06 September 2009

Chattanooga, TN

On my way back to Buffalo I stopped in Chattanooga, TN to visit a dear friend who recently relocated there to work at Lupton Library. Preparing for the visit, I worried that it might not be such a cool place and that my time there would be occupied by an extended commiseration with CMS over her unfortunate circumstances. Where did I get such an idea of Chattanooga? It is, after all, the home of my favorite mass-produced dessert snack, The Moonpie. And it shares a state allegiance with my favorite city in the whole world, Memphis. Not to mention that it was once home to one of my favorite musicians, Bessie Smith. Well, despite all that, I managed to maintain some unsubstantiated misgiving about the very idea of life in Chattanooga.

It seems that even after several years of celebrating and adoring the South, my boundless theoretical love has some practical limitations. In theory, mid-sized Southern cities excite me to no end. Yet, the thought of a friend having to live in one made my palms sweat. I don't know why I harbor such a nasty prejudice, even after what I considered a thorough self-reeducation, but there it was, rearing its ugly head as I hit the road to spend a weekend in the "City of Lights." As tends to happen, experience of the thing itself seriously complicated my ignorant preconceptions. It's no utopia by any means, but during my visit there Chattanooga carved out a home at the bottom of my heart, where, incidentally, it has a clear view of my stomach.

My first night in town, CMS took me to one of the coolest places I've ever been, Larmar's. They serve a variety of fried fare, but we were interested in the chicken. As anyone can see, the sign looks promising, but it didn't prepare me at all for what we walked into. Chic mid-century lounge decor, leather booths and clothed tables, the lowest lighting legal in a Tennessee restaurant, a jukebox full of favorites from Aretha Franklin to Talking Heads, and not a soul in sight. Scraps of music and conversation echoed out of a dark hallway off the main dinning room. We waited for a few minutes before a tall gentleman materialized out of the ambient noise and asked how we were doing. Alright, we said. Are you still serving dinner? Sure. Here or in the back, he asked? We decided on the livelier sounding backroom. We had to produce our photo IDs and then he led us down the hall to the Chrystal Lounge, where he was tending the bar for a total of four people.

Apparently Lamar's is an after hours spot known for serving the stiffest cocktails in town. We were a bit early for the late crowd, but wanted to get there in time to eat. We both ordered the fried chicken dinner, which came with half a chicken, french fries and a salad. I'm no aficionado, but I do know that chicken was damn delicious. To enter it into my fried chicken cosmos, I'll have to constellate it with a couple of other notable places. First, Lamar's seems to be in the style of my Auntie's favorite fried chicken joint, Gus's downtown Memphis location. The breading is light and crispy, flavorful but not spicy. On the other hand, one of my favorite places, now defunct, was located in Austin and was part of a far-reaching New Orleans Diaspora. Gene's served a denser batter, seasoned with plenty of black pepper and a number of other spices. I hear the denser, spicier batter is representative of the New Orleans style, epitomized by Willie Mae's Scotch House. Lamar's stands up to all those places and should be considered seriously the next time Bon App├ętit decides to start making declarations about the best fried chicken in the country.

Unfortunately, I couldn't get pictures of the food because it was too dark. But here you can sort of get a sense of what the Chrystal Lounge looks like.

That blue haloed thing in the distance is the jukebox coming to life automatically and asking to be played.

The next evening we sought out some barbecue. CMS had been asking her colleagues for a few weeks where she could get good barbecue, what the regional attributes were like, whether or not there were any hot debates. Nothing of the kind. Apparently, Chattanooga isn't a barbecue town. That does not mean, however, that good barbecue can't be found. In fact, venturing out to the Red Bank / Signal Mountain area just north of downtown Chattanooga, we found a wonderful chopped pork sandwich at Petunia's Silver Jalapeno. Petunia's is an Airstream that serves a wide array of cook-out style foods, including their famous fish tacos and an impressive burger. The menu looked lovely, but as a rule, burger and taco places fail on the barbecue front. It's a matter of dedication, I suppose. No rule without an exception, though, because Petunia's does it right, smoking their pork butt over a hickory fire for a full 24-hours. To compliment our sandwiches, the very friendly lady taking our order recommended a fresh peach milkshake that tasted like the edible embodiment of summer. Here you can see our twin orders.

And here you can see the sandwich in a more intimate setting.

In case you don't have time to follow the link to check out the menu, let me note that the exciting pork sandwich pictured here costs only $4.50.

Sunday in Chattanooga is market day, so we went down to see what the farmers had on offer. The Chattanooga Market bills itself as the largest outdoor market in the region. I don't know what the "region" is, but it certainly is big and bustling. My first stop was at the boiled peanut stand, where I got a small cup of cajun peanuts. While I was taking a picture, the vendor offered to let me take a picture of his boilers. I work hard for this, he said pointing to his stand, so I don't mind that, he added pointing to my camera. I took him up on the offer. The peanuts were first class.

Walking around happily with my peanuts, I encountered the most extreme examples of the Chattanooga Niceness that CMS had been telling me about all weekend. One vendor gave us a basil bunch and a head of lettuce when we asked if she sold basil plants that CMS could plant. She did not, but rewarded us handsomely for our inquiry. Another vendor sent us away with a couple of hot peppers to try when we asked, "What in the world are those?" Cousins of the Habanero, apparently, although mine was considerably gentler than any of the Habaneros I've ever worked with. We also bought some interesting little eggplants that I'd never seen before and some really, really, really tasty heirloom cherry tomatoes.

And here are some other lovely looking fruits from the market.

The whole visit was pretty great, although all our gluttonous adventures left little time to see some of Chattanooga's other important attractions, including the African American Museum, The Hunter Museum of American Art, the Coolidge Park Carousel, and the Tennessee Aquarium. We did take plenty of time to walk around the City, which is an excellent activity in such a pretty place with so many opportunities for caloric intake. I can't wait to go back.

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