About 20 years ago, a jar of ketchup nearly came between my sister Carolyn and her beau, Ray Dean French. Early in the romance, my mother invited Ray Dean to dinner so that he and my familyjust recently moved to south Texas from the Northeastcould get to know one another.
Just as she would have back home in Delaware, my mother made her special spaghetti and meatballs. The sauce, fragrant with Italian seasonings, simmered all day long. The meatballs were hand-rolled, browned in olive oil, then added to the sauce. It is one of my mother’s specialties.
Ray Dean, who had never been farther north than Dallas, grew up on a diet where the major food groups were pinto beans, corn bread, and chicken-fried steak. The visit was going quite well until the family sat down to eat. My mother passed the big bowl of spaghetti to Ray Dean first, who helped himself to a large serving. Then he politely asked my mother if she had any ketchup.
I wasn’t there. In gleeful recountings of the tale, I was told you could have heard a pin drop in the puzzled silence that immediately followed his request. My mother asked him what in the world he wanted ketchup for. For the meatballs, he replied. Everyone held their breath. My mother said absolutely not, and Ray Dean ate the meatballs as they were intended to be eatenwith spaghetti sauce, not ketchup. But he had learned a lesson. Throughout the courtshipand the marriage that endures stillhe took to bringing his own jumbo-sized jar of ketchup when he visits my parents, keeping it by his feet when not in use, a safe distance from my mother.
I thought about Ray Dean when a friend of mine, a good ol’ boy, told me about a restaurant he had run across.
“Well, I thought it was going to be country cookin’, but it was pretty fancy. And when I asked for a bottle of ketchup to put on my meat loaf, they didn’t have any! Don’t that beat all? No ketchup! I ain’t going back there again.” Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that a restaurant that sits on the town square of Smithville, Tennessee; is decorated with fishing gear, antique memorabilia, and mismatched china serving pieces; and is called The Mason Jar Cafe, would be yet another ubiquitous meat-n-three.
But photos on the walls reveal a man in a starched white jacket and a tall chef’s hat, standing with Sen. Ted Kennedy and Prince Bandarr of Saudi Arabia. Embroidered above the title of executive chef on the jacket is the name Dave Mason. Aha! The Mason Jar Cafe. A clever ruse to disarm people like Ray Dean and my friend, who would sooner eat dirt than go to a fancy restaurant.
Perhaps Monsieur Mason reasons that once he gets them at the table, he’s got ’em as hooked as a bass out in neighboring Center Hill Lake. But Mason ain’t no fancy pants Yankee either. Born and raised in Murfreesboro, he first cooked for Daisy King at Miss Daisy’s. Through the years, his work took him to commercial and residential kitchens in Washington, Colorado, Chicago, Atlanta, and the Virgin Islands. A few years ago, he decided to take off his wandering shoes. He came back south and eventually settled in Smithville, from where much of his family hails.
In March 1998, with wife Alecia, he opened The Mason Jar. He admits that, for the locals, his food took some getting used to. “They came in expecting meat-n-three. They were definitely sticker shocked.” Lunch is served Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. On Friday and Saturday nights, from 5 to 9 p.m., dinner is served, with reservations recommended. Lunch and dinner selections change daily, according to what is available. Recent lunch choices included grilled sea bass salad with lemon Caesar dressing, lemon herb chicken, and grilled Jack Daniel’s pork chops.
Dinner menus usually offer two appetizers and at least five entréesthere is always a Black Angus steak, another meat, poultry, and at least one seafood selection.
When our party of six arrived on a Saturday night, Italian opera resonated throughout the cozy room and the sole waitress, Rebecca from Wisconsin, was deftly balancing several tables at once. Shortly after we were seated, she delivered what looked like a waffle, topped with a mound of melting sweet butter. I briefly pondered the odd dining habits of country folk but soon discovered that the waffle was actually hot cornbread cooked in a waffle iron. A fabulous idea passed along to Mason from one of the local ladies. I warn you, it’s addictive.
You have to bring your own wine if you want it, but leave the Chateau Lafitte for another occasion. Local laws prohibit wine bottles on the table, and Rebecca decanted ours into large blue Mason jars. If it’s good enough for moonshine....
Our 8 p.m. arrival was well past dinner time by Smithville standards, and Mason was out of the Maine lobster, the escargot, and a chicken special that earlier birds had already claimed. To start, we shared sliced portobello mushroom with red peppers, onion, and wine sauce, and sautéed shrimp on a bed of fettucine. I preferred the meaty mushroom to the shrimp, which didn’t seem quite as fresh as they may have been the night before. The salad between courses was large and fresh, with good homemade dressings. Of the entrées, the meatsa tender, flavorful lamb, and a thick, juicy steakwere better executed than the red snapper and shrimp étouffée. I found the sauce on the first too rich, and the almond flavor that overpowered the latter puzzling. Side dishes by that time were limited to fettucine Alfredo, rice, red potatoes in a cream sauce, and a squash soufflé. I was craving some fresh asparagus and simple mashed potatoes. And I’ll bet I’d find them another weekend. Individual chocolate cakes were the perfect thing for dessert and a Mason concoctionOrange Coffeewas to die for.
If you’re a ketchup-totin’ man, Mason Jar may not be your kind of place. But everyone else is bound to find something, or many things, to love about this charming restaurant located in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful areas of Tennessee. It’s a fur piece from Nashville, but an evening worth the drive.