Chocolate Gravy & Biscuits: A Southeast Tennessee Heritage Food

Chocolate gravy is a warm pudding-like sauce served over homemade biscuits.

Chocolate gravy is a warm pudding-like sauce served over homemade biscuits.

Chocolate gravy is known to those deeply rooted in Southern culinary culture. Back in the day, beloved grandmothers throughout parts of the mountainous South—particularly in Tennessee and Arkansas, it seems—enchanted many a youngin with this warm, chocolate pudding-like concoction poured over homemade biscuits.

Considered a breakfast food, not a dessert, the origin of chocolate gravy is somewhat of a mystery. “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America” credits chocolate gravy’s beginnings to the trading network between the Tennessee Valley and Spanish Louisiana. The encyclopedia also suggests that it could have been preserved from Spanish colonies on the East Coast in the 16th and 17th centuries by the ethnic group known as the Melungeons.

Simpler theories pin its origins to country cooks who were resourceful with Hershey’s cocoa when it first appeared on shelves in rural areas.

Tellico Junction Café serves chocolate gravy each Saturday as part of the breakfast buffet.

Tellico Junction Café serves chocolate gravy each Saturday as part of the breakfast buffet.

Regardless of its rich cultural heritage, chocolate gravy is merely a memory in many a kitchen and restaurant today. However, there is still at least one place to experience chocolate gravy in its full glory—Tellico Junction Café in Englewood, Tennessee, which serves it each Saturday as part of the breakfast buffet.

“I grew up with chocolate gravy—my grandmothers on both sides of my family made it,” said Candi Huckabey, daughter of Tellico Junction Café owner Dianne Kinser. “We served it one Saturday morning, and it kind of snowballed—everybody was asking for it—so we added it to our regular Saturday breakfast buffet.”

The family-owned restaurant, which opened in 2005, based its chocolate gravy on a recipe from an old church cookbook. “The woman who makes it for us each Saturday doesn’t have to measure anything—she just knows what to do,” Huckabey said.

Tellico Junction Café is located at 17 E. Main Street in Englewood, Tennessee. Restaurant hours are Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Friday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, call 423-887-7770.

 

If you would like to make chocolate gravy and biscuits at home, here is a recipe from “A Skillet Full” by Lodge Cast Iron:

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 tablespoons cocoa

2 tablespoons flour

1/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups milk

Directions: Melt butter in skillet. In a bowl, mix together dry ingredients. Add vanilla and milk to dry ingredients. Pour into skillet with melted butter and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until thick. Serve with hot biscuits. Makes 2 cups.

 

Outdoor Family Fun at the Ocoee Whitewater Center

Ocoee Whitewater Center photo1

The Ocoee Whitewater Center in Polk County, Tennessee, offers hiking, biking and water play fun within the Cherokee National Forest and Ocoee River watershed. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service)

One of the legacies of the 1996 Summer Olympics, the Ocoee Whitewater Center near Copperhill, Tennessee, serves as a regional visitors center and day-use recreation area within the Cherokee National Forest and Ocoee River watershed.

The 4-acre recreation area features scenic views of the Ocoee River; two commemorative Olympic bridges; miles of hiking, biking and easy walking trails; and a porch full of rocking chairs perfect for relaxing along this historic riverside.

Mountain biking and hiking enthusiasts can depart from the Ocoee Whitewater Center on the Tanasi Trail System, which offers more than 30 miles of trails. The International Mountain Bike Association designated the Tanasi Trail as an “Epic Ride,” a distinction given to a select few trail systems across the globe.

Biking photo from USFS

The Tanasi Trail System offers more than 30 miles of mountain bike and hiking trails. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service)

A 2.3-mile hiking and biking trail departs from the center along a portion of the historic Old Copper Road, which was originally used by the Cherokee and then by 19th-century miners to transport copper ore by mules and wagons from Ducktown to Cleveland before the development of the railroad.

Located within the upper section of the Ocoee River, the Ocoee Whitewater Center is a great place for water play during the week. Water is not released in the Upper Ocoee during the week (Monday through Friday), which turns the former Olympic course into the perfect location for rock hopping, exploring and cooling off from the summer heat.

“The center is a big water playground during the week when the upper section of the river is not running,” said Mike Wright, Ocoee Whitewater Center director and Cherokee National Forest ranger. “There are some great blue holes just outside of the whitewater center’s administrative boundary.”

Of course, when the Ocoee River is running at commercial flow levels on Saturdays and Sundays, visitors are not allowed to be in the water without a boat.

The Ocoee River has its beginnings in Georgia, where it is called the Toccoa River, and the waterway changes to the Ocoee upon entering Tennessee. The river runs through Copperhill, flows past the Ocoee Whitewater Center and eventually empties into the Hiwassee River.

In the past, the Ocoee’s water quality was significantly impacted by mining activity in Copperhill in the 19th and 20th centuries. Fortunately, the river’s water quality has improved in recent years.

“Water quality in the Ocoee River has improved dramatically because of cleanup efforts by Glenn Springs Holdings in Copperhill,” Wright said. “We have seen some indicator species in recent years that we haven’t seen in the past.”

OWC during Olympic competive venue 1996

The Ocoee Whitewater Center is open Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the recreation area is open from dusk to dawn seven days a week. A $3 day-use fee is required for parking. The center’s gift shop is open seven days a week, offering trail guides, local art, nature-oriented souvenirs and outdoor clothing.

The center also offers educational programming throughout the year, including snorkeling trips on the Conasauga River and Citico Creek.

To get to the Ocoee Whitewater Center, take I-75 to exit 20 in Cleveland, Tennessee, and head northeast on APD 40 for about 6 miles to U.S. Highway 64/74 East. Travel east 26 miles on Highway 64. Pass Lake Ocoee, travel through the Ocoee River Gorge, and the center is located on the right.

Fuel, food, shopping and sleeping accommodations are available nearby in Ducktown, Copperhill, Benton and Cleveland; and camping options are located at Thunder Rock, Parksville and Chilhowee campgrounds.

To learn more, visit www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/cherokee/recarea/?recid=35096.

Life in the Coal Mines

coal mining photo

Whitwell was home to the largest mine in Marion County. This 1947 photo shows miners at the Reel Cove Cave mine near Whitwell. (Photo: Department of Conservation)

The Marion County Coal Miners Museum in Whitwell, Tennessee, offers storytelling in its most engaging form: from the mouths of those who experienced it. The museum is a labor of love for the six retired coal miners who keep its doors open Monday through Saturday.

Jewell Shadrick works the Tuesday shift at the museum and talks easily with visitors about objects and displays that mark more than a century of coal mining in his community. What emerges from his informal tour is a deep understanding of the significant cultural heritage that coal mining played in Whitwell and the Sequatchie Valley as a whole.

Museum displays mark more than a century of coal mining in Whitwell. (Photo: Jenni Frankenberg Veal)

Coal mining operations set up shop in the southern Appalachian Mountains in the 1800s. Tennessee was once one of the largest coal producers in the United States, aided by the construction of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad in the mid-1800s.

Southern coal—a high-grade bituminous coal—was a better quality than northern coal and was delivered to American consumers at a lower cost, according to “Coal Mining in the Cumberland Plateau, 1880–1930.”

Whitwell (formerly the town of Cheekville) was established in 1877 as a mining community and was the home of the largest mine in Marion County. Immigrants came from Great Britain and Europe to get in on the action of coal mining and coke production.

In order to preserve this significant history, the Marion County Coal Miners Museum opened in 2011 in an unassuming building along Main Street in Whitwell. Shadrick’s cousin, J.T. Shadrick, had maintained a coal mining display at a local funeral home that was a frequent topic of conversation in the community. One night, he had a dream about starting the museum—and the rest is history.

Whitwell Museum exhibit jfv

Museum displays mark more than a century of coal mining in Whitwell. (Photo: Jenni Frankenberg Veal)

A stone from an old wall near the Whitwell mine bears witness to the date when the first death occurred in the mine. (Photo: Jenni Frankenberg Veal)

The museum is located just down the road from the old mines and coke ovens on the side of Cumberland Mountain (also known as Olive Mountain).

Museum relics showcase a community entrenched in the mines in all aspects of life. The camaraderie of the men who worked in the mines is palpable, and every item tells a story.

Generations of coal mining caps and helmets, dating back to the mid-1800s, are displayed. One of the oldest is a child-sized cap with a metal bracket and lamp on the front for light.

“In the early days, a boy 8 years old could go underground with his daddy and work and get paid,” Shadrick said.

A small homemade device called a “rail horse” used by coal miners to ride the rails down the mountain after work sits on a countertop next to a black and white photo of a miner using one.

“The men had to be going over 60 miles per hour riding these things down the rails,” Shadrick said. Below the display is a long, thin shard of metal from the rails, which once impaled a miner’s leg as he rode his rail horse down the mountain.

Metal hooks that look like oversized diaper pins and numbered tags are spread along a counter. Miners would attach their numbered tag to each 1-ton cart of coal they filled so they could get paid. In the early days, they were paid 87 cents per ton of coal. Young boys were issued half tags, so a father would attach that if his son had helped, as well.

Story after story reveal an element of coal’s dark shadow. Photos of men in cramped spaces covered in black soot only suggest what miners endured. Shadrick said that he can’t hear well because of his days in the mines. However, despite the risks, men and boys—and later, women—descended hundreds of feet beneath the earth’s surface daily into a labyrinth of shafts spread miles and miles across the valley in order to provide for their families.

Shadrick points to the location in the mine where 13 men died in 1981. (Photo: Jenni Frankenberg Veal)

A stone from an old wall near the mine bears witness to the date when the first death occurred in the mine; “1877” was written in oil or grease over a century ago.

In 1981, one of the worst mining disasters in the coal industry took place at the Whitwell mines. Shadrick pointed to a giant map that reveals a honeycomb of shafts more than 200 feet below the surface of the Sequatchie Valley. A red tack marks where 13 men died after a blast that occurred at No. 21, nearly 5 miles from the entrance to the mine.

A cigarette lighter apparently touched off a methane explosion in the mine. Later, the United States Department of Labor accused Tennessee Consolidated Coal Company and Grundy County Mining Company of failure to evacuate workers from a methane-laden shaft, to adequately ventilate the shaft and to enforce a federal regulation prohibiting smoking materials in a mine.

Shadrick was one of the first men to go back into the mine after the explosion. While he discussed his role, he quieted and his eyes filled with tears. He knew the men who died and their families. Some were relatives.

Jewell Shadrick with map of mines jfv

Shadrick points to the location in the mine where 13 men died in 1981. (Photo: Jenni Frankenberg Veal)

Coal mining was a significant industry in Whitwell until 1996, when the mines went bankrupt. However, the museum and its volunteers think it’s a history worth telling, one that gave the community its beginnings and defined it for generations.

Environmentally, coal mining still impacts the region. The coal seam that underlies the Cumberland Plateau, the Sewanee Coal Seam, is surrounded by a layer of shale that contains pyrite, which creates toxic acid mine drainage when exposed to water and air. Today, acid mine drainage from hundreds of abandoned mines on the Cumberland Plateau and Walden’s Ridge continue to impact waterways and communities.

Visit the Marion County Coal Miners Museum, located at 900 S. Main St. in Whitwell, to learn more about coal mining in the Sequatchie Valley. It’s open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. CT. Group and school tours, bus tours, and senior citizen tours can be scheduled by calling 423-658-6868. There is no admission fee, but donations are welcome.

Beth Salem Church

Beth Salem Church in McMinn County

Beth Salem Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Athens, Tenn., was founded in 1866 by two black ministers and a white minister. (Photo: Jim Caldwell)

Organized in 1866, Beth Salem Cumberland Presbyterian Church stands as a testament to the Christian heritage that spans the years for blacks in the region. Located between Athens and Etowah, Tenn., off Tennessee Highway 30, Beth Salem was the first black church in McMinn, Meigs and Polk counties.

Slavery officially ended in Tennessee in April 1865, and Beth Salem Church was founded the following year by two black ministers and former slaves, the Revs. George Waterhouse and Jacob Armstrong, on land donated by a white woman, Martha Patsy Fite. The church, its adjoining cemetery and kitchen pavilion are lasting remnants of post-Civil War recovery and enduring hope in the region.

Today, the history of Beth Salem Church is being preserved through the efforts of Ann Hitchcock Boyd, a descendant of one of the church’s founding families, and other relatives and friends.

Boyd’s great-great-grandmother, Sylvia Chestnutt, was born into slavery on Edwards Plantation in Charleston, S.C., and toward the end of the Civil War was sold to the Chestnutt family, which owned a farm located between Athens and Etowah.

Sylvia’s three children were sold to other farms in the McMinn County area. Her youngest daughter, Daphney, who was 12 or 13 years old at the time, was sold to the Peck family in Etowah, Tenn.

Daphney Chestnutt Melton

Daphney Chestnutt Melton, a former slave on an Etowah farm, was one of the original members of Beth Salem Church. (Photo: Ann Boyd)

After the Civil War came to an end, Sylvia reportedly traveled to area farms in an effort to find her daughter and two sons, asking about any slaves who were originally from South Carolina. Boyd’s family passed down this story of Sylvia and Daphney’s reunion: One day, Sylvia rode up to the Peck farm in a dilapidated wagon pulled by a mule. Daphney, age 15, jumped into the wagon without looking back. Years later, Daphney told family members that even if she lived to be 1,000 years old, she would never forget the day that her mother came to get her.

After the war ended, former slaves often didn’t have anywhere to go, and many farmers still needed help on their land. Sylvia and Daphney returned to the Chestnutt family farm, which Boyd says must have been a big farm with a kind family that took them in. (Today, the Chestnutt farm is called Pebblebrook Farm and is located off Highway 30 between Athens and Etowah.)

Beth Salem Church organized monthly worship services for black families in what was an integrated farming community after the Civil War. Services were held under a brush arbor until a log meetinghouse was constructed. The Rev. Fate Sloop, a white minister, assisted the congregation by reading scripture from the Bible, as former slaves had been banned from learning to read.

In the 1920s, a one-story, one-room, weatherboard-covered building was constructed to replace the log house, which was destroyed in a fire. Church services were held each Sunday, and a school for black students operated during the week.

With the decline of small farms and the growth of factory jobs in the 1920s, the community of Beth Salem faded as many people left family farms for work in the nearby towns of Athens and Etowah. Regular church services at Beth Salem ceased in the 1950s, about a decade after classroom instruction ended. The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

Bethsalem Church historical marker photo

Ann Hitchcock Boyd, an ancestor of one of the church’s founding families, grew up attending the annual Beth Salem homecoming. (Photo: Ann Boyd)

Each year in August, family and friends gather at Beth Salem Church to remember ancestors and celebrate the church’s history with preaching, singing and a potluck dinner on the grounds. The annual homecoming event, which will take place Aug. 24 this year, is open to the public.

“Homecoming makes you feel like you have a little bit of history that you can take home with you once a year,” said Boyd, who grew up attending the Beth Salem homecoming each year with her family. “The Beth Salem homecoming was always my father and mother’s favorite place to go every year,” said Boyd, who grew up in Etowah and now lives with her husband on 30 acres in Riceville, Tenn.

“My older brother and I had a real passion for Beth Salem, just as my parents did,” she said. “After he passed away in 2012, I thought, ‘I can’t let this go—I have to keep it going so future generations understand what it was to have a place to go worship after we were free.’

“My ultimate desire is to preserve that building and to keep its history going and to allow younger generations the opportunity to understand the history and how it wasn’t easy for people to get to church,” she said.

For more information about Beth Salem Cumberland Presbyterian Church, visit the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association website.

Traditional Craft of the Copper Still Found at Dixie Queen Stills

Dixie Queen Stills photo

 

The mystique of moonshine is alive and well in East Tennessee.

Central to the region’s historical character, interest in moonshine has been reawakened by the Discovery Channel’s show “Moonshiners” and the growth of commercial distillers across the state, including Ole Smoky Distillery, which opened in Gatlinburg in 2010.

Roy Grooms and Sandi LeQuire

Owner Sandi LeQuire (right) sells Roy Grooms’ signed copper pots at her Etowah store. (Photo: Dixie Queen Stills)

Just up the road from Chattanooga, the former rough-and-tumble town of Etowah is transforming its bristly moonshine past into a cultural heritage draw. (Rumor has it that numerous old still sites can be found on Starr Mountain near this historical railroad town.)

“Etowah was a big hub for moonshine bootlegging,” said Dixie Queen Stills owner Sandi LeQuire, who sells handmade copper pots and home distilling supplies from her storefront along Tennessee Avenue.

Lustrous reddish-orange copper pots gleam through the windows of Dixie Queen Stills, modern versions of a traditional craft that LeQuire hopes to keep alive.

Featured artists include local coppersmith Ricky Harden, who uses a 150-year-old anvil to hand roll the beaks of his pots. LeQuire also proudly offers a few handmade stills made by North Carolina native Roy Grooms, one of the stars of “Moonshiners.”

“I am the only store that has Roy Grooms’ signed stills for sale,” she said.

Though it is legal to own a copper still, federal law prohibits distilling moonshine at home for personal consumption. Aside from legal issues, dangers can include poisoning, fire and explosions.

“In Tennessee, you cannot legally sell a fully functioning moonshine still,” LeQuire said. Federal and state permits are required for small-batch distillery of moonshine.

Copper stills can, however, be used to make distilled water and essential oils, as well as ethanol (also with permits). The traditional copper pots have also become decorating novelties.

Copper stills at Dixie Queen Stills

Copper pots can be used to make distilled water and essential oils. (Photo: Jenni Frankenberg Veal)

“These pots are made in the traditional style of copper pots made here in the southern Smoky Mountains,” LeQuire said. “I have people stop by who want to purchase one simply for decoration.”

LeQuire opened the Dixie Queen Stills storefront in April. Interest in her project has grown quickly. In fact, she was shocked that 70 people showed up for the store’s first still building demonstration event earlier this month.

“We thought maybe 15 to 20 people would show up to see how a still is made—not 70 people,” she said. “We are planning to do more demonstrations in the future. In fact, we are planning to do a lot with this in Etowah.”

Dixie Queen Stills is located at 822 Tennessee Ave. in Etowah. The store is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To learn more, call 423-263-7668 or visit http://shop.dixiequeenstills.net.