Food fascinates me because of the people behind it — the farmers, the grocers, the gardeners, the home cooks, the restaurant owners. Food is a way for me to understand how they think and how they go about their work. Food has opened countless doors over those 20 years, allowing me to meet an incredible range of people, from barbecue pitmasters laboring in smoky anonymity to the late B.B. King returning to his native Mississippi for a plate of fried catfish and collard greens served by some of his old girlfriends.
For those of us who enjoy spending time in restaurants, this winter and spring have been agonizing. Take-out is an appreciated option and a necessary alternative. But in normal times, I rarely do it. I want to be there. I want the whole experience. I am now months behind in catching up with the daily struggles and triumphs of people who patronize places like The Cottage in Johnson City and Betty’s Stockyard Café in Kingsport.
I don’t just miss the 14-ounce ribeye at The Butcher’s Block in Greeneville. I miss the people who take my reservation and the people who blend the salad dressing. I miss looking across the restaurant and marveling at the size of a diner’s halibut filet. I miss hearing about the adventures of grandchildren I don’t even know.
In all those years of food writing, I’ve developed an enormous respect for the resilience of people who own, run and staff restaurants. These times have only deepened that respect.
Leafing through my reporter’s notebooks, I find so many stories of restaurant owners who faced hardship but never gave up. Those stories give me hope that I can soon walk into The Bean Barn in Greeneville again and order Beans All the Way from a counter stool or have Dianna Blumenstock bring me a bowl of blue cheese dressing and a crock of barbecue beans at The Ridgewood in Sullivan County.
These days, I think of the Zarzour family at their café down in Chattanooga. The word “pandemic” is nothing new to them. The restaurant, one of the oldest in Tennessee, opened at a terrible time, 1918. That year, history’s deadliest influenza pandemic was sweeping the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 50 million people died of the flu worldwide.
The “Spanish Flu” killed Nazera Zarzour, leaving her husband, Charlie, to run their new restaurant and raise five children, the youngest in diapers. Zarzour’s is still in the same family, in the same location, today, serving up turnip greens, cornbread, open-faced roast beef sandwiches and hamburgers.
I think of The Shamrock in Johnson City, which opened in 1929, the year the stock market crashed. It has survived, selling pipe tobacco, chicken salad, milkshakes and lemonade.
I think of The Texas Tavern in Roanoke, Virginia, and the courage of Isaac Newton “Nick” Bullington, who opened the place 90 years ago, in 1930, as the Great Depression was deepening. It, too, survives, in the same location and in the hands of the same family, now for four generations.
I think of The Dip Dog Stand in Smyth County, Virginia, and how it was able to continue to sell its red-dyed, crispy-battered product on Highway 11 even after the coming of Interstate 81 in 1963 closed many businesses along that route.
I think of Phil and Dianna Pipkin, who cashed in their 401k accounts to open Phil’s Dream Pit near Kingsport at the time of the Great Recession in 2008 and made it.
And I think of the late Grace Proffitt, the matriarch of Ridgewood Barbecue, whose roadhouse business plan was destroyed in 1952, four years after she opened, when Sullivan County went dry. But she didn’t quit. In fact, she and her husband, Jim, turned hardship into opportunity, expanding their business to incorporate barbecue. When talk of a new fourlane highway started in the 1980s and people predicted the demise of The Ridgewood, Grace ignored their gloomy pronouncements and kept right on.
In addition to his worldclass barbecue, I often turn to Grace’s son, Larry Proffitt, for his perspective and his philosophy. What he told me this week perfectly embodies the persistent spirit of restaurant owners throughout our region: “Ridgewood will be smoking fresh hams over in the hollow when this coronavirus has passed away.”
Fred Sauceman is the author of the book “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”