Editor's note: Occasionally what looks at first glance to be a conventional guidebook transcends the genre in surprising ways. John T. Edge's Southern Belly is just such a read, which is why I'm pleased that he has allowed us to excerpt selected items from it on Serious Eats, where they appear every other week. —Ed Levine
By John T. Edge | In fine-dining circles, tales of temperamental French chefs are rife. Neophytes who fiddle with the foie gras or diddle with the duck confit are sure to stir the ire of the guy in the white coat and pleated tocque outfit. But who would expect such an outburst of temper from a guy in a flour-streaked apron, the proprietor of an unassuming little brick rectangle of a restaurant, set amid a row of old redbrick warehouses?
Meet Jack Arnold, a native of the North Carolina hills, with a dedication to fresh, honest foods that, in just a world, would make him as well known a cook as Julia Child or James Beard.
On my first visit to Arnold's Country Kitchen, I caught Jack in a foul mood. Indeed, he was cussing a blue streak.
"The damn fools I hired to clean my greens broke them!" he told me, as he worked to stock the serving line with the day's specials. "I told them to strip the leaves. But dammit to hell, they snapped them right in half. I had some really nice purple tops and they just ruined them."
Like Hap Townes, who once ran one of the South's best lunchrooms in the shadow of the nearby Nashville ballpark, and the late James Lynn Chandler, whose Sylvan Park Restaurant over in west Nashville still wins praise from locals for its vegetable plates and chocolate pie, Jack has spent a lifetime in the kitchen. And with each meal he serves, Jack Arnold makes a convincing argument that country cooking—collard greens and cabbage, fried chicken and meatloaf—is worthy of the respect normally accorded highfalutin' French and Italian cuisine.
He started out at the age of 12, washing dishes. While studying fine arts at Vanderbilt University, Jack managed the campus cafeteria. Since 1983 he has been at the helm here, frying green tomatoes to a crisp, roasting monstrous rounds of garlic-studded beef to a turn, simmering fat butter beans in a swine-scened pot-likker, baking pan after pan of macaroni and cheese.
It's all good, all simple, all Southern. Indeed, I would go so far as to posit that Arnold's is among the best two or three plate lunch places in Nashville, which makes it among the best in the South. And, Jack's protestations to the contrary, the greens were great, broken stems and all.
ARNOLD'S COUNTRY KITCHEN
Address: 605 Eighth Avenue South, Nashville TN 37203 (map)