A hankering for East Tennessee

Sunday, June 30, 2002

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

You might not realize it, but Tennessee is three states, and my husband, Ace, I always feel sad when we see our former home state -- East Tennessee and the beautiful Smoky Mountains -- get short shrift.

So, in the interest of equal time, I come to you today to sing the praises of East Tennessee. Tennessee is a long skinny state. In fact, Canada is closer to parts of East Tennessee than is Memphis, the nominal capital of West Tennessee. The capital of Middle Tennessee is Nashville, also the site of the state Capitol (the one cited in grade school geography books).

Given the bad blood that evolved after East Tennessee sympathized with the Union in what Southerners refer to as the War of Northern Aggression, few were probably surprised when Nashville "stole" country music from Knoxville, the ET capital where we lived for nearly three years. For years, state tax money went to parts of the state more loyal to "The Cause."

One thing East Tennessee was able to hang onto is the University of Tennessee, and that manifests itself in unusual ways. Just as Pittsburgh has about as much in common with Philadelphia as a lover of spa cuisine has in common with a chocoholic, true-blue Southerners wonder about the college's parentage.

When a former Knoxville News-Sentinel co-worker, who was raised near Memphis, told her Baptist preacher that she planned to attend college -- voluntarily -- with the Tennessee Volunteers, he took her hand, led her to the altar, told her to get down on her knees and he'd pray for her everlasting soul -- because "You're leavin' the South."

It is a shock to move to a place where grown men don bright orange pants each fall Saturday and cheer on the Vols, though our newspaper was sure it knew the answer when it asked in a huge, orange headline, "Orange U a Vol?"

The Vols may have their ups and downs, but their fans hang in there, as in no other place I've lived. East Tennesseeans are soothingly polite, yet the only time I heard anybody honk a car horn was the weekend of the 'Bama game.

Last week, Dorothy Brush, a native of Ohio who retired to Crossville in East Tennessee and now writes for the Crossville Chronicle, was in Pittsburgh for the columnists' convention. She and I believe ET winters are just about the best you can get -- sunny, crisp, with a little snow you know is going to make a pretty splash, then disappear.

The hot, humid summers can make your clothes stick like honey to a warm biscuit, though. I don't think I've ever been as hot as doing aerobics in an un-air-conditioned Y in downtown Knoxville.

Yet Ace and I worked with a guy who was philosophically opposed to air conditioning (he probably thought it was a plot by Northern interlopers). Although it didn't take me long to shuck my synthetic clothes for cotton, another friend reveled in the hot, sticky weather -- of course, he considered Vietnam's temperatures ideal.

Like Western Pennsylvania, East Tennessee seems a land unto itself, a friendly land, I might add. But it's hilly and didn't have the agricultural land to support many Scarlett O'Hara plantations. Its richness is in its people, the kind of folk who once sat on the front porch and picked out a tune on the guitar. Kids in those parts didn't have music lessons -- they had Uncle Joe or Aunt Minnie to teach them to fiddle.

Country music was bred and born in East Tennessee, natives say, and if Nashville hadn't lured away the main country radio station, maybe Dolly Parton wouldn't have had to leave her birthplace just south of Knoxville to find fame and fortune. She came home to found Dollywood, though.

East Tennessee's richness wasn't just in its musicians. It is command central for storytellers, the kind of place where our wonderful minister earned his master's degree in storytelling. And the so-called "Southern writer" doesn't just spring up unguided -- he or she listened and learned from uncles rocking on the back porch, mothers and aunts swapping stories around the kitchen table after a meal of corn bread baked in a cast-iron skillet, country ham and greens. It's not everywhere you find banana pudding in every deli case, and don't forget the biscuits, as light as a Smoky Mountain breeze.

Well, maybe they weren't so light the way I enjoyed them. Each morning en route to work, I'd stop at the drive-in window for a sausage-and-biscuit sandwich. The biscuits were warm in the white wrapper, and the coffee was still hot when I settled in behind my desk in our air-conditioned office.

"Air conditioning ruined the South," old-timers will tell you. "That, and the durned tee-vee."

Well, it's not ruined yet. Sure, we were lured to and actually liked the strange mysticism that surrounds Elvis Presley's Graceland in Memphis as much as we loved sitting on the stage while the Grand Ole Opry stars sang their tunes in Nashville. But best of all, we liked our town of Seymour, Tenn., about 15 miles south of Knoxville. Our motto: See More of Seymour.

This spring I got mighty lonesome for East Tennessee. Ross had a great spring for dogwoods, which scream the name of our former home. In April in East Tennessee, Ace and I could roll down the windows of our car and let the warm breeze in as we took in a wonderland of dogwoods in the woods, which also were sprinkled with redbuds as a grace note. Dogwoods graced every spare piece of space, and they were spectacular.

Someone from out of state once asked the rep for the annual Dogwood Arts Festival, "Well, do you, like, have anything besides dogwoods?"

"They're really quite a lot," she said with a sigh. But maybe it's one of those you-just-have-to-be-there things.

Like seeing Dolly in her home stomping ground, where a statue of her and her guitar graces the courthouse lawn in Sevierville, the Sevier County seat. And, yes, a sausage-and-biscuit sandwich for breakfast.

Coca-Cola Cake

When you live someplace new, there are always differences you never get used to. We lived in East Tennessee for three years, and we never got used to this conversation:

Hostess: "Would you like a coke?"

Me: "Yes."

She: "What kind?"

In that part of the world, coke was a generic term for what some states call pop, others soda. They called the brand Co-Cola. Atlanta, of course, is Coca-Cola headquarters, and they've got a museum to prove it.

2 cups sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups small marshmallows
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup Coca-Cola
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
6 tablespoons Coca-Cola
1 box (16 ounces) confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chopped pecans

For cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, sift together sugar and flour. Add marshmallows. In saucepan, mix butter, oil, cocoa and Coca-Cola. Bring to a boil, and pour over dry ingredients; blend well. Dissolve baking soda in buttermilk just before adding to batter along with eggs and vanilla extract, mixing well. Pour into a well-greased 9-by-13-inch pan, and bake 35 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and frost immediately.

For frosting: Combine butter, cocoa and Coca-Cola in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and pour over confectioners' sugar, blending well. Add vanilla extract and pecans. Spread over hot cake. When cool, cut into squares and serve. Makes 15 servings.

Myra and Jean Johnson, Plain and Fancy Catering

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You Know You're From... When...

Click on the state(s) you've lived in - and see if you really act like you're from there! http://www.blogthings.com/wherefrom.html

North Jersey
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Someone at the beach once called you a benny.

You can see the New York City skyline from some part of your town.

You know what CCM is and a good percentage of people from your high school go there.

You've seen or been in a fight between a Rangers fan and a Devils fan.

You have or know someone with mafia connections too.

You think the New York Jets should be called the New Jersey Jets.

You have at least one friend who drives a truck.

You've been camping.

You've been in a town or city where Spanish is spoken more than English.

You can't remember when Clifton didn't win a softball championship.

You know where to get drugs in Paterson, Newark, or New York.

You've been to a party in the woods.

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You played in a P.A.L league.

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You know where to get a freshly cooked Taylor Ham, Egg and Cheese sandwich at 2 a.m.

You've been to the Sussex County Fair.

You remember Action Park and may have been seriously injured there.

At some time you got on the wrong highway trying to get out of Willowbrook Mall.

Z-100 used to be your favorite radio station, now it's K-Rock.

You think people from South Jersey talk funny.

Every single place you've ever worked had a "back" that was entirely staffed by hispanic people with the radio blasting salsa music.

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You actually get these jokes and pass them on to other friends from North Jersey.