good and Evil." When you drive by the theater, you'll see its sign, a gigantic neon Satan's eye that magically morphs into the open arms of Jesus Christ.

You can't leave Gatlinburg without a stop at Bare Bones Barbecue on Bird's Creek Road in Sevierville, where along with slow-cooked hickory-smoked ribs, they sell "dang good" buffalo jerky "as seen on the Food Network with Al Roker," according to the sign out front. An old hippie with a long gray braid and the thickest drawl I've ever heard is closing up the smokers when we pull up around sunset. The place is nothing but a tent on poles with two big and four small smokers and a tiny trailer. All they've got left when we get there is three pounds of pulled pork, which tastes like a Tennessee forest fire bathed in peppers and dusted with brown sugar. We take everything they have plus the rest of the day's coleslaw. While we're waiting for them to pack that up, we chew on jerky. It's as salty and sweet as honey-marinated leather; you can rip it into satisfying shreds with your teeth. The ingredients list on the package says it's full of monosodium glutamate. Heidi buys three packs — in teriyaki, regular, and hot — because she's the last living soul who still swears by the Atkins diet.

3-4 squirrels, skinned, cleaned, and cut up

Sprinkle salt and black pepper

1/2 cup flour

3/4 cup cooking oil

The simplicity of this little South Carolina recipe belies the rigorous prep work that goes into it. For one thing, you have to "squinge" the hair off the squirrel before you can even begin to think about cooking it, and you do that by holding it over an open fire to burn its fur off. Then you make a knife cut and pull the skin over the creature's head, basically turning it inside out. There are few things as ugly as a freshly skinned squirrel.

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