You mean to tell me…there’s an entire museum…dedicated to us??” my friend asked incredulously. This is what I mean to tell you…there’s an entire museum dedicated to us, to all those who came before us, and to all those who will come after us…here in this paradoxical world of the Mountain South. The Museum of Appalachia, about 16 miles North and a couple hundred years away from modern day Knoxville, in the small community of Norris, TN, began as the dream of John Rice Irwin in 1969. Today it boasts 36 pioneer buildings, numerous authentic artifacts collected from the first settlers of this region – Cherokee, English, Scotch-Irish, and a highly prized Smithsonian Affiliation. For an admission fee, you can take a day and tour the museum, or you can pop into the Museum Shop and Restaurant any day of the week, for free.
The first day I went for lunch at the Museum of Appalachia just happened to be Sheep Shearing Day. It’s a Springtime ritual at the museum, drawing many visitors and school groups to watch and participate in demonstrations, and both the grounds and restaurant were packed with guests. I placed my order at the counter, not even noticing there weren’t any tables available. Being on the lookout for their customers’ comfort, the sweet lady who took my order said she thought a guest was leaving his table soon, or that one of their regulars was there and I could go sit with him if I liked.
Jack said he would be delighted if I would join him for lunch. He looked to be somewhere in his 80’s, well educated, with a kind and gentle disposition. “You from around here?” he asked. People from these hills and hollers are notoriously shy around outsiders. I because suddenly aware that while most everyone there was dressed in denim or shorts, I was wearing my ‘armor’ from the city – black skirt, black sweater, scarf wrapped around my neck. “I’m from Knoxville,” I replied, knowing that could explain…just about anything. “Oh, me too!” Jack exclaimed. We had found our common ground. Following a career in engineering, Jack moved to the scenic area of Norris, to be near the lake. He has a meal, consisting of a vegetable plate, oatmeal cookie, and coffee, at the Museum Restaurant, usually 5 days a week. His favorite dish is the Fresh Garden Casserole, which is not on the rotating menu today, so he has opted for the TCO – Tomato, Cucumber, & Onion Salad. “You want some butter for your cornbread?” I suddenly asked. Every plate at the Museum Restaurant comes with cornbread. “Oh, no,” he replied, and gave me a look like I was about to do something dangerous.
As Jack and I talked, I took a bite of the day’s ham special, looked out the large windows to the peaceful green pastures, and thought about what the television character Carrie Bradshaw said when she found her dream apartment in New York City, “Hello…I live here.” “You some kind of journalist?” Jack brought me back in. “Not exactly,” I said, filling my fork full of green beans. I explained to Jack how I had come there to learn about the restaurant. “Oh…you need to talk to Kristy, she runs the kitchen.”
Enter Kristy Wells. John Rice Irwin describes Appalachian people in some quotes around the museum as a warm, colorful, happy, independent, jolly lot. This description fits most everyone I grew up with in Southern Greene County, and, Kristy Wells. This petite lady has overseen the Museum kitchen with a staff of 6 for the past 3 years. “Did you get you some dessert?” she asks me. “Oh, I had the blueberry salad,” I say. Blueberry Jello Salad to be exact – blueberries suspended in gelatin, with whipped cream. “Oh, honey, that’s not dessert…that’s a salad. Let me go get you some dessert,” Kristy insists. Ok, I silently agreed. I’ve learned one thing in this life – if you run into a really good cook, sit quietly and eat everything they offer you. Otherwise you might miss out on some wonderful flavors.
Kristy is outgoing and reticent at the same time, another common characteristic of Appalachian folk. As I ask her about the food and cooking, she begins to open up and information comes rushing forth. “I was hired here for my cooking style. This is real southern cooking, with all the butter,” Kristy tells me. “The biggest thing is,” she continues, “I taste as I go, to make sure everything is well seasoned. We have a garden where we grow vegetables and herbs. We like to use as many fresh ingredients as we can.”
The Museum Restaurant is open from 11:00-2:00, 7 days a week, and serves 50 to 75 lunches on a typical day. Kristy runs daily specials and guests can sign up with the Museum to receive emails noting the specials for the entire week. The items offered are of the Appalachian heritage and some of the most popular are chicken and dumplings, meatloaf, ham, steak and gravy, pinto (soup) beans, casseroles, fried green tomatoes, fried okra, potatoes, greens, wilted lettuce, deviled eggs, cast iron cornbread, and of course, congealed salads. By this time, Jane Kirk, the marketing director for the Museum has joined us. We laughed a bit about a recent article in a national magazine claiming congealed salads were making a comeback. Here at the Museum of Appalachia, and in most Southern homes, they never left.
Kristy stops her dialog for a moment to joke with someone she knows at the next table over. Around here, if someone teases you, that’s how they show they are fond of you. “All of our desserts are homemade,” she continues. Kristy has brought out a sampler for us – blackberry cobbler, a peach cobbler trifle, mounds cake, pineapple upside down cake, and a “Spring” red velvet cake, with fresh berries. They also make an apple cake, German chocolate, hummingbird, lemon blueberry, and many, many others. As Jack, Jane and I divide up the desserts, the pace slows down a bit and Kristy talks about her inspiration. “My Mother taught me how to cook and can. That’s what the Museum is all about – carrying on a tradition. She put the love into the food.” I smiled to myself, as I thought about hearing my own Mother say many times, “I cook with love.” “She had a joy for cooking and serving, that’s what I try to do. I put the love into the food, don’t I Jack?” “I knew there was something special about her, the first time I met her,” Jack replies. And it seems that’s the way it goes, we learn over the years from these larger than life people, then one day, we become them.
As Kristy leaves us to go back to the kitchen, Jane tells me more about the Museum. The guests here are a mix of locals and tourists. They find out about the Museum by billboards, brochures, word of mouth, and social media. Overall, the Museum sees about 100,000 guests a year. “People come here from all over the world,” Jane tells me. Reservations are available in the restaurant for large groups and they even have an event space, Heritage Hall, that can seat over 200 guests for private dinners and parties. On the horizon is a Museum cookbook, which I know will be at the same time, just as simple and complex as this Eastern Tennessee area.
So here’s what I mean to tell you – before you make one more trip to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, or Sevierville, make a point to visit the Museum of Appalachia. This is the real deal, and it’s dedicated to us, the warm, colorful, happy, independent folk of the Southern Appalachians.