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Tennessee: Culinary Creations

Courtesy Crown Winery


Wine and cheese go together, and in Tennessee, groups can check out several award-winning wineries and watch the state’s only cheddar-cheese-making facility.

If that doesn’t sate their appetites, group members can chow down on a full-blown Southern meal at a popular western Tennessee family-owned restaurant.

Brooks Shaw’s Old Country Store and Casey Jones Village
Old-time cracklin’ cornbread fried on a griddle, local country ham, fried chicken, catfish rolled in cornmeal: These are just the starters at Brooks Shaw’s Old Country Store Restaurant in Jackson. Homemade peach, apple and chocolate pies made with buttermilk biscuit dough mixed by feel sell by the hundreds each week.

Family heritage and recipes take center stage on the buffet that started more than 40 years ago by the restaurant’s late founder and namesake Brooks Shaw.

“Our passion is traditional Southern food, and we don’t run away from our history,” said co-owner and CEO Clark Shaw, Brooks’ son. “We even have a T-shirt that says, ‘We’ve got lard!’”

Southern vegetables and a bountiful salad bar are an integral part of the offerings, with local farmers supplying greens, okra, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, squash — whatever is in season.

“Historically, most Southerners didn’t have a lot of meat on the table,” said Clark’s wife, Juanita. “We offer 10 to 15 hot vegetables daily, because Southern food meant vegetables picked out of the garden.”

The restaurant houses more than 15,000 antiques and the 1925 Wellwood Country Store, recently moved and reconstructed. Shaw’s father found inspiration for the restaurant business while working there for 25 cents a day.

The restaurant is part of Casey Jones Village, which also hosts a resident woodcarver and bluegrass musicians, who play outside the shops. Opened in June, the Historic Casey Jones Home and Railroad Museum details Jones’ famous fatal train wreck.

Memorabilia from the early 1900s, family photos, stories about The Ballad of Casey Jones, a movie and even the gold pocket watch Jones was wearing when he died — stopped at the exact time of the wreck but not damaged — are on display. Visitors can climb into the cab of a 130-ton locomotive engine similar to the Ole No. 382 that Jones rode to fame and tour Jones’ original 1890s home.

“We try to tell the story of Casey Jones and the railroad heritage here,” said museum director Lawrence Taylor. “At that time, Jackson was the railroad’s hub city of west Tennessee.”

Wine country

Tennessee was one of the first wine-growing regions in the nation, before Napa Valley and Prohibition. Today, estate labels, produced from grapes trellised on picturesque hillsides, showcase the diversity and talent of local winemakers.

Tucked away behind iron gates in western Tennessee’s rolling hills, Crown Winery’s Tuscan-style villa comes as a bit of a surprise. Newly opened and with just four growing seasons under its belt, this former dairy farm produces seven estate labels.

“We grow almost all French American hybrid grapes, but our mainstay is the Chambourcin,” said Peter Howard, the retired British physicist who owns the winery. “And to our knowledge, we’re the only solar-powered winery east of California.”

Year-round weekend entertainment, along with a pottery studio and a gallery, add the finishing touches to this lovely spot.

Century Farm Winery, a 150-year-old family-operated farm near Jackson, creates award-winning estate wines. Owner and retired electrical engineer Carl O’Cain made his first batch of wine in 1970 on the farm at his mother-in-law’s kitchen table. From that humble beginning, he has won gold, silver and bronze medals in Wines of the South, competing against vineyards from 14 states.

“In 2009, the Traminette won gold and best of whites in the competition,” said O’Cain. “Experienced wine tasters usually love this true semisweet with 3 percent residual sugar.”

Behind the tasting room lies a cozy covered patio and a vine-covered arbor, which opens up to the vineyards and a rose garden beyond. On warm Saturday nights, guests cook hot dogs around open fires, listen to live music and enjoy O’Cain’s down-home Southern hospitality.

Arrington Vineyards, co-founded in 2005 by Kix Brooks of Brooks and Dunn fame, is located 45 minutes south of Nashville. From the curved tasting bar with a selection of 14 wines and a well-stocked gift shop to the covered deck’s panoramic view,  the winery offers a sophisticated experience.

Catered baskets from nearby Henpeck Market complete with wine glasses and cloth napkins can be delivered for dining al fresco. Music in the Vines features instrumental jazz artists on weekend evenings.

Sweetwater Valley Farm
In the heart of southeast Tennessee’s farming region, 40 miles southwest of Knoxville, Sweetwater Valley Farm produces 15 varieties of farmstead cheese. Visitors can observe the process firsthand.

“It’s the only cheddar cheese made in Tennessee,” said Linda Caldwell, director for the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association. “They literally walk people through the entire production, from feeding cattle to the finished product.”

John Harrison, a sixth-generation dairy farmer, decided a number of years ago that cheesemaking would supplement his income, create a value-added product and give his employees year-round work.

A short video on cheesemaking precedes the 30- to 45-minute guided walking tour. Starting at the freestyle barns, visitors learn about feed, how a dairy recycles commodities and the computer science behind herd health. The milking parlor’s glass windows allow visitors to watch the milking process.

Groups that swing through the maternity ward might witness a calf’s being born. Each day, an average of three calves are born among the 2,000 head of Holsteins. The tour ends at the cheesemaking facility viewing area and the gift shop stocked with local products, the farm’s cheeses and, of course, samples.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.