Monday, March 24, 2014

Which Local Figures Belong on the National Culinary Heritage Register?

Posted By on Mon, Mar 24, 2014 at 8:00 AM

A while back, Nicki P. Wood told me about the National Culinary Heritage Register, the SoFAB (Southern Food and Beverage) Institute's effort “to create a full and expansive map of America’s culinary history and landscape.” The register is pretty skimpy so far; there are only three members, in part due to a stringent set of criteria and a $45 fee to apply. The requirements, though, don’t necessitate an actual current physical location but instead may be attributed to a region or a location that no longer stands. From the website:

Applicants must prove that the subject has made a significant impact on American food and beverage culture. Examples of what makes a subject significant to America’s culinary heritage include:

1. The subject is associated with the origin of what may be considered a distinctly American food or beverage or an American take on a food or beverage.
2. The subject is associated with the origin of or is well-known for a specific regional food or beverage.
3. The subject is associated with a traditional and/or uniquely American way of preparing food or beverage.
4. The subject was the first and/or longest continuously running culinary establishment of a particular type (restaurant/store/farm/factory/mill/etc.) in the United States.
5. The subject is associated with a major American culinary brand.
6. The subject altered or impacted the ways in which food or beverage is produced, distributed, or consumed in the United States and the world.

Additionally, the nominee must be at least 60 years old.

So I tried to think of what I’d nominate from around the area. Certainly Goo Goo Clusters and Jack Daniel’s. Also, I’d think the longevity and importance of the Nashville Farmers’ Market would make it a good candidate. And the RC and Moonpie Festival.

Of course, we have our local icons — Fox’s Donut Den, Bobbie’s Dairy Dip, Wendell Smith’s, Becker’s Bakery (which closed recently) — but they’re not of nationwide significance. I do think Prince’s Fried Chicken, Cracker Barrel, and O’Charley’s have certainly had an effect on the nation’s culinary landscape (more so every day), though Cracker Barrel and O’Charley’s are relatively recent phenomena in food history, having both started (in Lebanon and Nashville, respectively) in 1969.

I asked Nicki Wood what she thought might be on the list for Nashville. Naturally, the spiced round from Elm Hill Meats was one of her first mentions. And Nashville’s big chili purveyors, Vietti and Varallo’s. She also mentioned other beloved Nashville restaurants Hap Townes, Swett’s, Ireland’s, Sylvan Park Restaurant, and Faucon’s. Shoney's, too, but it didn't start here. Further out, she mentioned George Dickel and Tracy City’s Dutch Maid Bakery as well as both White Lily and Martha White flours.

One of the suggestions that really piqued my curiosity — and required more investigation — was her mention that she thought Lay’s started in a gas station across from Belmont University. Wait, what? Turns out, Nashville is rather significant in the business that would eventually become Frito-Lay, though it didn’t necessarily start that way. In the early 1930s, Herman Lay came to Nashville as a salesman for the Barrett Food Co. and began selling his own chips as well. He was so successful that he was able to buy Barrett in 1938 and then move his company to Barrett’s Atlanta headquarters. You don’t hear much about Lay’s debt to Nashville in helping build the business, so perhaps their next flavor should be “hot chicken.”

Any other Middle Tennessee institutions that would be on the National Culinary Heritage Register? What other surprises like Lay's beginnings are out there? And what if the age restriction was removed?

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