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Drive Natchez Trace Parkway And Sample Southern Dining

A taste of the Natchez Trace Parkway/Jane Schneider

Pull into Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, at Milepost 428.9 along the Natchez Trace Parkway and you’ll find a quaint village, a scattering of antique shops and galleries, and Puckett’s Grocery. It’s the kind of country store I’ve often encountered in the South — casual and homey, with foodstuffs in back and a grill up front. Well, the stage, where the best of Nashville’s country artists casually drop by to pick and sing on open mic night, that was a surprise. That’s part of Puckett’s charm.

Pull up a chair. The pungent aroma of pulled pork wafts from the counter where folks eagerly await orders of meat and threes (sides). I pair my BBQ with velvety mac and cheese and a buttermilk biscuit so light you could sleep on it. Instead, I smother its flakiness in white pepper gravy and dig in until a feeling of gracious plenty washes over me. This, my friend, is comfort food at its finest.  

Inside Puckett's Grocery/Jane Schneider

A country setting inside Puckett's goes along with your meal/Jane Schneider

Welcome To The Trace

What better way to enjoy spring’s gentle unfolding than eating your way down the Natchez Trace Parkway? From its start in Natchez, Mississippi, to the finish far to the north in Nashville, Tennessee, the gentle, 50 mph pace of the Trace is the perfect antidote to the blurry rush of interstate travel.

“I love the Trace,” says Carrie Cox, who recently drove the graceful roadway from Tupelo, Mississippi, to Franklin, Tennessee. “I like that it slows you down so you can enjoy its natural beauty, the turkey and wildlife. My husband says it was the most relaxing trip we’ve taken recently.”

The scenic, two-lane parkway covers 444 miles and crosses three states. The Trace was officially established in 1800 as a postal route to the Mississippi Territory. But boatmen who piloted flatboats down the Mississippi River, loaded with corn, tobacco, cotton, and whiskey, popularized the route. Once in Natchez, their freight was sold and the long walk home began via the Trace. The trail was eventually established as a parkway under the National Park Service in 1938.

But lush, bucolic scenery isn’t the Trace’s sole amenity. You’ll find an array of restaurants in the nearby towns of Franklin, Florence, and Tupelo that offer traditional as well as new takes on Southern cuisine. Plenty of cafes still feature classic country fare, most notably Nashville’s Loveless Cafe (Milepost 442), which is renowned for its fried chicken and oh-so-heavenly biscuits. But the farm-to-table movement is making inroads here, too, influencing chefs and distillers alike. 

Tennessee Whiskey

The making of bourbon and whiskey is flourishing in Tennessee, thanks to a 2009 law that reopened the doors to the production of distilled spirits, a craft long revered here. Travel the Tennessee Whiskey Trail and you can tour 36 distilleries.

Leiper’s Fork Distillery, outside of Franklin, greets you with the heady aroma of mash. Distiller Caitlin Christian pours me a shot directly from the huge copper still at the heart of their operation. The whiskey, velvety smooth, leaves a spicy note that lingers on my tongue. In the tasting room, we learn about the nuances of brewing and sample bourbon and rye whiskey. Needless to say, several wallets leave a bit lighter following the gift shop stop.

Leiper's Distillery along the Natchez Trace Parkway/Jane Schneider

A few miles away at Thompson’s Station, owner Heath Clark crafts the bourbon and gin recipes he makes at H. Clark Distillery, Williamson County’s first distillery in 103 years. Though a smaller operation than Leiper’s, his spirits are definitely worth a stop. Neighboring Circa Grill reflects the region’s move toward more chef-inspired restaurants.  Here, Chef Jeffrey Penato creates dishes like tuna tartar and braised rabbit pappardelle, a dense, savory pasta dish perfect for the season.

Franklin Foods

On downtown Franklin’s vibrant Main Street I visit Gray’s On Main, where Tennessee spirits add local flavor to their sophisticated cocktail menu. Gray’s is a pre-Prohibition craft bar and restaurant, a nod to the building’s history as a pharmacy. Bar manager Kala Ellis takes her mixology seriously, making handmade bitters and syrups that give their drinks a flavorful zing. “I’m constantly learning what’s out there so we can stay on the leading edge,” she says. Their menu is decidedly Southern with a twist. Try the fried pimento cheese balls, crunchy on the outside, soft and cheesy on the inside, served with a delicate sweet and sour sauce. Also worth a stop is Cork and Cow, where hickory-grilled meats are king.

Florence, Alabama

Further south, Florence’s downtown is enjoying resurgence. It boasts one of Alabama’s best pizza joints, The Pie Factory. But if you’re looking for an upscale meal, head to Odette. Under the guidance of Chef Josh Quick, this stylish restaurant has gained an enthusiastic following for its diverse, seasonal menus and small plates, not to mention their wildly popular cheeseburgers.

While produce and meats are locally sourced, Chef Quick will venture further afield for inspiration. A trip to Lima, Peru, with sous chef Ramon Jacobson-Gonzalez yielded beef anticuchos. While beef heart can be tough, I find these marinated beef strips tender and wonderfully flavored with aji amarillo peppers, which lend the meat a spicy, slightly citrusy flavor. Leave room for dessert, too. The banana empanada, a baked tartlet drizzled with chocolate and served with vanilla ice cream, is delicious.

Lunch At Alabama Chanin

Florence’s industrial park might seem an odd place for a lunch spot, but don’t be deterred and pay a visit to Alabama Chanin, designer Natalie Chanin’s clothing design and production studio. Inside you’ll find The Factory cafe, where I encounter a north Alabama speciality: white chicken barbecue. Tender smoked chicken is wrapped in a creamy white sauce (a mélange of mayo, vinegar, and mustard), piled high on ciabatta bread, and crowned with a mixed green medley. It’s very satisfying.

Driving through hilly neighborhoods, I return to Main Street to dip into Trowbridge’s Ice Cream and Sandwich Bar on Court Street, a downtown staple since 1918. You can still enjoy an old-fashioned egg salad sandwich, but it’s their orange pineapple ice cream I’m craving. Alabama-native Mary Lynn Botts tells me her mother always rewarded good dental check-ups with this favorite confection. Creamy and sweet, it does not disappoint.

Fried pimento cheese balls at Grays come with a sweet and sour dipping sauce/Jane Schneider

On To Tupelo, Mississippi

If you arrive in time for lunch in downtown Tupelo, you’ll find several options: Cafe 212 and coffee shop, known for its sweet chicken salad and a homemade tomato soup so tasty I’m tempted to request the recipe. A few doors down, Vanelli’s Bistro offers flavorful pizza and calzones, but Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen (KOK to locals) and their second restaurant, Neon Pig Cafe, is what folks talk about around here. Bragging rights ensued when their “Smash Burger” – containing a mix of various cuts of beef plus bacon all ground together and topped with bacon bits, cheese, onions, pickles and sauces -- beat a host of contenders to win Thrillist’s “Best Burger in America” title. The company utilizes a host of local farmers for its meats and produce and creates an impressive array of homemade sauces, rubs, and relishes. The Neon Pig (two miles from downtown) also boasts a charcuterie where meats are cut and cured to perfection. 

From Natchez to Nashville, you’ll never want for scenery or eatery along the Trace. Consider these spots a bit of the South for your mouth.

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