All hell broke loose in Philadelphia during late September of 2015. That’s when Pope Francis visited town. To say his arrival upended the normal routine of those of us who worked in Center City – Philly’s downtown area – would be an understatement. Driving into town wasn’t an option and public transit would be overflowing. On top of that, my wife and I are not fond of being in the midst of large throngs of people. So we decided to get out of town for the week and return when things returned to normal.
I turned 50 that summer and had been planning a major roadfood-themed vacation to celebrate for some time. Rather than taking the trip around the time of my birthday, we held off and did so while Francis was doing his thing in the City of Brotherly Love.
One of the roadfood genres that had enticed me in photographs and others’ trip reports for years was Southern food; meat-and-three in particular. And Nashville seemed to be a hub for that type of cuisine. I had wanted to visit the city to sample its culinary delights for a long time and decided to finally do so as part of my big celebration. Of course, we had to get there and that left open all kinds of options for meal stops. We also decided to head north after visiting Nashville to see our friends in Indiana and drive home through the Midwest.
Our route on the trip’s first day took us down I-81 through western Virginia. And our first stop as we headed in that direction had nothing to do with eating, but was rather a visit to one of the more historically significant pieces of land in the United States; the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. September 17, 1862, when the Civil War’s Battle of Antietam took place, was the bloodiest single day in American history, with a combined Union and Confederate total of 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing. We first went inside to check out the visitor center and museum, then walked around the battlefield. It was an extremely moving experience, to say the least. As is the case at Gettysburg, there are a number of monuments commemorating the ultimate sacrifice made by so many.
From Sharpsburg, we headed southwest and linked up with I-81. Our planned lunch stop was a big one for me. The Southern Kitchen in New Market, Virginia, is legendary among those of us who spent years discussing our travel dining experiences on the now defunct roadfood message board. Stopping off there is a sure sign that you’ve left the North and are now in Southern territory. They have a large menu that includes such regional specialties as country ham, peanut soup, fresh baked biscuits, grits, fried chicken and much more.
I opted for a fried chicken platter with mashed potatoes and porky green beans. The chicken turned out to be slightly disappointing, although it was much better when I had it on a return visit a couple years later. The cook was more liberal with seasoning the second time around. In any event, I enjoyed the green beans for their porky accent. Southern green vegetables tend to be cooked until very well done with pork fat and often have chunks of pork mixed in them. I am normally finicky when it comes to vegetables, but add some pork to them and my attitude tends to change.
For dessert, I had meringue-topped coconut-cream pie, while my wife went with another regional specialty; Grape Nuts pudding. Actually, the latter is also available in parts of New England, but I would guess it’s not made the same way up there. As much as I love pie, the taste I had of that pudding was an eye-opener that led me to order it the next time I stopped in New Market.
We had no intention of driving through to Nashville in a single day and stopped to spend the night in Wytheville, Virginia, which is a fairly short ride from three other states; North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. Our hotel was in the heart of the downtown’s main strip, across the street from where Edith Bolling Wilson, the town’s most famous former resident, was raised. She was the second wife of President Woodrow Wilson and is recognized as having taken on a great deal of the President’s responsibilities at the end of his second term, after he suffered a major stroke.
Our room faced Main Street, and I was in for a wonderful surprise when I checked out the view from our window. We were almost directly across the street from Skeeter’s Umburger, an extremely classic roadfood establishment I had first read about on the late Holly Moore’s roadfood site. They were closed when we arrived in town but I ran over to check out their hours and determined that I would have an early breakfast there before we left town for Tennessee the following morning.
The inside of Skeeter’s looks like it went through a time warp, in the best sense of the term. There are all kinds of classic artifacts in there, many hanging on their walls.
I enjoyed my basic breakfast plate and was fortified for the next leg of our journey.
Incidentally, a friend who recently visited Wytheville informed me that Skeeter’s no longer serves breakfast. Their main claim to fame is hot dogs. I was sorry to miss out on those, but hopefully I’ll get another opportunity to stop off in Wytheville to make amends for that.
Later that morning, we stopped in Bristol, which sits right on the Virginia-Tennessee border and is partially in each state. Our main purpose for the stop was to buy a college mug at King University to add to my brother-in-law’s collection. We also made an honest effort to find the home of singer and TV host, Tennessee Ernie Ford, one of Bristol’s landmarks. But we got lost in spite of having a GPS and eventually decided we needed to get back on the road to avoid falling behind schedule.
For the second straight day, we had an important lunch stop planned, this time in Bluff City, Tennessee, the home of Ridgewood Barbecue, which is considered by many to be the state’s top barbecue joint. It’s located in such an isolated spot that we had to stop at a gas station for directions when we were getting close. We were told to turn onto the next tiny road and drive through the woods until we smell meat smoking. That did the trick.
Ridgewood has a style of barbecue I hadn’t experienced before and haven’t since. They smoke fresh, uncured hams, then slice off thin pieces, which get heated on a flat griddle with the house sauce. I ordered a pork and fries plate and enjoyed a little crock of baked beans on the side. My wife helped out with the pork and fries and also tried their extra creamy coleslaw with crackers. I have to admit I think the barbecue at Ridgewood is a little overrated given their huge reputation in roadfood circles. But the experience of finding the place and eating there was well worthwhile.
From Bluff City, we linked up with I-40 and made our way west toward Nashville. But we had a couple more stops to make before getting there. The first was in Dandridge, Tennessee, the sight of a lesser-known Civil War battle. It’s also where you’ll find the Tinsley-Bible Drug Co., a classic old drug store with a lunch counter and soda fountain. I’ve mentioned my love for such places and the fact that I seek them out when travelling in past posts.
Based on the name of the place, I expected to find bibles there. I didn’t, but it turns out that Bible was the last name of one of the store’s founders.
We were only there for the soda fountain, but I would love to stop back in for lunch if I ever get the chance. They have a beautiful setup with both counter seating and wooden booths.
My vanilla malt was stellar.
We also stopped off in Knoxville for another college mug, this time from the University of Tennessee, where we also caught a glimpse of their football stadium.
And speaking of football stadiums, when we finally arrived in Nashville, we discovered that our hotel was across the parking lot from Vanderbilt University’s.
We were tired from so much time in the car and ate at a fairly nice Italian restaurant near the hotel that night. While walking around the neighborhood, we were delighted to spot a Piggly Wiggly market. My wife and I are big fans of the Coen Brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? There is a Piggly Wiggly reference in it, but neither of us knew it was a real store or that they still existed. It turns out there are a number of them, mostly in the Southeast.
To be continued.