Down South: Lunch at the Museum of Appalachia in Tennessee


The spread. [Photographs: Jed Portman]

I did not go to the Museum of Appalachia for lunch. I went for the museum, which you'd imagine would be the draw. And yes, the museum—an Appalachian Disneyland of cabins and barns and smokehouses rescued from a 200-mile radius around the museum, stocked with period furnishings, and placed on display with doors open to tourists and the elements—is remarkable. Looking into log rooms where parents raised families of a dozen or more children out on the edges of civilization, and sitting in the darkness of the same log church where hard-working mountain people prayed, brings old Appalachia, buried in so many places beneath the superstores and fast-food chains of modern Appalachia, to life.


The grounds.

I began to suspect there might be something special about the food at the museum, though, when I returned to the main building around noon to see a group of people in suits and work uniforms sitting down to lunch in the little dining area.

"We started this restaurant so that visitors would have something to eat," Elaine Irwin Meyer, museum head and daughter of founder John Rice Irwin, told me, "and back then, we served convenience foods—sandwiches, hot dogs. Then it got bigger and bigger, and our food got better, and now people just love to come in here and eat." Meyer pointed out a group from the manufacturing company up the road, the district attorney, and the local police chief, eating with a few of his men.

To provide a quick disclaimer, the people at the museum did know that I was coming. By coincidence, I was among a few special guests—including John Rice Irwin, making a rare appearance from retirement to host a couple of friends—that day. So, while most visitors are limited to the dishes that make it onto the changing daily menu, we tried everything.

By which I mean: fried okra, fried green tomatoes, greens, green beans, pinto beans, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, cornbread, meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, banana pudding, fudge pie, and carrot cake. I may be forgetting a few things.

I am no novice when it comes to any of those dishes. I've been lucky enough to sample many variations on all of them in restaurants across the South. I can count on one hand—on two or three fingers, really—the number of places that do all of them as consistently well as the people at the Museum of Appalachia.


Chicken and dumplings.

There is something special going on in that tiny kitchen, and I know the woman responsible. Her name is Kristy Wells, she is the head cook, and she deserves your attention. Wells, who was in catering before arriving at the Museum of Appalachia—and still is, when she isn't there—is a local. She learned to cook from her mother and grandmother, and does not use recipes. She is warm and self-effacing, and, come mealtime, eager to please.

Every dish that Wells made for us were among the better examples of that dish I've tried anywhere. The fried okra, made with okra from the museum's garden, was crispy but not overly breaded, fried hard but not greasy. The warm greens, green beans, and pinto beans, seasoned with an Appalachian housewife's precision, could keep a person cozy in the middle of a snowstorm. The chicken and dumplings were lazily gelatinous, as they should be, but shot through with tongue-tickling black pepper.


Kristy Wells.

"I love to cook and serve people," says Wells. "Nothing makes me feel any better than putting a plate of food in front of somebody and them enjoying it."

Before she came to the museum, the crowds at lunchtime weren't nearly what they are now. Meyer says that she has seen a significant rise in local business since word-of-mouth—and only word-of-mouth, because the museum does not advertise its restaurant anywhere, not even on its sign—began to spread about the new cook.

The museum is awfully lucky to have her. Just as the grounds transport a visitor into a world of log smokehouses and hand-hewn family cabins that hardly exists anywhere else anymore, the cafeteria takes a diner back to the days when grandma could cook a meal, with fresh ingredients from the kitchen garden, to rival the best plates in Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, or Charleston.