“Only in Nashville,” local food writer Jim Myers tells me, as the waitress lists the contents of today’s seasonal vegetable platter, “is mac and cheese considered a vegetable.”
Macaroni and cheese is indeed one of the four dishes that make up the chef’s vegetable platter at Husk, a 19th-century mansion in Nashville’s sleepy Rutledge Hill reinvented – complete with violently violet walls – as an upscale homage to traditional southern cooking. Only here, the southern standby is served with a mascarpone-thick sweet potato and garlic purée.
Reimagining staples of the Deep South is a global foodie phenomenon, with biscuits and gravy and fried chicken now comfort-food mainstays of hipster neighbourhoods from New York’s Lower East Side (see the Clinton Street Baking Company) to London’s Camden (Q-Grill). The same aesthetic that restored flannel and trucker hats to hipster wardrobes has put catfish po-boys on plates worldwide.
But nothing comes close to the intensity of Nashville’s revitalised version of southern American dining, as locals and celebrity chefs race to capitalise on the city’s thriving arts scene. It is more authentic than most hipster revivals, although that isn’t to say there haven’t been tensions along the way.
Nashville has for a century been the cultural centre of the American south: its longstanding community of songwriters and musicians – lured by the city’s status as the nexus of country music – giving the city a liberal bent in an otherwise conservative region. But in recent years, its core creative demographic has been supplemented by artists, writers and entrepreneurs priced out of the housing markets of Nashville’s coastal competitors.
The influx of newcomers, with their refined palettes and deep pockets, has caused the city’s cuisine to evolve. While “Tuscan-Southern” has been making inroads at places like Margot’s in east Nashville, the newest hot restaurants focus on adding a lighter, more upmarket touch to down-home cooking.
Here at Husk, the stalwart “meat and three” of traditional Nashville dining – served cafeteria-style onto plastic trays at undecorated roadside establishments – is all but unrecognisable. The grits (in Nashville, grits are also vegetables) are served in an earthy mushroom broth, the herbaceous acidity of the soup mellowed and thickened by a lightly poached egg. There are turnips, cubed and simmered briefly enough to retain their fruity hardness. There’s wafer-thin sliced cucumber doused liberally in a wine-dark vinaigrette.
On my dining companion’s plate is an intricately spiced, if somewhat denatured, iteration of Nashville’s classic “hot chicken”: piquantly crispy, but far less greasy than its finger-licking predecessors. Johnny Cash may still be playing on the sound systems, but the cocktails come with thyme springs and Crème Yvette. It’s Myers’ first time at Husk since he wrote an incendiary piece for the Tennessean last year critiquing celebrity chefs – Husk’s Sean Brock among them – for profiting from Nashville’s burgeoning reputation as a culinary mecca without seeming to spend much time there.
Plenty of Nashville’s culinary highlights are far less rarefied. At Arnold’s Country Kitchen, truckers in baseball caps and apprehensive tourists queue 30 minutes or more for an $8.75 “meat and three” ladled unceremoniously onto a plate. Customers jostle for seats at communal tables, a pair of white 20-somethings with dreadlocks take gargantuan slices of spiced chocolate pie, while an immaculately coiffed blonde waves across the room at someone she recognises from church. The chicken livers, served with wild rice, are at once soft and crispy; the sides – butter-simmered turnip greens and green beans liberally punctuated by melting chunks of ham hock – are delectable, if not especially healthy. At Prince’s – which has neither website nor phone number and is hidden in an unprepossessing strip mall – the queue for eye-wateringly hot chicken (to go, naturally) can stretch for hours.
All over Nashville, venues devoted to capturing the soul of Arnold’s or Prince’s – albeit with white linen, utensils, and free-range chickens – are melding high and low cuisine. At Tyler Brown’s Capitol Grille restaurant at the Hermitage Hotel – a sprawling, stained-glass-ceilinged complex (think Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel transplanted to the Bible belt) – the chunky toast in my breakfast sandwich is infused with Jack Daniels whiskey, adding a smoky flavour to the jowl bacon and over-easy egg within (more grits come on the side). Like Husk, they take their farm-to-table credentials seriously: nearly everything is sourced from their 225-acre farm outside Nashville. Across town, at east Nashville’s Barista Parlour – next door to an outdoor crawfish boil – a dour man with sleeve tattoos looks at me with something between pity and disdain when I can’t decide which espresso I want in my whole-milk-only cappuccino ($6).
At 5th and Taylor in the nearby Germantown district, diners gather around the garden’s open fire for a rabbit stew, garnished with fennel and leek, and a “beer-can chicken” swimming in beer sauce. But little rivals the intensity at Josephine, in the revitalised 12th south district. For $85, my ten-course tasting menu features such delicacies as pork scrapple and beef tongue, sweetly melting into a tangle of caramelised onions.
Arnold’s and Josephine’s might seem to belong to two different worlds. But the (sometimes awkward) mix of traditionalism and innovation defines Nashville. A college town, it has long been known as “the Athens of the South”. But even liberal Nashvillians can be fiercely protective of the city’s “small town” heritage. On my drive back to the airport, my taxi driver gives me a litany of the celebrities she’s seen and ferried along Music Row: Keith Urban, Miley Cyrus (“looking like a homeless person”), Carrie Underwood. Of course, she says, she’d never ask for an autograph. In Nashville, you don’t pay attention to who’s a celebrity and who isn’t: “everybody’s a local here”. This pride and lack of pretension characterises the city, even its more hipsterish restaurants, adding authenticity to its gastronomic revolution. Soon Nashville will be as famous for its food as it is for its music.