It’s one of the top tourist draws in the country, with the allure of the Great Smoky Mountains and two of the cities most key to America’s musical heritage. Tennessee is a diverse place, offering the unexpectedly cosmopolitan pleasures of Nashville and rural communities where growing and making food is serious business. Southern foodways are alive and kicking in Tennessee, with plenty of festivals and producers of artisanal Appalachian favorites. Click through our gallery to discover fun facts and Tennessee food history.
Sara Bir is Paste’s contributing food editor and the author of The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook. She thinks quality country ham makes a fine gift. Follow her on Instagram @Sausagetarian.
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State Capital: Nashville
Statehood Date: June 1, 1796 (the 16th state)
State Beverage: Milk
State Sport Fish: Smallmouth Bass
State Commercial Fish: Channel Catfish
State Fruit: Tomato
U.S. Department of the Interior
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MoonPies originated in Chattanooga, at the request of a coal miner for a filling treat that was easy to take along in a lunch pail. In 1917, Chattanooga Bakery created the marshmallow-filled discs of soft graham cookies enrobed in a thin layer of chocolate coating that's now known as a MoonPie. Today, you can get variations like Double Decker and Salted Caramel…but whatever flavor you go for, make sure you have a glass of milk or a Coke within reach. Those things make a person thirsty!
Charleston's TheDigitel CC BY
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Little Debbie also claims Tennessee as its home state. Collegedale, in the Chattanooga area, is home to McKee Foods Corporation. McKee launched the Little Debbie brand in 1960, and today sales of Little Debbie snack cakes make up a third of the market.
Andy Simmons CC BY
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Lodge Cast Iron is headquartered in South Pittsburgh. Founded in 1896, the iconic American manufacturer still makes many of its products right in Tennessee (they expanded their South Pittsburgh plant in 2014). Three of Lodge's four factory stores—where you can buy factory seconds that don't meet up to Lodge's cosmetic standards but are still perfectly fine for use--are in Tennessee. And, for cornbread fans who understand that the best cornbread originates from a cast iron skillet, South Pittsburgh hosts an annual National Cornbread Festival (it's April 23-24 this year). And it's the single time of the year Lodge opens its factory for public tours.
Guian Bolisay CC BY-SA
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International Biscuit Festival: On Saturday, May 14, Knoxville will be bursting with biscuits. The festival, which launched in 2009 as "a fun gathering for friends and family," has grown rapidly into a world-class event, including a spinoff Southern Food Writing Conference. On the schedule for 2016: a biscuit art exhibition, the Mister and Miss Biscuit pageant, and of course a biscuit baking contest.
Joel Kramer CC BY
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Goo Goo Cluters: Milk chocolate, caramel, peanuts, and marshmallow nougat. That's what you'll find in a Goo Goo Cluster, the beloved regional confection (hard to call it a candy bar, since it's a cluster and not a bar) that's been in production in Nashville since 1912. Visit Nashville and you can see the Goo Goo retail store, which recently added a dessert bar offering all kinds of riffs on the winning peanut-chocolate-caramel-nougat combo.
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Dolly Parton: We all know Dolly Parton is awesome on multiple levels, but why is her Tennessee heritage notable in terms of food? Of course, Dolly Parton has a cookbook (it seems inevitable if you're a country music star), but she's also a major brand and tourist attraction. Between her theme park, Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge and her hometown, Sevierville, the warm allure of Dolly Parton brings tens of thousands of hungry visitors to Tennessee every year. Early in her career, Parton got a huge boost from being on Knoxville businessman Cas Walker's radio show (Walker owned a chain of grocery stores and was the sponsor of The Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour). This is part of a long tradition of food companies sponsoring musicians (Mother's Best flour sponsored a regular early morning Hank Williams segment that was recorded in Nashville, and Nashville-based Martha White was a longtime sponsor of the Grand Ole Opry radio program).
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Barbecue: Paste contributor and Tennessee native Laurel Randolph gives us a rundown of what makes the state's barbecue special (hint: pork plays prominently; sauces might not). "To live in Tennessee or even visit for a while and not eat barbecue would be … difficult," she says.
Peter Dutton CC BY
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Piggly Wiggly: Memphis is home to our distinctly American way of shopping for food. Back in the early 1900s, going to the grocery store meant customers presented clerks with a list, and the clerk would gather up their food order. Entrepreneur Clarence Saunders changed that when he opened the country's first self-service grocery store, complete with shopping baskets and open carts, in 1916, under the name Piggly Wiggly. A hundred years later, we still shop for groceries the same way, and Piggly Wiggly is an iconic brand of the South.
Matt Lemmon CC BY-SA
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The "World's Biggest Fish Fry" happens every year over the last full weekend of April in Paris, Tenn. If the giant catfish on the sign welcoming visitors to Paris isn't enough of an indication, the fish in question is catfish — five tons of it, to be precise. (It is the state commercial fish, remember?)
Kathleen Conklin CC BY