During our trip to Nashville and the Smoky Mountains this past November, Jeff and I set aside one day to visit Gatlinburg — which we’d heard was a total tourist trap, but is a place I still wanted to see if we were going to be staying in that area of the Smokies. Even the locals we talked to in Tennessee cringed whenever we mentioned that we planned to visit Gatlinburg.
For one thing, Gatlinburg is home to the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, an 8-mile stretch of the Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail in what is touted as the largest community of independent artisans in North America. And I’m a big big craft nut, as well as a big proponent of the preservation of cultural traditions, so, for me, the Heritage Arts and Crafts Trail was a non-negotiable stop on our vacation.
To make the arts and crafts excursion a bit more palatable for the Hubby, I started looking for local bluegrass jams or recommended authentic Appalachian eateries in Gatlinburg (to compliment the moonshine distillery tour). No such luck. Instead, what I did find were several websites and write-ups about a big annual chili cook-off that would be held in Gatlinburg the same week we were vacationing in the Smokies. Hubby immediately agreed that we needed to coincide our Gatlinburg day trip with the evening contest.
One of the first stops we made in the Arts & Crafts Community was to a fabulous little shop called Jams, Jellies, Nuts & More. The little store is lined with jars upon jars of delicious preserves and treats — all available for sampling. We were immediately greeted by the owner (Marie Pinner), who was — like just about everyone else we met in Tennessee and North Carolina — incredibly friendly and chatty. Marie makes the jams and jellies, made several specific recommendations for us, and encouraged us to sample anything and everything we wanted.
If luggage space wasn’t an issue on the flight home, Jeff and I would’ve bough a good dozen or so items. But, we settled (after much sampling and deliberation) upon just a few items: a delicious spicy three pepper jelly, an equally delicious three berry jelly and some Jack Daniels flavored nuts. Jeff bought the nuts as a gift for his office, but we brought he two jellies home and devoured both jars within a couple weeks.
Despite chowing down on samples, I knew there was no way that I could last until the chili cook-off at 5pm. So, Jeff and I started checking out the eateries located within the Arts & Crafts Community — but, their menus looked less than appetizing with fast-foodish items like hot dogs. Fortunately, we stumbled upon Shabby’s Coffee & Tea House Cafe — a fabulous little cafe tucked away on the outskirts of the community, with a beautiful outdoor patio, a tasty sounding menu, and a hilariously entertaining waitress/manager (owner?).
After more fun crafty shopping, Hubby and I headed over to downtown Gatlinburg to check out the downtown attractions, sample some moonshine, and get our tickets for the chili contest. The words “tourist trap” don’t even remotely begin to describe the over-commercialized horror of downtown Gatlinburg. It was tacky with a capital T. And ridiculously crowded. Jeff and I both agree that downtown Gatlinburg was the only disappointing part of our entire vacation.
The Winter Magic Kickoff & Chili Cookoff has been going on for 22 years. It serves as the city’s official Christmas season tree lighting ceremony, and provides a fundraising opportunity for a local community organization. The downtown strip is closed down to traffic, and for this one night, houses two massive long rows of booths run by local businesses and community organizations all vying for chili cook-off top honors.
The public can purchase tickets for $8 each for the opportunity to sample more chili than a human should ever be allowed to eat, and to place a vote for the coveted People’s Choice Award. The catch? Really really long lines.
Jeff and I were actually quite excited about sampling and judging the entries. We love chili! But, we were both extremely disappointed. Yeah, there was a ton of contestants. But, all except a couple entries were extremely bland.
Now granted, we’re from Southern California (home to excellent southwest and Mexican influenced styles of chili and chili peppers), and we both love spicy hot dishes. We weren’t expecting spicy hot. But, in a region known for hearty home style cooking, we were expecting more….simply…flavor. Something better than, or at least as good as, what we can buy in a can. It got to the point where we’d each sample a spoonful, and then throw our little tasting bowls away.
The exceptions? The contestants that actually cooked up good chili? There were two. Gatlinburg’s only Mexican restaurant — Las Ositas Mexican Grill, who made a fabulous pork green chili packed with flavor. And — much to our surprise — Dolly Parton’s Dixieland Stampede Dinner Attraction from nearby Pigeon Forge, who entered a delicious chicken and corn chili. Jeff and I both had a hard time choosing between the two, so we split our votes and submitted one People’s Choice vote for each contestant.
Despite the disappointing chili offerings, we did enjoy some awesome people-watching, laugh a lot, and have a pretty good time.
After having our fill of chili and touristy downtown Gatlinburg, we plotted our departure to coincide with the city’s tree lighting ceremony and drove through the business loop to take in all the lights.