New old cookbook from Chuckey Mountain

November 21, 2007

The day before Thanksgiving, The New York Times had an interesting piece on Malinda Russell, a Tennessee African-American woman who published a cookbook in 1866 entitled Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen.

The cookbook is remarkable for two reasons: first, being published by a black woman just a few years after slavery was abolished, and for the kinds of recipes offered to readers. There’s none of the “soul food” commonly associated with black cooking–collard greens, fried chicken, and chitlins–in this cookbook, which has high class sounding dishes such as rose cake and sweet onion custard.


Photo from The Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive at the
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

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The Cherokees of Lawrence County

November 18, 2007

On a recent drive across Tennessee on Highway 64, I stopped in the town square of Lawrenceburg. Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign may not exactly be setting the Republican woods on fire, but he is hot stuff here. One of his more interesting supporters claims that the Cherokees are descendants of the Hebrews.



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Wonderful ribs in Memphis

November 14, 2007

Having been disappointed at the ribs served up at the famous Rendezvous in Memphis, I headed south to 2265 Third Street and the home of Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que. I have not eaten in all of the Memphis rib joints, but I have to say that, so far, these are the best ribs I have ever had in my life.


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Fossil Museum evolves in East Tennessee

November 12, 2007

The museum with the longest name in the state, the East Tennessee State University General and Shale Brick Natural History Museum has now been open for several months. This museum came about when a road construction crew dug into a massive collection of fossils dating back 4.5 million years. Seems that an ancient sinkhole filled with water proved to be a wonderful collection site for animals of that time. The sinkhole filled with clay that resisted erosion to the extent that what was a depression is now a small hill.

Relatively few museums offer the visitor a chance to walk 50 yards and see the very digs from which the fossils on display were found. That’s one of the charms of this place. Another is a chance for visitors to–in warm months–watch actual paleontologists at work.


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Norman Mailer and the sorority girl

November 10, 2007

Norman Mailer has died at age 84.  He came to the University of Tennessee in 1973 to give a lecture, which turned out to be a reading from his book about Marilyn Monroe. That’s it–he just got up and read from his book. Hundreds of people had turned out, and much was the disappointment. He had been paid $10,000 or $15,000 or what seemed like a tremendous amount of money for that time, and all he did was read and answer a few questions.

There were high hopes for a better showing at the party afterwards. I was an undergraduate and a member of the committee that chose the lecturers. One of the perks of being on that committee was getting to hang around the man or woman of the hour, often at a dinner before the lecture or a party afterwards.


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Tennessee’s prosperous rural counties: guess which ones

November 9, 2007

A new website that I really like, The Daily Yonder, has been following the work of Andrew Isserman, an economist at the University of Illinois who studies rural areas. A Daily Yonder article today focuses on rural America’s most prosperous counties, which are defined as counties “that have better housing, a more educated population, less poverty and more jobs than the national average.”

I tried to guess how many and which ones these would be in Tennessee. Out of 95 counties, I thought, we should have five above average, but which ones? Williamson County is the wealthiest one in Tennessee, but it isn’t rural. I guessed Greene County in East Tennessee and figured that any others would be within 30 miles of Nashville.

Wrong. Tennessee has just two “prosperous” counties: Giles and Humphreys. I drove cross Giles County last week, and it certainly looks prosperous. The larger question, however, is Why are these counties prosperous?


Giles County Courthouse

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Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe sold to songwriters

November 9, 2007

The Bluebird Cafe, long famous for concerts of songwriters playing their work–and making sure the audience shuts up to listen to them–has been sold to the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI). The official handover takes place on January 1 of 2008.

An article in today’s Tennessean quotes Bluebird founder Amy Kurland as saying, “I wanted to retire, but I didn’t want The Bluebird to go away.” The legendary club was where Garth Brooks was discovered in 1988, and artists such a Faith Hill and Trisha Yearwood played there as well.


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Garth Brooks replaces Elvis as industry heavyweight

November 8, 2007

The Recording Industry Association of America has taken time out from suing 12-year-olds to announce that Garth Brooks has surpassed Elvis as the all-time best selling recording artist. Garth has sold a total of 123 million albums, while the King has racked up sales of 118.5.


I doubt that Garth’s record, so to speak, will ever be broken. He hit his big numbers in the days before file-sharing and iTunes. Look at the dates on these mega-sellers: No Fences (1990), Ropin the Wind (1991), The Hits (1994) and Double Live (1998).

Boll weevils near eradication in fields but live on in songs

November 7, 2007

The Memphis Commercial Appeal is running a dandy series of articles on the 100-year, $100 billion effort to kill off these snout-nosed parasites of the cotton plant. Boll weevils came to this country from Mexico in 1892 and began laying their eggs in cotton plants, thus preventing the boll of cotton from developing.

In the days before living better through chemistry, the only way to reduce the effect of these insects was to not plant cotton for a season. Farmers looked to other crops for income and King Cotton thus became dethroned across the South.


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Memphis’s Rendezvous: the thrill is gone

November 6, 2007

Years ago, seemingly like everyone who comes to Memphis, I ducked in the alley and ate ribs at Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous restaurant and pronounced them great. I had never had dry ribs before–ones with the seasoning applied as ground spices instead of a sauce–and I thought they were wonderful. When I wrote my guidebook, I had Fredric Koeppel of the Memphis Commercial Appeal review the restaurants, and in the last edition, he wrote the following:

The Rendezvous inspires such loyalty that criticism of the place seems to merit fluffin’ up the feathers and heatin’ up the tar. Sure, Elvis had Rendezvous ribs flown to Vegas when he performed there, but he also loved banana and peanut butter sandwiches. Even the Vergos family, owners of the Rendezvous, admit that the dry ribs they produce, rubbed with a unique spice mixture, partake more of Greece than the mid-South, but that fact doesn’t keep Yankee writers from proclaiming the Rendezvous ground zero of Memphis barbecue. To our minds, these ribs are interesting but not the Real Thing, but who’s going to argue with 100,000 tourists?


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