I officially finished dinner four hours ago. I even ran two miles since then, and twisted my body into a few sit-ups, yet I still am shuffling and groaning around my hotel room. George and I made the drive from Charlotte, North Carolina to Nashville, Tennessee today. We finished another morning TV show at around 8 am and then immediately left this darling southern town; our palates were never appropriately given the chance to experience authentic Carolina cuisine. That is, unless you count the raspberry jelly Dunkin Donut I ate this morning! I never touch donuts, I even try to pretend like I’m immune to their fried fluff disguised as delicacy. But my knees quivered and my hands impulsively reached for a jelly filled donut dusted lightly with powdered sugar. I couldn’t help myself, and I wasted a breakfast opportunity on a donut…
Then, after a few hours of making George listen to me wail my heart out to old pop songs and even older monster ballads, he decided it was time for lunch. We plugged our location into the handy GPS and minutes later found ourselves pulling up to a co-op. I adore hippies and all, but I wasn’t in the mood for the southern version of hippie food. I protested, but George stood fast. I reluctantly ordered curried tempe, seaweed salad, pesto broccoli and a potato salad made with veganese (instead of mayonnaise). I plopped down into my chair and stared at my “sincerity special”-as was advertised by the young hippie man. I first tasted the tempe, then the potatoes, and realized I had been overanxious to dislike this co-operative market/deli counter. The food was delicious and refreshing and I didn’t feel that oh-so-common aftermath of regret post an intense bbq feast. I’m glad our GPS couldn’t find a local joint that specialized in lard fried chicken nor crispified pork skins. No, I’m glad because that meant I could splurge on the grease friend chicken, macaroni and cheese and banana pudding for dinner!
After six hours of power naps and power ballads, we finally arrived at our Tennessee destination. We unloaded, rested (I exchanged my new computer for an even newer computer. yeah!), and made our way to the local Krogul for our grocery needs. At the end of our checkout ordeal, George questioned the two girls who rang us up where we could find some good local food. The girls just stared back and mumbled incoherently that they didn’t…eat food? know where to find food? hated their jobs and were angry at the world? George and I smiled pleasantly and side-shifted away from the girls and their mumbling, only to run into a man in the parking lot loaded down with grocery bags. This man obviously loved to eat, so George asked him the same question. “Where should we eat if we only have one night in Nashville?” The man stopped loading his groceries into the car, turned to look at us both and replied, “follow me.” George and I shrugged, hopped in our car and I prayed we weren’t following a man with evil, evil plans.
We pulled up behind a house and parked in an alleyway. I knew it! We were going to die! But I hopped out of the car anyway, smiling of course, and followed the man to a house. Then we noticed a sign above the door indicating a restaurant on the premise. Monell’s. Oh Monell’s. I shall never be the same after crossing your warmly decorated threshold outfitted in twinkle lights and autumnal shades. We were seated at a communal table with our new friend Vernon, who was not actually out to do us harm, an elderly couple, and a mother and son duo. You do not choose where you sit, nor can you request other seats if you do not like the ones you are assigned. There are no reservations and no menu is offered. The meat option rotates every night, but every weeknight is identical to the last. Mondays are chicken and dumplings, Thursdays are BBQ ribs, and so on. You can pick the day, but you can’t pick the offerings.
When you sit down, you are immediately served the salads and vegetables. Vernon cautioned us not to fill up on these pre-served platters. “The good stuff is yet to come. Pace yourselves.” I failed to head his warning and mounded little piles of broccoli with raisins, vinegar cucumbers, cornbread with homemade peach preserves, red pepper pasta salad and roasted zucchini on my plate. The peaches were incredible, and the cornbread was so moist I had a hard time believing it wasn’t cake! I glanced over at Vern’s plate and saw it was practically empty. “I’m telling you, the good stuff is yet to come.” I smiled and stuffed my cheeks full of more jam and bread, and then grew wide eyed as the procession of food began. Bowls of macaroni and cheese, green beans, chicken fried steak, mashed ‘potatahs’, cornbread pudding, fried chicken, bbq ribs and banana pudding landed before each guest and was then methodically passed to the left. I filled my plate once, twice, and then a third time. Unfortunately, I only took a picture of the first plate, which was the least impressive. My hands became sticky and greasy, so I do not have sufficiently documented evidence of the glazed ribs or the succulent fried chicken. It’s a sad truth. My stomach is sad as well at the amount it stretched this evening…
We all began to talk– we discussed politics, education, and of course food. A bunch of strangers joined together at a communal table, eating a meal meant to be shared. I love the idea of passing dishes across the table while people weave themselves in and out of the dinner conversation, like threads in a loom combining to create a masterpiece. This dinner was memorable because of the sum of the parts. Yes, the food was delicious. Unhealthy, greasy, and downright indulgent; but the interactions with my new friends made it a unique experience. It became even more memorable when Vern positively insisted on paying for our dinners because he wanted to make us feel welcome in his state. Imagine that! How many people have done that for you? Or have you done for others?? I was completely taken aback and speechless (partially because I was incapacitated from a food coma) at this man’s sincerity.
We then were introduced to Michael, the owner, and his story. He started the restaurant venture as a young man with no funds and little prospective. He now owns five restaurants that do an impressive amount of business. The restaurant we were in does 10,000 covers a month, goes through 7.5 tons of chicken a month, 1,500 lbs. of potatoes a week, and caters 250 off premise gigs a month. I think my jaw may have dropped a tad as I asked to see what sort of facilities could handle this load. My jaw may have hit my chest when I saw a dinky kitchen outfitted with warming trays…and no sign of a fryer!! A restaurant that uses approximately 15,000 lbs. of fried chicken a month with no fryer??? The man runs a tight ship and his cooks work purposefully and efficiently. I recently worked in a kitchen where 200 covers a night seemed borderline insane. Mind you it was very different food, but the push during service is still a push whether it’s fine dining or southern comfort.
Both George and I were in awe, and I’m pretty sure Michael could read it all over our faces. I raved about his ribs, and he gave me the recipe. I gushed about the perfectly moist pan fried chicken, and again he gave me the recipe. Michael held nothing back; he was a man who had begun a dream that turned into a success story and had no qualms about sharing his methods and equations.
I cannot rave enough about my experience at Mornell’s, and must insist that if you are ever in Nashville, you cannot pass up this experience. It is in no way fine dining; instead it is a made-over home where you sit at large tables with strangers, knock elbows and smear sauce on your cheek (by accident!!)… and leave feeling more satisfied than you’ve felt in ages. Dine with strangers over food made with heart, and leave with a handful of friends….and possibly remnants of fried chicken under your fingernails.
Monell’s Dining and Catering. Great Southern food served family style in historic settings.
1235 6th Ave North, Nashville, TN 37208