Three weeks ago, my husband and I packed a cooler full of snacks and took a drive to Knoxville, Tennessee for the Big Ears Music Festival. We hiked, saw a lot of great performances, and ate some of the most tender, cloud-like biscuits I have ever encountered.
If you happen to find yourself driving along I-81 into Knoxville, I would 100% recommend you do the following:
- Try the sticky rice gelato at The Split Banana in Staunton, Virginia
- Hike McAfee Knob along the Appalachian Trail right outside of Roanoke, Virgina (optional: eat pizza at the summit from my aunt and uncle’s pizzeria in River Edge, New Jersey—see photos below)
- Order the blue cheese dip at Ridgewood Barbecue in Bluff City, Tennessee
- Sample the biscuits at Tupelo Honey Cafe, Just Ripe and OliBea—all in Knoxville
- Eat way too much fried chicken at Chandler’s Deli in Knoxville
Day 1: Cambridge, MA to Charlottesville, VA
Distance: 560 Miles
We stopped for lunch at La Toscana in River Edge, NJ, where my uncle makes what I consider one of the best slices in New Jersey. We packed a couple of extra slices in our cooler and headed to Charlottesville for the night.
Day 2: Charlottesville, VA to Knoxville, TN
Distance: 400 Miles
It started to rain just as we were reaching the summit. It was cold and misty, but the view was breathtaking. We sat on top and enjoyed the cold pizza slices we lovingly transported all the way from New Jersey.
After lunch, we hiked back down the mountain and put another 150 miles or so behind us. We stopped for dinner at Ridgewood Barbecue in Bluff City, Tennessee, where there was a long (but quickly moving) line out the door.
We persevered, and before long, we had more food than we could ever hope to finish. We started out with baked beans, cole slaw, and a tangy bowl of blue cheese dip that came with a pile of saltines.
Then we ordered smokey, paper-thin barbecue pork (doused in the late Grace Proffitt’s legendary barbecue sauce), a country ham sandwich, and a pile of piping-hot french fries. We washed it all down with what must have been a few gallons of delicious, sweeter-than-sweet, sweet tea. We were fueled and over-sugared for the remainder of our journey.
Day 3: Knoxville, TN
We skipped breakfast and went straight to lunch at Tupelo Honey Café in Knoxville. We saw a few performances and explored the city a bit. We grabbed hot dogs, popcorn and cocktails at The Public House before our next string of shows, and finished out the night at the Bijou Theater for a late-night performance of Yo La Tengo and Lambchop.
Day 4: Knoxville, TN
We started our day with fresh, buttery biscuits at Just Ripe. They were warm, tender and springy, and went perfectly with fresh blueberry jam. We had a big fried chicken excursion planned for the afternoon, so I treated myself to some vegetable matter by way of a freshly pressed beet-ginger juice.
We walked around the Old City neighborhood of Knoxville and saw another show. We had two hours to kill before our next performance, so we got in the car and drove to Chandler’s Deli for a late lunch.
The fried chicken was the best I’ve ever had. The skin was crispy, light and salty. The meat, on the other hand, was so juicy that I had to wipe my chin after almost every bite.
I ate my chicken with a side of broccoli and cheese casserole, while Ben had his with a beef rib and a pork rib. We mmm‘ed and ahhh‘ed the entire time because the food was just so good! Between the home-cooked deliciousness of our meal, and the countless guests who came in and chatted with Mr. Chandler, we could tell we were in the hands of someone who loves to feed people.
Stuffed and dazed, we headed back to the city for a few more shows. Lambchop was up first at the brand-new Mill & Mine venue. We arrived early enough to stand in the front row (which, as a 5′-1″-tall woman, I wholly appreciated).
Day 5: Knoxville, TN to Cambridge, MA
Distance: 940 Miles
Our long journey home began with breakfast at OliBea in the Old City neighborhood of Knoxville. Ben had coffee and a breakfast platter, and I had horchata and a fried chicken biscuit. The biscuit was so tender that it could hardly hold itself together. Luckily it was perched over a creamy gravy that was so viscous, I initially mistook it for whipped potatoes.
Unlike our leisurely trip down, our trip home was long and focused. We stopped for espresso and surprisingly delicious sticky rice gelato at The Split Banana in Staunton, Virgina. We had dinner at The Garlic Poet in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, and listened to Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat the rest of the way home.
We arrived back home to snowy Cambridge at 1:30 am—16 hours after we paid our breakfast bill in Knoxville’s Old City.