Nashville's Rising Stars: The Kitchen Is Their Studio
The New York Times
June 20, 2012
In the way an abundant oyster bed indicates a healthy estuary, a neighborhood thick with hipsters is an indicator that good food is not far away.
Look for the signs: a fixed-gear bicycle shop, a coffee roaster run by fellows with scraggly beards, a bar with handmade bitters, food trucks and, perhaps, a paleta shop run by young women with advanced degrees.
East Nashville, a down-on-its-luck side of town being brought to life one great plate of food at a time, is the indicator species for this city, which has been climbing the charts as a new food star.
Like Atlanta and Charleston, S.C., before it, Nashville is enjoying the attention of a nation that sure likes the South these days. But even if you set all the Southern infatuation aside, Nashville is one of several midsize cities whose food sensibilities (and hipster quotient) are growing as people leave the dog-eat-dog cities on the coasts in search of more affordable, pleasant places to live and eat.
Nashville has long embraced its history as well as the newcomer looking to make a mark. And whether in music or in food, the new is informed by the old. So to really understand what’s new on the plate here, one has to first seek out Nashville’s two totem foods: a meat-and-three lunch and an order of hot chicken.
Both are a distillation of Tennessee’s agrarian roots and Nashville’s working class. The former expresses itself in the fried chicken livers, well-seasoned roast beef and braised turnip greens at Arnold’s Country Kitchen, part of the cafeteria-style concept of a protein and three sides.
The latter comes in the form of hot chicken, a dish unique to Nashville, made in cast-iron pans in the back of cinder-block buildings and strip-mall storefronts where cooks fry big pieces of cayenne-coated chicken, sometimes infusing even the oil itself with pepper. You eat the dish with white bread and pickle slices. It is ecstasy and torture, a culinary expression of the pleasure-pain principle.
These are decidedly low-budget pursuits. There has always been the other end of the Nashville dining spectrum, the one the working class and aspiring musicians could rarely afford but music producers and politicians could. Its modern-day manifestation is a collection of bistros and white-tablecloth places that stars like Sheryl Crow and Nicole Kidman frequent without the press of paparazzi and fans.
Somewhere between the two lies a different Nashville food scene, where the ethos of community, culinary adventure and democratized kitchen culture are uniting to define a new kind of Southern cooking that doesn’t forgo its roots, but allows chefs to transcend them. As one chef told me, “You don’t have to cook pork if you don’t want to.”
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