Monday, May 25, 2020

Tennesseeing with the Wongs

It was our first time in what you could consider the "deep South," and even though it was a short trip, we really enjoyed our little taste of Nashville, Knoxville, Harrogate, and Middlesboro.  We survived Prince's hot chicken, ate barbecue almost every day, listened to singers in a honky-tonk, milked a goat, wandered through historic Civil War sites and a graveyard, walked among centuries-old buildings, hiked in the footsteps of Native Americans and pioneers, and most importantly, watched Dr. Stacy Wong walk across the Lincoln Memorial University stage to receive her Veterinary Medicine diploma.

When we travel, we make it a priority to eat what the area is known for.  So in Tennessee and Kentucky, that meant all things smoked and fried.  Hush puppies, hoe-cakes, hot chicken, catfish, ribs, brisket, washed down with sweet tea.  We also snuck in one fancy meal for Stacy's graduation dinner.  Since we had Wes's parents in tow, they had no choice but to join us on our mad eating rampage.  They love food though and went along with whatever we planned.  Our eating to physical activity ratio was much more tipped towards the eating side for this particular trip, but we got to spend lots of quality time with Wes's parents over many delicious meals.

As expected, American history and tradition is so much more ingrained here than on the West Coast.  My dad had always told me that it would be very important to travel to the South as an American.  Being here was a good reminder of our nation's roots--walking through old forts, driving past colonial buildings, and getting a glimpse of farm life.  Seeing Confederate flags and Trump support flags waving alongside our American flag was also a culture shock that made me cringe a little, but of course everyone who we met was so friendly and kindhearted.  We didn't get weird stares for being the only Asians for miles, though we carefully avoided any political talk.  It was just a humanizing experience to come in close contact with those who we criticize to no end back home, and to see that they are also just fellow citizens who love music, barbecue, and their country as much as we do.

This trip wouldn't have been the same without Papa Wong and Mama Wong.  I have never spent this many consecutive days with them (and Wes hasn't for a long time) but honestly it was very nice to have them there with us. Mama Wong was always asking if I could Airdrop her my pictures, and Papa Wong constantly wanted photos of him making funny faces while holding meat in midair.   Seeing them experience a new place and take tons of pictures to post on their own social media accounts gave me a lot of joy and entertainment the whole time.

Day One

We started off our trip in Nashville.  Stacy's graduation was out in Harrogate (a small city four hours away), but we took a red-eye flight so that we could indulge a little in what is known as Music City, U.S.A.  We ended up spending eight hours in Nashville on three hours of sleep, but when in a city so alive with music and history, sleep was the last thing on our minds.  We immediately got into a rental car and headed straight for Prince’s, one of the essential hot chicken places in Nashville.  We were still in the LA mentality then and we knew there was not going to be greens, so I summoned Wes to stop by the supermarket to get some veggie sticks first.

The line was short, but the wait was still very long. It was almost an hour before we got our food.  They claim that this is because they take their time and make every piece of chicken with love.  That's gotta be a lot of love, then.

I was scared so I ordered mild, but the Wongs got medium.  I knew that Mama Wong and Papa Wong definitely had their heads in the game from that moment.

We went over to Centennial Park afterward to check out some monuments and walk it off.  Well, Mama Wong and Papa Wong swung it off.

This was literally the only day that we would have to check out Nashville, so we went downtown to see the Music City Walk of Fame and experience Honky Tonk highway.  We weren’t quite sure what to expect—some people compare it to Vegas—all in all, it was a great atmosphere with endless music everywhere for everyone.  Certainly lots of bachelorettes in cowboy boots, and also people in their forties, fifties, sixties, and beyond.  There was no age limit to the fun.  The best part was that live music could be heard pouring out of every window and door, and you only have to walk in and buy a drink to enjoy a show.  There was just so much raw talent here.

The hardest part is deciding on which bar to enter, but we randomly decided to slide into one of the first ones we saw.  It sounded mellow and contemporary (none of that bluegrass), something that we could relate to.  We all sat down and enjoyed two very good sets.  And yeah, we were that bunch of loser Asians ordering virgin cocktails at a place that distills their own vodka.

We drove back to our hotel on the outskirts of Nashville and crashed.

Day Two

We woke early the next day--it was time to drive to Knoxville!  Wes urged his parents not to eat breakfast at the hotel.  He insisted, actually. But they still did, of course what Asian parents can pass up free food?  Now I know where Wes gets his stubbornness.

First destination of the day was food, again.  We drove straight to Tupelo Honey Cafe in the historic market square of Knoxville, about a three-hour drive East of Nashville.  Knoxville is very different - small town atmosphere and a little less touristy, but still very music-centric and full of historic buildings and landmarks.

Tupelo Honey Cafe is known for their more modern take on traditional Southern dishes, and the housemade biscuits!

Creole-spiced okra, green beans, and tri-color carrots with harissa-yogurt dipping sauce

Deviled eggs with diced pickled jalapeños and carrots

Fried pickles with garlic buttermilk ranch dip

Pimento and fried pickle burger

Smokehouse BBQ burger with cheddar cheese, pickles, smoked jalapeño bbq sauce, crispy tobacco onions

Roasted chicken with a sweet tea lacquer with a side of collard greens and stone-ground goat cheese grits

We got back into the car and drove to Fort Dickerson, right outside of town.  It was in a beautiful wooded area, hard to imagine that there was so much bloodshed here back in the Civil War.

Papa Wong was tired, so we dropped him back off at the hotel and then the three of us walked around downtown Knoxville and did a self-guided walking tour of the old buildings and saw some street art.  It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of the historic and the modern.

It wasn’t too long before we wandered into the Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain, and oldschool ice cream parlour.  It was humid after all--it literally had begun to pour hot rain in the middle of our walk around town.  We aren’t typically the ice cream sundae type, but it just felt right to order the traditional Streetcar here.  Wesley also took the chance to get a club soda with some different bitters in it.  Mama Wong simply ordered a no-frills scoop of coffee ice cream.

Mama Wong now returned to the hotel but we had to walk it off.  So we walked a few miles to the Old Gray Cemetery.  There are at least seven cemeteries directly in the radius of downtown Knoxville, and all are very old and easily accessible.  It was definitely surreal for us to walk among all of these fallen soldiers, with the old tombstones engraved with their names, and other important people who were born in the 1800’s.  It was a good reminder of the unrest of our country and how we came to unite as one. We didn’t run into any ghosts, but some mosquitoes ran into us.

We also stopped into some neighborhood antique shops and spotted another local ice cream place that we needed to circle back for.

That day, we already knew what we wanted to eat.  We needed to get our first taste of Tennessee barbecue.  So we headed to Sweet P’s, a well-known place in town.  Stacy met us there, and it was surreal to see her after such a long time!

We went a little crazy with the side dishes, but I'm glad that we did because this place had really good ones!  The ribs, brisket, and pulled chicken were great, too.  My favorite part though was definitely the "thin" sauce (vinegary!) and playing cornhole with Mama Wong.  She was better than me.

Day Three

It was the big day--the reason why we were all here: Stacy’s graduation from veterinarian school!  We were very glad that it was indoors and air conditioned.  Us Californians just aren’t used to that humidity!

After the ceremony, Stacy had the perfect place in mind: Heavy’s Barbecue, a local joint off the beaten path in Harrogate.  To be honest, it's kind of the only sit-down restaurant in Harrogate, ha!  I knew we were going deep into foreign territory when I saw a Confederate flag and a Trump support flag waving by the American flag on the side of the road.  After many twists and turns on a one-way gravel road, a clapboard shack emerged alongside a green river.


The fact that there were so many parked cars in the grass spoke to this restaurant's reputation.  Inside, it was very inviting and laidback, like you were eating on someone's porch.   You could walk down to the river and hang out on the banks.

We ordered.  Of course, we got the sweet tea again.  Hush puppies, why not?  Onion rings, sure.  Catfish bites, of course - we were eating too much red meat anyway.  We got the ribs and pulled pork, which came with a thick slab of white bread slapped over the top.  Wes got sides of mac and cheese and potato salad while I got sides of fried okra and cole slaw.  Everything tasted good, though a thin film of sweat was stuck to every inch of our bodies.

Stacy raves about the potato salad.

Hush puppies, had to try!

 Catfish bites

It was certainly a local joint, run by a family.  Very off-the-beaten-track and super friendly.  We would say that it isn't the best barbecue we've had (we've had a lot of good bbq though), but the journey and the location were the most unique!  Definitely not something that you could find in California.

 After Heavy’s, we drove to Middlesboro, Kentucky (not too far from Heavy's) to the Cumberland Gap National Historic Area and did a couple of short hikes there.   Stacy had told us about this area beforehand, and it seemed like such an intriguing place to visit because of the history intertwined with nature.  It definitely was sort of mindblowing to walk in the footsteps of Daniel Boone, who had marked this path for the pioneers traveling West in 1775, and to be where both Union and Confederate soldiers in the Civil War had occupied.  If we were going to hike in the Appalachians, this one had to be the place.  The weather was very balmy there, so it was very lush and there were many flowers.  We got to be in three states at once at the Tri-State Peak and also drove up to the Pinnacle Overlook for a beautiful view.

Later that night, it was the real celebration: Stacy’s victory meal for her years of hard work.  She had said that she’s wanted to try this fancy place that she can't afford.  Fortunately, Wes's dad allowed himself the splurge and treated us all.  The menu was intriguing—filled with game meat and a nice upscale twist on a lot of classic Southern favorites.  It did not disappoint!  From the elevated versions of popular Southern dishes to the yummy little corn muffins in the bread "basket," everything was so good.

Stacy’s classmate, Kristen, was there as well.  Stacy was staying with Kristen on her family's farm!  We got to talk to Kristen briefly after the graduation ceremony, but not enough.  Here, we had the chance to get to know her more.

Honestly I was still full from Heavy's, even though we hiked between lunch and dinner, but the food here was so excellent, that it was impossible to resist.  I don't think we have a picture of every single thing that we ordered to share, but here are a few:

Complimentary corn muffins and focaccia to get us all excited for what's to come.

Wild game fettine - wild pig/venison/huckleberry, duck/quail/cheddar, lamb/pork loin/chili black garlic

Lobster hushpuppies (to die for) - we were being polite and just ate one, but we could have polished off the whole plate.

Snapper ceviche, corn nuts, garden chilies

Catfish plancha, charred okra succotash, herb salad

Roasted garlic stuffed beef tenderloin, western plaid hash, grilled asparagus, syrah demi-glace

Rabbit ragout, cavatelli, Cruze Farms ricotta (we later had some Cruze Farms ice cream!)

Elk loin, swiss chard, hen of the woods, salsify, candied red grapes

Pan seared halibut, charred napa cabbage, grilled lemon fumet

Flash fried maitake mushrooms with soy cured egg glaze and crispy basil - wow these were so good and tasted sort of sinful for veggies!

Beet home fries with goat cheese

Burnt carrots, local honey, brie, calabrian chili - a game-changer for this carrot-hater

After dinner (which ended with another complimentary plate of mini chocolate chip cookies), we stayed out to wander around this hip little part of Knoxville while everybody else went to food coma.  We tried to eavesdrop in on the music festival unsuccessfully before heading back to the hotel... but we had one more order of business.  It was our last night in Knoxville, so unless we wanted ice cream for breakfast, this was our last chance to go to that place that we had spotted the day before: Cruze Farm Dairy.

This is one of those places that I wished I could revisit again and again.  They specialize in ice cream made from milk from a local Knoxville farm.  THE SOFT SERVE WAS THE BEST.

Sweet cream strawberry swirl

Lavender honey soft serve

And let's take a second to admire the diameter of this mosquito bite from the graveyard.

Day Four

We would be making a four-hour journey back to Nashville to catch our flight home, but we had one more impromptu place to see.  Kristen invited us to her family’s farm over dinner.  I was so excited to see a farm in Tennessee.  I realized that we had asked a lot of stupid questions (i.e. "Who watches the animals when you are out of town?") or made very oblivious comments (i.e. "You would get E. Coli right away" regarding fresh goat's milk) when we were there, but Kristen responded nonjudgmentally and we learned so much.  She made us feel comfortable with asking burning questions about how she justifies eating meat and her opinion on city life.  I thought about how different our worlds were, right in the same country.  And I thought about how humbling it was to be here and to have the opportunity to understand Kristen's outlook on life firsthand.

Kristen’s family and grandparents had lived on this land, but her parents had built this house. Homesteading was how Kristen and her siblings were raised, and so it feels natural for her to stay on a farm, start one of her own, and work with animals in this field.

Kristen came out to greet us leading one mule, and all of a sudden, goats appeared, donkeys appeared, cats, dogs… it was sort of a parade!  It was cool that all of these different animals followed her, like they just trusted her.  We got a short lesson on how to feed animals bread - you keep your palms flat and pointing downwards or your fingers might become food, too.  I tried not to let this faze me, but it very clearly did.  The poor animals must have wondered why there was a group of very uncouth intruders on their land!

The discomfort is written all over Madison's face!

Debbie looked like she was being brave for Madison, but she told us later that she was dying inside because of her allergies.  She carried around an EpiPen and almost had to use it, she is a nurse after all.

I tried to put on my brave face too but it was very difficult!!  I've never felt more unrefined!

As time went on, we all got more comfortable and I was able to step up to the opportunity to milk one of the goats.  Okay, I squeezed out one little drop, but it still counts!  The goats were raised in the house alongside the dogs, so they roam free and are very tame.  But since I barely even know how to behave around a dog, I was still at a loss.  Stacy and Kristen had to hold the goat still to make it easier for me.  I wondered if they'd ever tried making goat cheese... though this would have been another comment that maybe only an ignorant urbanite might make.  Kristen was busy speculating why the goat even had milk to begin with, as she was neither pregnant nor mating.

We washed up and made our way back.  We had one more important stop before the airport, and that was our last hurrah for barbecue: Martin's.  By then, Wes’s parents knew the drill.  It’s non-negotiable.  Undoubtedly, we had great barbecue during this trip, but this last one was the best.  They had a variety of sauces (though not necessary), a lot of good solid sides (my hoecake!), delicious fried catfish, and all of the meats (they smoke the whole hog).  The health nut inside of me (which has been repressed for the last few days) got excited to see that there was salad on the menu, but it had the best of both worlds--it came with a hoecake and smoked turkey!

We had initially settled down outside, as if we hadn't learned that the weather can turn any second.  It was a beautiful day, but out of nowhere it got really windy and a few minutes later, it started raining hard.  There was no we moved inside.  But we got these mouthwatering photos taken outside!

We made our way to the airport, stuffed, with time to spare.  If only the TSA X-ray machines could show how much was inside of our bellies this trip.  We landed at LAX and naturally, Wes asked, “You guys hungry?”  But his parents were on home turf now, and they declined.  Our trip to the South was officially over, but we'd love to go back and explore other parts of it someday.

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