Seeing Country Music Stars at the Grocery Store is so Nashville - No. 27
Plus, hospitality and a certain cinnamon-filled sour cream coffee cake
Have you ever bumped into someone you think you know, but with the situation being out of context, you cannot for the life of you recall their name?
This happens in Nashville. We’re at a restaurant and a few booths over, there’s a guy who looks a lot like Alan Jackson.
“Who is that,” my husband cues with that look, waiting for me to decide if he’s a real country music star or just someone who looks like one.
Then I signal back with a nod…it’s Alan Jackson.
Or, you stop by the grocery to pick up last-minute dinner things and there in the checkout a few people ahead of you is Amy Grant, a hat pulled down nearly covering her head but not her warm and wide smile.
That’s Nashville. My hometown.
What’s Nashville really like?
A Nashville moment that will never be erased from my mind was after the tornadoes plowed through North Nashville and its primarily African American neighborhoods in early 2020. This was just before Covid scared everyone inside to quarantine and people were out in droves - we had 30,000 volunteers - to help put lives back together or at least get people without any electricity or running water a warm meal.
The Nashville I grew up in was a lot smaller and more segregated than the one you find today. One side of town seldom drove to the other. You had everything you needed - your church, school, friends, family - nearby.
But East Nashville changed all of that. Chef Margot McCormack pulled out of Green Hills on the west side of town and moved across the Cumberland River to East Nashville where real estate was cheaper and she could do her own thing. And now I think it’s fair to say most of the best restaurants are in East Nashville.
Before Bachelorettes, before the debauchery on lower Broadway, before hot chicken seared our mouths, we were the Grand Ole Opry, meat and three, and chess pie.
Or, to be completely honest, as other Southerners might say, a northern outpost in the South, located in the central top of Tennessee, only 40 miles from Kentucky.
We are not really Southern like Birmingham or Jackson are Southern. We don’t sit around the table and wax nostalgic about caramel or Lane cake. Chess pie is in our blood, and our ancestors made it with cornmeal and a little vinegar to imitate the taste of lemon where lemon trees couldn’t grow.
We don’t talk in a drawl like the folks do down in Macon. And even in our own state, we’re a bit of an outlier. Tennessee is long and drawn out and it takes about seven hours to drive from the flat Memphis delta all the way through the rolling farmland of middle Tennessee and Nashville east across the Cumberland Plateau toward the Appalachian Mountains to arrive in Bristol, which sits on the Virginia border. (That’s the same time it takes to drive from Nashville to Chicago, by the way.)
Our Tennessee flag has three stars commemorating the western, middle, and eastern regions, and according to our local Nashville historian Carole Bucy, they’ve never agreed on much of anything.
In the home kitchen where I grew up every night was a meat and three - or five - depending on how many vegetables and sides my mother wanted to cook.
I know, it was a wonderful culinary experience and laid the groundwork for what I do today. When you went out to a restaurant in search of meatloaf or fried chicken with mashed potatoes, green beans, squash casserole, etc., you went to a cafeteria or what was known as a “meat and three,” a small, usually mom and pop, restaurant that advertised home cooking.
Today when locals go out to eat, we book the latest restaurants on Eater’s list, take visitors to taste Prince’s or Hattie B’s hot chicken, and try to support local places like Etc, Margot’s, Miel, Dozen bakery, Cole’s Kitchen, Lockeland Table, Bare Bones Butcher, Bricktops, Epice, or the Corner Market and Tin Wings for takeout.
Where do you love to dine in Nashville?
I’d like you to know some things about Nashville that have nothing to do with hot chicken, beer, and honky tonks.
We are where Reese lives and where Oprah worked her first job in TV. We have a legacy of publishing and are home to writers Ann Patchett, who co-owns our Parnassus Books, Ruta Sepetys, Alice Randall, Jon Meacham, and Margaret Renkl.
We have green spaces, working farms, the Nashville Food Project, and the largest U.S. community of Kurds. We have the only full-scale replica of the Parthenon outside of Athens, Greece, and an awe-inspiring statue of Athena inside. And politically, we just happen to be a progressive city in a conservative state.
And, yes, we are filled with country music, from the historic Ryman to the Grand Ole Opry House, and your children go to school with kids whose parents are singers, writers, musicians, marketers, all selling the song.
And it’s not just country music we make here. Elliston Place, once called Rock Block, recorded Tom Petty, and Jefferson Street recorded rhythm and blues and Jimi Hendrix. Nestled in the Bible Belt, we are home to gospel music and the world-famous Fisk Jubilee Singers.
While music fills our air waves and employs our people, when the pandemic hit and the industry was put on hold, many Nashvillians who made this music, played in the bands, or cooked the food and drove the buses, were out of work. And, to be honest, things aren’t completely back on track yet.
Hospitality and baking coffee cake
We were settled into a movie a few years back, the crowded theater was dark, the previews had begun, and a couple walked in late trying to stay as invisible as possible.
She was tall. He had an earnest and bashful smile. Looked like Nicole and Keith.
All at once an entire row of people shifts to the right as if the seas parted, and two seats open up and the famous couple sits down.
What I love about Nashville is that it is such a comfortable place that even the stars get out and go to dinner and a movie.
So when I think of a recipe to share with you that speaks of the Nashville I’ve known and loved, for me it’s not hot chicken, as much as everyone is obsessed with it right now.
I associate a cinnamon-swirled coffee cake with Nashville and having people over for a slice or taking a loaf to someone who has experienced loss or hardship. I had moved away and lived in Atlanta and came home and found my mother still baking this coffee cake and sharing it with her friends. The recipe page in her Nashville Seasons cookbook was stained with such repeated use we didn’t have to search the index and just let the book fall open on its own.
I pulled out this recipe this past weekend to bake a few memories. And I am not sure why, but I felt the urge to adapt the recipe for the way I bake today.
I cut back slightly on the sugar in the topping, added a pinch of cardamom, used my best cinnamon, and swapped out the pecans for finely chopped pistachios. And I baked it with unbleached flour, a little higher in protein than the bleached soft Martha White flour that was born in Nashville and reared all of us.
No surprise, the cake was still fragrant and delicious, a great recipe that never goes out of style. I sliced off two big pieces for my husband and myself and tucked the rest in the freezer for when people come over.
It’s a slice of an ever-changing Nashville I never want to forget.
This Friday, for Subscribers, learn the real story of hot chicken, as told by Rachel Martin, author of Hot, Hot Chicken: A Nashville Story. Also a hot chicken recipe!
Don’t miss out! As a subscriber you have access to the archives of newsletters, an extra newsletter and recipe each week, plus a chance each month to win something big! This month to go along with today’s theme of Nashville, the prize is an autographed copy of Hot, Hot Chicken.
And now…the recipe!
Nashville Sour Cream Coffee Cake
This recipe can be baked in a 9-inch loaf or a 9-inch square pan, whatever your preference. We’ve always baked it as a loaf, but I can see the upside to either. Count on about 30 minutes for the square pan, but about 55 minutes to an hour of baking time for the loaf. Like I mentioned above, this recipe is made for tweaking because you can add the nuts you have on hand, spices you like, and use the flour that’s in the house. The original recipe used a teaspoon of lemon juice and baking soda, which through the years I have omitted. And as I said, the original had more sugar than I use - 1/2 cup sugar and nuts in the topping. I think 1/3 cup is plenty, but suit yourself! This recipe freezes well, and it’s a really nice gift if you need to take something to a friend.
Makes 1 loaf
Vegetable oil spray, for misting the pan
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom, optional
1/3 cup finely chopped pecans or pistachios
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt (use 1/4 teaspoon if using table salt)
1 cup sour cream
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly mist a 9-inch loaf or square pan.
For the topping, stir together the sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, if using, and nuts in a small bowl. Scatter about 1 tablespoon of the mixture over the bottom of the pan. Set aside.
For the cake, place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and using an electric mixer, beat on medium until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and then the vanilla, and beat until smooth.
Place the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and stir to combine. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture alternatively with the sour cream, beating on low until smooth and incorporated.
Spread a third of the batter into the pan. Scatter a third of the topping over the top. Add another third of the batter, spreading it until smooth. Add another third of the topping. Spread the remaining batter on top, scattering the last of the topping on top. Place the pan in the oven.
Bake until lightly browned, and the cake tests done, about 55 minutes to 1 hour for a loaf, and about 30 minutes for the square pan.