After years of promising friends a visit, I finally took a road trip to Nashville with my perfect husband, leaving the kids in Columbus for two nights. I’m used to California, which goes on for days, so it struck me as funny that we could leave solidly Midwestern Ohio at lunchtime and be in the South for dinner.
The Ohio River forms the squiggly northern border of Kentucky that divides Midwest from Upper South. Nashville is a 6 1/2 hour drive from Columbus, through Cincinnati and Louisville, and though it’s mostly south, it’s just west enough that we move from Eastern to Central time zone just before we get to Music City.
Without kids, the drive was easy and the road full of amusements. We grinned at the large “HELL IS REAL” billboard along I-71 south of Columbus, chuckled ruefully at the white minivan with the “I used to be cool” bumper sticker (having bought a white minivan ourselves last year) and, upon entering Kentucky, laughed so hard at the signs for Big Bone Lick State Park that we missed our highway junction.
My husband has been telling me for years that Nashville is a lively, livable city, like his hometown Columbus. Surrounded by hills, it is green and pretty, and around its vibrant downtown is the Tennessee Titans stadium, a well-designed new convention center, Music Row and of course the famed Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry. Country music has been broadening its appeal in recent decades, and the TV show “Nashville,” though ratings have not been great, has also generated tourist interest in the town.
The food scene in Nashville is active and varied, from the traditional meat-and-three places to the more recent farm-to-table movement. James Beard award-winning chef Sean Brock just returned to Nashville to open a second outpost of his Charleston, South Carolina restaurant Husk, which won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in America in 2011.
For lunch at Husk, my husband enjoyed the bacon cheeseburger, which has uncooked bacon ground in with the beef – 95% ground chuck, 5% hickory smoked bacon from Tennessee’s own renowned Benton’s. Husk even has homemade ketchup made from fresh tomatoes.
I saw the gorgeous vegetable plate, served on a platter made from a thick cross section of tree, and had to get it. With roasted fennel and carrots, succotash, and a bowl of cheesy grits topped with a soft poached egg, it was heaven. I know you guys saw the picture above, but seriously, how good does this look? Husk’s shrimp and grits is also supposed to be divine.
It’s worth noting that one of the best things I ate in Nashville was a simple tomato salad at the Watermark Restaurant – big chunks of Amish-grown heirloom tomatoes, simply drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice and sprinkled with feta. You don’t need a fancy restaurant to eat that – just a good garden or a good farmer’s market – and to me that’s as fine as dining gets.
My first trip to Nashville wouldn’t have been complete without a peek into the music scene. Our friends Jim and Erica managed to score a table at the Bluebird Cafe, a Nashville institution, for a fantastic performance with veteran singer/songwriters Thom Schuyler, Fred Knobloch and Tony Arata, featuring the virtuoso harmonica playing of Jelly Roll Johnson. Harmonicas are cool – so much sound and range from such a tiny pocket-sized instrument – and I was in awe of these songwriters and performers, two of whom have already been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
It was a memorable trip to Nashville and an excellent reminder that for those of us in the continental US, the diversity of America is only a drive away. When I was a kid, driving with my Chinese-American family on a trip from Florida to Pennsylvania, I remember feeling distinctly conspicuous and uncomfortable in the Southern states we drove through. But Nashville was as warm and friendly as Columbus, which convinces me that it’s high time for me to explore the South anew. Though the grits alone may have done it.