Stand by Your Pan
By John T. Edge
Nineteen sixty-nine was a good year for country crooner Conway Twitty. Three of his songs landed in the top ten, and the first location in a chain of eponymous restaurants opened in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. With an ad campaign that challenged consumers to “Tweet Yourself to a Twitty Burger” and a menu that featured “Hawaiian-style” hamburgers topped with deep-fried pineapple slices, “Itty Bitty Twitty Burgers” for children, and the requisite “Southern-fried” chicken, the Friars Point, Mississippi, native was poised for success.
But Twitty was no pioneer. By the time his first restaurant opened, Minnie Pearl, the Grand Ole Opry comedian famous for her hats and homespun humor, had commitments for 1,400 locations of Minnie Pearl’s Fried Chicken. Eddy Arnold, known to fans as “the Tennessee Plowboy,” was busy selling franchise licenses for Eddy Arnold’s Tennessee Fried Chicken. Hank Williams, Jr., was hawking barbeque. Tennessee Ernie Ford was selling steak and biscuits. Tex Ritter was peddling fast food from chuck wagons. Even Little Jimmy Dickens, of “Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait” fame, opened a restaurant. (No record remains of the temperature of the french fries or the speed of table service.)
Though the food offerings were myriad, the preponderance of fried chicken dishes did not escape the attention of parodists Homer and Jethro, who recorded a lament titled “There Ain’t a Chicken Safe in Tennessee.” Billy Edd Wheeler, not to be outdone, also recorded a song, “Fried Chicken and a Country Tune,” about this emergent industry within an industry. Over a banjo backbeat he sang:
They started a bunch of corporations
Everybody got into speculation
Chicken stock was so alarming
Nearly made Dow Jones go back to farmin’.
Today, the South is a virtual boneyard of bungled attempts to convert the cachet of country music stardom into food-industry cash. Not a single Minnie Pearl location remains open. Ditto for Eddy, Hank, Ernie, Tex, and Jimmy. The sole survivor is a Twitty’s in Hemphill, Texas. Though its distinctive tweety bird sign was lost to high winds last year, the restaurant remains at the center of life in this town of 1,300. Sadly, the Twitty Burger is no longer offered. “It really wasn’t that great of a hamburger...and they say that the pineapple always plopped out when you bit into it,” says Karen Neal, co-owner of the restaurant.
In the place of establishments like Twitty’s has come a new attempt to convert cachet into cash. Gone are the days of hokum and hamburgers. At Magnolias, Barbara Mandrell’s newly opened temple of haute cuisine in Franklin, Tennessee, fried chicken has been replaced with free-range chicken “stuffed with crumbled sausage and cornbread atop a sauté of sweet yellow corn crowned by fried parsnips.”
The yuppie in the cowboy hat has arrived.
This past winter, in an effort to understand what happened and why, I set out on a road trip. My first stop? Nashville, Tennessee’s newly arrived Wildhorse Saloon.
It is early afternoon when I arrive at the Wildhorse, a two-story entertainment complex and restaurant located in an area of downtown Nashville known as “the District.” Down the street, crowds are queuing up to get into Planet Hollywood. Around the corner, in front of the NASCAR Cafe, a passel of gimmecap-clad good ole boys and gals are ogling Jeff Gordon’s souped-up Chevrolet.
Meanwhile, on the Wildhorse dance floor, beneath a pack of galloping fiberglass horses suspended upside down from the ceiling, twelve tourists attempt to follow the syncopated steps of the dance instructor, a six-foot savant in lacquered blue jeans and a tan ten-gallon hat. As “Achy Breaky Heart” caroms off the brick walls, they buck, slide, and stumble their way through a line-dance routine.
I grab a seat at the bar, plop down $8.50 for a frozen margarita in a souvenir boot mug and begin perusing the menu. After selecting a smoked pulled-pork barbeque sandwich over a platter of red, white, and blue nacho chips smothered in chili, cheese, and salsa, I head off on a tour of the restaurant.
Climbing the stairs, I pass beneath an eight-foot neon lasso and hang a hard right, heading toward the back of the restaurant. Arranged in Plexiglas cases along a far wall are a series of dioramas featuring footwear once owned by country music stars. As I stare at Roy Acuff’s zippered half-boots, blunt, black, and shining bright beneath a spotlight, a woman in a red-sequined top and acid-wash jeans sidles up to me and asks, “They look as good as new, don’t they? Makes you wonder whether he ever wore them at all, don’t it?” We fall into easy conversation and complete the boot tour together, spending an inordinate amount of time discussing whether the hunk of shiny gold metal in front of Barbara Mandrell’s sequined white patent-leather pair is fool’s gold or the real thing.
When her husband comes back from the bathroom, we part, and I make my way to the upstairs bar, where yet another fiberglass horse sits on a stool, its head held up by one hoof, the other wrapped tightly around a mug of beer. I trade my empty margarita mug for a full beer and, sipping steadily from my boot, wander over to the balcony and gaze down at the couples bumbling across the basketball-court-sized dance floor. Though televised dance shows are staged here occasionally and WSM-FM hosts live radio shows in a downstairs studio, the couples now waltzing to Brooks and Dunn’s “Neon Moon” leave no doubt as to their amateur status. When a couple of kids struggling for possession of a balloon roll into their midst, the dancers break up, not a few of the men smiling shyly as if pleased to be released from duty. Taking a cue from the men, I retreat from the edge of the action, returning to my seat just as my food arrives.
Two bites into my barbeque sandwich, I chomp down on a flaccid four-inch arc of gristle that gleams white beneath a mound of pork and sauce. When I point this out to the bartender, he apologizes profusely, deducts the sandwich from my tab and, for reasons altogether unclear to me, asks, “Would you like to try a cigar from the humidor?” Rather than fork over $13.00 for a stogie dipped in Maker’s Mark bourbon, I pay my tab, grab my boot, and beat a path past the souvenir shop and out the door.
I’m still a bit hungry, but I have dinner reservations at Magnolias, Barbara Mandrell’s restaurant, in just a few hours.
“You know, we just opened last week and we’re already the hottest table in town,” the hostess told me when I called for directions. “You’ll love it.”
Fifteen miles or so south of Nashville, I pull off the highway into a rutted, gravel parking lot, gun the car, wave at the valet attendant, and park hard by a six-foot pothole brimming with stagnant rainwater. “It’s not that I’m cheap,” I tell my date as she steps gingerly through the muck. “I just can’t stand valet parking.”
Housed in a former mattress factory, the brick building is not without a certain industrial appeal. Trouble is, the architects have done their best to obscure the building’s origins.
We enter through a faux colonial portico, present ourselves to the hostess, and grimace when she tells us that, although we have reservations, the wait may be an hour.
Cocktails poured with a heavy hand ease the pain. And, thankfully, the wait is closer to thirty minutes. Guided by the hostess, we wend our way through the restaurant past table after table of fortyish fashion plates before being seated at a plush corner banquette. The room is spare, almost sterile in appearance, a study in off-white understatement.
The menu, on the other hand, is a study in excess. Nearly two feet tall and thirty-plus items long, it is a jumble of adjectives and ingredients. From the proud use of fifty-year-old balsamic vinegar in a crab, celery root, and fennel salad to the apparent predilection for sprinkling on white truffles in place of salt and black truffles in place of pepper, the offerings serve as a testament to the taste of country music’s New Guard. You can almost hear the chef exclaim, “Barbara Mandrell may have put up the money for this place, but we ain’t country!”
After flogging our way through a couple of lackluster appetizers, an excessively fatty breast of duck, and a tasty quail served whole but boned from the inside before being stuffed with foie gras and black truffles, we arrive at dessert. Throughout the evening, the wait staff has been referring to us as Mr. and Mrs. Edge, and now, tipsy from our stiff pre-dinner drinks and a bottle of pinot noir, we give in to the ruse and feign newlywed status.
Moments later, a tiered chocolate dessert appears, “compliments of the chef.” But when I try to crack the skull of the Bibendum-like creature with my knife, the top ball rolls off and lands with a clunk onto the white linen tablecloth. My date and I bawl with laughter. The beauty of the gesture is lost. The ruse is up. And I’m soon pining for a Twitty Burger.
One hundred and fifty-eight dollars lighter and a few pounds heavier, we exit.
LORETTA LYNN’S KITCHEN
The next morning, I’m on the road early, intent on making it to Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen before they break down the breakfast bar. About seventy miles west of Nashville, I turn off I-40 onto Loretta Lynn Parkway. Just past Barren Hollow Road I climb a hill toward a low-slung ranch-style building tucked into the side of a raw mound of red dirt.
I need not have worried about the breakfast bar; it’s due to be up for another hour, so I take the time to wander about the restaurant. Tacked to the plywood paneling are a number of bronze and silver plaques attesting to Loretta’s ongoing sponsorship of the Amateur Dirt Bike Championship and the All Terrain Vehicle Nationals. Arrayed along the wall are a collection of Loretta’s albums, their lurid colors bleached beige by the sun. Nowhere to be seen are the silk-clad swells from last night.
I grab a seat beneath my favorite album, Fist City, and before I even have a chance to unroll the napkin and silverware, my coffee cup is full, courtesy of Dusti, a pert fireplug of a woman with white spiked hair. When I ask for cream, she fishes a couple of Mini Moos from her shirt pocket, collects my menu, and directs me toward the buffet, a brass and glass gondola tucked into a side room next to the kitchen.
As the Beach Boys plow into “Little GTO” over the restaurant’s sound system, I pile my plate high with cinnamon doughnuts, silver-dollar pancakes, bacon, sausage, biscuits, cream gravy, and eggs. Though the food looked appetizing enough at the buffet, by the time I sit back down, my Lucullan feast has lost its luster. The bacon is brittle; the eggs are rigid curds; and the gelatinous gravy has all the aesthetic appeal of pluff mud. My neighbor in the next booth has salvaged his meal by drenching his entire platter with a ladle full of phosphorescent liquid cheese. Instead, I take a bite or two of my biscuit, slap a tip on the table for Dusti, and head for the cash register.
As I leave the dining room, a wisp of a man in a white fringed shirt enters, singing Loretta’s first number-one hit, “Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).” To no one in particular, he announces his intention to eat all the ham on the buffet. “Back home, we get by on baloney instead,” he adds. “We call it round steak.” When Dusti comes over to take his order, he quiets, screwing up his face into an innocent boyish grin before asking, “When’s the last time Miss Loretta’s been in?”
On the way out the door, I pick up a coffee mug emblazoned with a rooster and a slo- gan that proclaims, “Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen: Something to Crow About.” When I ask the cashier, Linda, about Loretta’s whereabouts, she fixes me with a conspiratorial grin and confesses: “Loretta doesn’t even own this place. They just use her name.”
It’s a long haul across Tennessee to Pigeon Forge, home of the Alabama Grill and Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. Driving eastward, the rolling hills of Central Tennessee give way to the stooped irregularity of the piedmont. Finally, just south of Knoxville, in a little burg called Seymour, I top a ridge, and the Great Smoky Mountains stare me in the face. Soon, I will have to peer past billboards for the Muscle Car Museum and the Rebel Yell Raceway to catch a glimpse of the craggy peaks, but for now my view is unobstructed.
Continuing southward through Sevierville, past a life-size bronze statue of Dolly Parton in front of her hometown courthouse, and on into Pigeon Forge, I thread my way through heavy traffic past scores of fast-food joints and a couple of Bible outlets. At the center of a concrete cul-de-sac, flanked by the Music Mansion and the Louise Mandrell Theatre, is the Alabama Grill, a stucco jukebox of a building erected in tribute to the country music supergroup.
Bypassing the tour bus and white stretch limousine on display out front, I hustle up the steps. It is almost two in the afternoon, and the only thing I’ve had to eat all day is a few bites from a biscuit no man’s momma would claim.
Inside, near the hostess stand, is a sign proudly announcing Alabama’s selection as “Artist of the Decade.” On the wall is a series of four glass cases filled with mementos, one case for each member of the band. Gazing at the adjacent plaques, I learn of the group’s origins in Fort Payne, Alabama, their forty-plus number-one hits, and the likes and dislikes of the individual members. Of lead singer Randy Owens I learn, “His favorite color is red, because it’s happy.”
The hostess seats me in the center of the dining room beneath a forty-foot neon-trimmed guitar. Just behind me is an elevated stage. Above the stage is a backlit stained-glass mural of the group punctuated by shafts of heavenly light that cut across the foreground. Framed gold records surround me. Publicity stills, hermetically sealed behind glass and framed in gold, ring the room.
From the luncheon special menu, I order meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and iced tea.
The kitsch factor is low; the technology is high. On a series of closed-circuit televisions Brooks and Dunn sing, “I’m her redneck daddy, she’s my little Miss Honkytonk.” Between videos, Alabama bandmembers tell of their vision for the restaurant as a tribute to “all the great country music stars and legends.” Leaning hard into my chair to eavesdrop more effectively, I hear a couple in polo shirts and khakis refer to the restaurant as being “just like a honky-tonk Hard Rock Cafe.”
At another table, a family of five take turns pointing out their favorites from the memorabilia that covers nearly every inch of wall space. “Look, Daddy, there’s Sawyer Brown’s drum kit!” shouts a teenage boy in blue jeans and a Foghorn Leghorn t-shirt.
Lunch arrives. The meatloaf is great—a dense hunk of beef, onions, and breading. And the mashed potatoes are a little lumpy—just the way I like them. I polish my plate off in no time, pay my bill, and move toward the gift shop, intent on picking up a little something.
Halfway across the dining room floor, just past the display of cowboy hats autographed by Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and George Strait, I stop and whirl when the next song turns out to be not another country ditty but something akin to the theme song from the movie Rocky. As a twelve-foot screen descends to cover the stained-glass mural and an unseen emcee with a voice like God introduces Randy Owens, the waiters and waitresses leave their stations, band together at the sides of the stage, mount the steps, exchange their tennis shoes for clogs, and begin a dance routine.
Mired as I am in a post-prandial funk, this is all a bit too much for me to handle. In fact, I am so flustered that I forget all about the Alabama Grill Gold Label Barbecue Sauce I was planning to buy.
DOLLY PARTON’S DIXIE STAMPEDE
The smells of green wood and brown manure hang heavy in the air when I present myself at the Dixie Stampede ticket window. Close by I can hear the whinnying of horses in the stables. I wait in line as the gentleman in front of me forks over $28.99 for his ticket, declares his allegiance to the South, and collects his seat assignment on the Confederate side.
“I’m sorry but we’re all out of Southern seats,” the hoop-skirted hostess tells me. “You’ll have to sit with the Yankees.” I take my ticket and follow the crowd into the sprawling Dixie Stampede complex. From the outside, this joint venture of country singer Dolly Parton and water-ski impresario Fred Hardwick looks like an overgrown farmhouse with a gymnasium tacked onto the back. From the inside, it looks like a barn.
Ushered into the Dixie Belle Saloon, I snag a souvenir boot-full of Pepsi and join a few hundred other souls crowded around an elevated stage listening to a four-piece band plunk out bluegrass and country standards. When the banjo player, Biscuit, is introduced as having “played on Dolly’s new CD,” the crowd acknowledges the accomplishment with polite applause. In response, Biscuit dances a jig, balances on one leg, and then leads the band in a subtle segue from “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to the theme from The Flintstones.
Five minutes later, the doors at the far end of the room fling open, and we enter a 1,000-seat hippodrome with a dirt-floored arena at its center. Chaperones stand at the ready, blue-coated men leading the way toward the Northern side, gray-coated women leading the way South. I tramp along with the other Yankees toward my seat. At the far end of the arena, a Tara-esque facade looms large.
I take my seat on a brown vinyl bench. But before I even get settled in, our host for the evening—I think he said his name was Kenny—comes barreling out into the center of the arena atop a white horse.
“Howdy, folks!” he bellows. “Tonight on this very spot were going to settle a 137- year-old rivalry.”
When he turns our way and asks us to welcome “the Union army—from the North,” most of the four hundred or so folks on my side rise in unison to stomp and cheer as six riders sprint across the arena. This may well be in good fun, but I can’t bring myself to cheer on the Yankees. To my left, a kind-faced lady with gray curly hair also stays seated, and when she looks my way, I shake my head. Sensing my distress, she leans over and whispers in my ear: “My name’s Louise. You must be a Southerner, too. I tell you what we’ll do; let’s be spies.”
Before the roping and riding competition gets underway, we are treated to a musical pageant so provincial and pro-Southern as to make a United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter president blush. To the saccharine sounds of “Once Upon a Southern Time,” belles and beaus in teal costumes twirl across a dance floor framed by Corinthian columns singing:
Once upon a Southern time
On this great plantation
Life was like a fairytale
Filled with romance
These were days of happy hearts
Such days of bliss
As time goes by
We will remember this.
When the dancers depart, the roping and riding begins in earnest. Over the course of the next hour or so, we watch horsemen jump through flaming hoops and horsewomen slalom race—all for the greater good of the two warring factions. My co-conspirator and I offer quiet encouragement to the boys in gray, clapping politely for the Yankees when prompted by our Northern neighbors. By the time I have slurped down most of my pasty pallid soup, eaten half of my roasted chicken, and taken a few bites from a buttery nub of corn-on-the-cob—all without the aid of fork, knife or spoon—it is time for the ostrich race.
Two ostriches pitch left and then right, their Yankee and Confederate riders fighting to keep them under control long enough to cross the finish line some fifty yards away. As the gangly creatures gallop by, a chubby Yankee seated to my right leans over and asks, “Do you know what an ostrich and a moped have in common?” After a half-beat hesitation, he provides the punch line, “They’re both fun to ride ’til your friends see ya.” When the dust has cleared and the riders have dismounted, the South claims victory. Though a few more contests remain, they do not hold my attention. After all, Louise and I decide, an ostrich race is a tough act to follow.
When the final results are tallied, the South is declared the winner of our war. Reversing 137 years of history, the Southern riders return to the arena triumphant. Across the way, the crowd stands and screams its approval, the mighty cheer accentuated by a few rebel yells.
But before the Confederates can work themselves into a froth, our ringmaster reappears on horseback and begins shouting “God bless America!” as a forty-foot American flag unfurls to cover Tara. In a rapid-fire version of Reconstruction, we are all asked to embrace our common bond as Americans. On cue, the riders reappear, their blue and gray uniforms exchanged for striking red, white, and blue outfits. A Conestoga wagon ringed with Christmas lights and topped with another American flag trails behind. Following a few patriotic turns around the arena, Kenny bids us good night. I pay my respects to Louise and her husband, and join the others traipsing up the stairs toward the exit.
Upon entering the restroom, I realize that Reconstruction has failed. Miserably. In front of the urinals, above which are tacked signs saying “Southerners Only” and “Northerners Only,” men are queued up three deep waiting their turn. The line is a bit longer, but I choose a Southern stall. As I walk out the door I can hear a man with a deep drawl chiding his friend for not waiting. “Hell, Bob,” his friend answers, “My pecker don’t pledge allegiance to either side.”
A RETURN TO REALITY BY WAY OF NASHVILLE
On my way back home, I stop off in Nashville to use the phone. My dinner companion from the other night had mentioned that the Cracker Barrel restaurant near Opryland is a favorite of some of the older Grand Ole Opry stars, so, on the off chance that I might be rewarded with a sighting, I decide to make my call from a pay phone in the alcove outside their restroom. After hanging up, I pop my head in the dining room and scan the crowd for celebrities. Sitting in a corner by himself, tucking in a platter of vegetables, is a tall, gawky man, the spitting image of country music comedian George Lindsay, known to fans as Goober.
When I ask the manager if that is indeed Goober, he declines comment, but he does admit that the restaurant makes it a policy to feed stars for free. “Any star who comes in here, it’s on the house,” he says. “You’d be surprised who takes us up on the offer. But I’m not naming names...”
As I leave the dining room, I glance back over my shoulder. Goober has finished his vegetables. He has a spoon in his hand. And a bowl of peach cobbler has just arrived.
Try This at Home
Pages from a Lost Repast
Those intent upon reclaiming the cuisine of country musics past are advised to haunt used bookstores until they come across a copy of Cooking with Country by Claudia Burgess, a former Playboy bunny who, at the time of the book’s publication in 1978, was studying for the ministry. Among the treasures to be found within are “Jim Ed Browns Chicken in Potato Chips,” “Merle Haggard’s Sweet-Fried Catfish,” and “Bobby Bare’s Oyster Casserole.” Though Bare’s recipe is not of great culinary interest, his recounting of its origins is worth a read:
I discovered this recipe at the Greyhound Bus Station in Yazoo City, Mississippi. I walked into the coffee shop at two a.m. with my guitar, and the waitress—her name was Opalene—mistook me for Maurice Chevalier. No amount of argument could convince her that I was not Maurice. So, I finally gave up, sang a verse and a chorus of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls," and took her to her mobile home where she fed me oyster casserole and Pearl beer, and kept asking me if I knew Edith Piaf.
“Conway Twitty’s Twitty Burger” is also featured. For those who never had a chance to sample his restaurant’s specialty, he offers a recipe for home cooks. “I got the idea for the pineapple when I was in Hawaii...” he explains.
Conway Twitty’s Twitty Burger
3/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon melted butter
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 egg beaten
4 large ground sirloin patties
4 pineapple slices
Batter (see step one)
4 large sesame seed buns
8 slices bacon, fried crisp
8 very thin slices tomato
Oil for deep frying
1. Prepare batter. Sift flour and sugar into bowl. Stir in melted butter and water. Mix well. Add salt and beaten egg, and combine well.
2. Prepare burgers. Grill patties to individual taste. Meanwhile, dip pineapple slices into batter and deep fry them. Toast sesame seed buns, if desired. Spread both sides of bun with mayonnaise. Build sandwich by placing cooked patty on a bun and topping with 2 slices of bacon and 2 tomato slices. Finish it off with a fried pineapple slice and top of bun.