City Tastebuds in a Small Town: Why I Missed Knoxville Food in Western North Carolina

Never before would I have described my food habits as “citified.” After all, I live in Knoxville, not Chicago or New York—or even Denver or Tulsa.

But the past six months, I’ve been spending half my weekends and some weekdays in Western North Carolina to work on a small project and settle into a small bit of mountainous “second home” our family bought in Whittier. While I haven’t been demanding hot pastrami subs or skinny lattes and Italian ice carts, I have apparently strayed from my own food roots growing up in a tiny tourist town, Williamsburg, Va., in the ’70s.

For example, I was genuinely shocked when I needed consommé for a Crock-Pot stew I was setting up, and the Food Lion in Cherokee (population 2,138) was already closed. At 10:17. On a Sunday night. In that same hamlet, I was pleased that I could still buy $1 any-size drinks or coffee from McDonald’s, always a boon when working late or setting out on pleasant drives to see the “rich people’s houses” that line the hillsides in Maggie Valley. I was just as unpleased, petulant even, to note that the McDonald’s there is not open all night, and when the schools are closed, so is it, doors barred to all us aspiring Wi-Fi users.

Other things I missed that are the privilege of those who live in larger concentrations of humanity kind of surprised me. I pined for the Salsaritas two-taco special for $6.49, drink included. When did I grow so dependent on this city franchise?

And cupcakes. Oh, these mountain towns have oatsy muffins and hearty artisan breads, but no one seems to believe in “all butter all the time” cupcakes like Magpies. So there’s been no impressing interview subjects or kindly plumbers and cable guys with a go-to batch of mini red velvets, or, for that matter, hand-cut, fresh-not-frozen-dough donuts as served at Dippin Donuts on Kingston Pike.

Another cruel blow: No Trader Joe’s. I’ve become accustomed to its ways, and cranky about doing without, say, the full pound of slab (not Mediterranean) apricots I can score there for about $6.50, and the black-bean taquitos that cook into a meal in seconds, and their slivered roasted almonds I put in everything they’re so cheap. Yeah, you’ve got to live in a city for Trader Joe’s.

Which is not to say my food experience has been at all lackluster in these charming WNC towns. Many, many of the local eateries use all local produce, make their own pickles, grind their own grits, from Cherokee on up to Waynesville and Murphy. Granny’s Kitchen in Cherokee (across from the casino) has fried mountain trout that tastes of babbling streams and light seasoning and I’ve never had better. Anthony’s Italian Restaurant in Bryson City serves these wonderful one-bite garlic rolls with every meal, and has a no-iceberg lettuce salad, black olives too, and homemade ranch dressing that comes with all the entrees.

There are other approaches we here in Knoxville could happily adopt from our Western North Carolina/Appalachian brethren. Most of their Pizza Huts have drive-thrus, for example. In the Food Lion that closes so early, you can buy fresh sandwich rolls by the piece, three for about a dollar, but just as many or as few as you’d like. In Sylva, there is an indoor farmer’s market for winter greens and local meats (including rabbit), every Saturday until the real one gets going around April. Nearby, Uncle Bill’s Flea Market has a booth selling still-fresh, cut-rate Terra chips and natural crackers for like a dollar per bag.

In Franklin, a little produce stand and store sells these fresh cheddar cheese curds flavored with garlic and dill. I eke them out as if they were gold or desert water, but no part of a pack ever makes it back to Knoxville with me. Typing this, I kind of wish I was in Franklin right now.

Maybe I’m not so citified after all.

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