When one thinks of Tennessee, two things often come immediately to mind: barbecue and whiskey. Or whiskey and barbecue, depending on whom you are asking. And while the Volunteer state may not have invented either, per se, one taste of each in our humble home state and you can be damn sure we have taken great pains over the years to perfect them both.
As with many favorite regional cuisines, what comes through is the soul. What makes our BBQ special is not just the excellence of the food itself – impeccably balanced brisket, smoked to perfection with just enough fat remaining to make it melt in your mouth, rib meat simply aching to fall off the bone, beans and slaw so perfectly paired that it is almost a wonder they are considered sides – but the down home memories and nostalgia the food, and the many generations-old establishments that have been slinging it for decades upon decades, pique in all of us. When done right, it speaks to you.
Same goes for whiskey. While not all have the palate for it, nor the inclination to partake (our hometown of Cleveland proudly boasts an ordinance forbidding the retail sale of spirits within the city limits), few are far-removed from either a friend or family member whose passion for brown gold runs as deep and as long as the Chattahoochee. And the whiskey made in Tennessee is perhaps the best embodiment of the character of our people: sharp and strong to start, giving way to a mellow, easy-going core, and a finish that is at once warm and welcoming, providing you can get beyond the initial bite!
In many ways both literal and figurative, both barbecue and whiskey are in our blood. And a drive through any Tennessee town will offer quick and frequent credence to this claim, with the unmistakable, unavoidable waft of wood smoke in the air, signaling the good stuff is nearby.
The common thread in both is indeed the smoke, and the deep, rich, flavors it, and the perfectly aged wood at its source, imparts. This unmistakable authenticity, apart from the many regional variations on the accompanying sauce, is what truly makes or breaks a legit barbecue purveyor, and separates the contenders from the pretenders. And Tennessee in general, and Cleveland in particular, is home to several of the former.
Perhaps it comes down, as with many material matters, to our unique geography, and the inherent ingenuity of generations of Tennesseans that have long mastered the art of pulling the best elements from their environs. The evidence is abundant in any Tennessee town, and one could easily annihilate many an artery attempting to ascertain which is the best.
But it of course comes down to individual taste. Here in Cleveland, some of the oldest, most venerated eateries in town are BBQ joints, each with time-tested recipes and a committed group of followers that claim theirs is best (the real joints are the ones that place their dumpster out front). Even upscale restaurants like Bald Headed Bistro, a gourmet establishment boasting some of the finest cuisine in the area, hosts a monthly pig roast, and slings whiskey from every-man Jack to ultra-rare Pappy, and everything in between. There is something inherent about the pairing that resonates with Southerners on a personal level. And that manifests here in Tennessee.
But it also relates heavily back to the character of the South as a whole: the unique appreciation for time honored traditions, and the understanding that taking the time to do things right is in itself a right, hard-earned over time. Radiating outward from downtown, the scenery in Cleveland switches quickly from factories to fields, with acres of farmland dotting the landscape between stands of old growth trees. One glance and it is easy to see why the eating is so good, as the surrounding area boasts all the necessary ingredients not only for top class barbecue and world class whiskey, but also people who appreciate the value of this particular type of work, and the type of wisdom of craft that can only be passed along through passion, experience, and appreciation for the importance of making what you take.
Surely pitmasters in Texas, the Carolinas, Kentucky, and of course Kansas City may have a sauce-laden bone to pick when one touts whose is best. And whiskey (and whisky) makers the world over would be quick to tout their mellow malted wares over the unique biting edge of our signature Tennessee whiskey. But no locale can match the dual proficiency that Tennessee boasts in both realms.
But claims to supremacy aside, there is simply something special about enjoying the signature staples of a given region, and harkening back to a time before Interstate highways, when regional cuisines remained quaintly trapped within the geographical boundaries of given place. When terroir was real. There is something so soulful about cozying up to a rickety old table, adorned simply with a checkerboard tablecloth, and ditching the pretense along with the silverware, as you dig into what the people there do (and have done for generations) best. In Tennessee, we bear our soul through barbecues and bottles. Long may the unique flavor of each endure.