From Mary Mac’s Fried Chicken to the Boone Tavern’s Spoonbread, My Taste for Southern Food Glows Like Foxfire

Lunch and dinner are the two highlights of my day, so I relished the opportunity to indulge in some tasty Southern fare during my travels with the Ohio History Connection in Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky.

At 212 Market in downtown Chattanooga, I tucked into tomato lentil soup, pan-roasted chicken with asparagus and carrot risotto, homemade bread, raspberry chocolate cake and other foods from local farms and suppliers.

After I feasted on a sumptuous buffet dinner at the Conservatory at Waterstone in Acworth, Georgia, pianist Briana Duensing (also known as “Bonnie Blue Briana”) played Civil War tunes like “The Girl I Left Behind,” “The Sword of Robert E. Lee,” The Vacant Chair and “Marching Through Georgia.”

At Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Midtown Atlanta, which has been serving classic Southern food since 1945, I worked my way through an amazing buffet lunch of the crispiest, juiciest fried chicken I’ve ever tasted, macaroni and cheese, oven-roasted turkey and cornbread dressing, whipped potatoes, steamed vegetables, cinnamon rolls, Georgia peach cobbler and iced tea (“The Table Wine of the South”). Check out Mary Mac’s Tea Room: 65 Years of Recipes from Atlanta’s Favorite Dining Room by John Ferrell and you’ll see why I could hardly get up from the table.

Southern lunch at Mary Mac's Tea Room

In the café at Lane Southern Orchards in Fort Valley, Georgia, I put away homemade meatloaf, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, dinner rolls and peach cobbler. Then, I took a farm tour of the family business that has planted 3,000 acres of peach orchards, 3,000 acres of pecan groves, a six-acre strawberry patch, and rows of raspberries since 1908. Before I left, I chose pecans and luscious scarlet red-and-yellow Ruby Prince peaches from the roadside market to take home and give as a souvenir.

Georgia peach cobbler at Lane Southern Orchards

Before I packed my suitcase for home, I twirled homemade spaghetti around my fork and sopped up hearty tomato sauce with the tastiest breadsticks at DaVinci’s Pizzeria in downtown Atlanta.

But most of all, I looked forward to the last meal of my Civil War bus tour — lunch at the Boone Tavern in Berea, Kentucky.

Boone Tavern, Berea, Kentucky

In 1907, the Boone Tavern was built to accommodate visitors to Berea College, a unique educational institution where students do not pay tuition, but are required to work on campus at least 10 hours a week to earn money for books, room and board. Many of the students learn traditional arts and crafts, such as woodcarving, furniture-making and weaving. Profits from the sale of their handcrafted creations provide for student scholarships. In the hotel’s gift shop, as well as online, you can purchase lovely things like whisk brooms made of natural broomcorn; woven placemats, throws and rugs; baskets; and wooden Shaker cooling racks, rolling pins and oven rack pulls. During Berea’s Festival of Learnshops — taking place July 11-27, 2014 — you can spend two hours to five days taking workshops on how to make woodturned weed pots and candleholders, corn shuck dolls, Shaker wooden boxes and more.

Whisk broom made at Berea College

Today, the Boone Tavern is a member of the Historic Hotels of America and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It features a 63-room hotel for guests, as well as a restaurant that serves traditional Southern dishes.Boone Tavern, Berea, Kentucky

After we sat down at tables made by students from wood that came from an 8,000-acre forest owned by the college, we were served Southern spoonbread, mixed greens with orange marmalade salad dressing, our choice of roast beef or chicken salad sandwiches, and Race Day pie, a rich concoction studded with pecans and chocolate chips.

Many of the items on the Boone Tavern’s menu are made from the recipes of Richard T. Hougen, the manager of the hotel for more than 35 years. Hougen collected his most popular recipes in two cookbooks: Look No Furtherand More Hougen Favorites. Here, you’ll find directions for making Boone Tavern standards like Chicken Flakes in a Bird’s Nest and Pork Chops Some Tricky Way, as well as intriguing dishes like Black Look No Further, by Richard HougenForest coffee cake, cranberry biscuits, rhubarb nectar punch, a Kentucky blackberry dumpling with milk dip, and a Huckleberry Finn pie made from blackberries and blueberries. You can also find some of his recipes here.

Berea College’s stellar crafts and cooking were old news to me, but during this visit, I learned that it also offers teachers the opportunity to learn about the Foxfire method of classroom instruction. Students make decisions about how they learn required material, use their community as a learning resource, and share their work with others outside of the classroom. Better yet, I also discovered how that philosophy led to a fascinating series of books by the same name.

In 1966, Eliot Wigginton, an English teacher in Rabun County, Georgia, decided to make his subject more interesting by inviting his students to produce a magazine that would preserve the cultural traditions of their rural Southern Appalachian community while developing their writing skills. They chose to call it Foxfire, after a glow-in-the-dark fungus found on decaying wood in the shady surrounding forests. Ever since, students have been turning oral history interviews with their families and neighbors into engaging articles.

The Foxfire Magazine is available by subscription. You can also find anthology collections of its content in the Foxfire series of books.

On these pages, you can pick up step-by-step instructions for pursuits like building a log cabin; beekeeping; crafting cornshuck dolls; making musical instruments like banjos, dulcimers and fiddles; blacksmithing; and square dancing. The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery not only offers guidance on cooking on fireplaces and wood stoves, but also provides recipes for traditional Appalachian favorites like sassafras tea, molasses candy, watermelon preserves and apple butter.

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