Monday, May 4, 2015

Nashville - the Athens of the South

Seriously? Yep, that's what they call it. I've never been to Greece so who am I to argue, AND, the Parthanon is there. It may not be THE Parthanon, but it's damn close. It's a scale replica built for the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition and resides in the middle of what is now Centennial Park in Nashville, and in keeping with the original which was a temple to the goddess Athena, there is a 42-foot statue of one scary looking broad inside.

The main reason for the trip North from Birmingham was two-fold with one of the folds being coincidentally Greek-related. It was to visit the bookstore opened a few years ago by Ann Patchett, one of my favorite writers. She first made an impression on me with Bel Canto in the early 2000s and I've read most of her other books ince then; State of Wonder blew me away and Run is a page-turner, The Magician's Assistant is filled with sadness and kindness and sweetness and hope. The name of Ann's shop is Parnassus Books, named after Mt. Parnassus in Greece, home of the muses and thus a place for poetry, music, and learning. Ann has said in interviews that she wanted the store to be the the bookstore of her childhood, small, personal, a place where the booksellers knew you and knew what you read. She wanted it to be a place to hang out, to read, and to escape. The bookstore of my childhood wasn't a small independent shop like Ann had during her childhood in Nashville, it was the Walden Books in the mall in Sacramento - but I know exactly what she means. It was standard procedure when going to the mall as a child with my parents that I would make my way to the Walden Books and they would pick me up there when they were done shopping. I loved that store. It was small and people left you alone. I have nothing against the Barnes & Nobles of the world, it's wonderful to have so much variety on hand, but it's not the same. Ann's store is delightful, warm, and inviting. As I was wandering around, someone smiled and asked if I needed help finding anything, and when purchases were made (I bought a memoir by Ann's late friend, the writer Lucy Grealy, and the book Ann wrote about their friendship after Lucy died), the lovely lady behind the counter gave me some backstory about the books and the order in which Ann recommends they be read. We weren't there long, and I was a tiny bit disappointed that I didn't get to meet Ann (she was either in the back or out at that moment, the lady who checked us out said she was in that day) but it definitely felt like a special experience to be in the Parnassus of the South.

The second of the two-fold itinerary for Nashville was to go to Prince's Hot Chicken Shack. I saw it listed on some random list of the best fried chicken places in the country, and that struck me as a good enough reason to try it. We were still a little high on the fried chicken we had a the fancy gastropub in Charlotte, and Prince's was a 180-degree turn in terms of ambiance (think gas station back room meets diner) but the chicken was great, and the the experience seemed very "down home."
There was a lady selling home-baked slices of cake out of the shop; it was unclear in what way she was associated with Prince's other than the fact that she was inside it, but one of her offerings was caramel cake and we are suckers for anything caramel around here. The cake was ridiculously sugary and good and the chicken was delicious. We weren't looking for super-spicy, just flavorful and crispy, and I had read on-line that if you don't like it HOT (as in spicy), don't even order the medium, so we went with the mild, which was plenty hot, and the plain which was basic fried chicken. I'd give the mild at least three stars on any Thai food scale, but it was very tasty and the plain was just great. Both were served on slices of white bread and topped with pickle slices. The Kentucky Derby started about 10 minutes after we sat down so we watched the race while waiting for our meal. Some guy wandering around the place was packing a huge sidearm in the elastic waistband of his size-enormous jean-shorts. He seemed to know everyone and I saw him go into the kitchen although it didn't appear that he worked there. I guess he needed the gun since he clearly wouldn't be out-running anyone. This is the South.