A culinary day trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee

by Colleen Greene on March 12, 2011 · 4 comments



Gatlinburg Chili Cook Off

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.

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Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community

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.

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There's nothing like a foodie shop that welcomes and encourages shoppers to sample as much as they want...over and over again.

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.

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A featured display and sampling table of their incredible three pepper jelly.

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?).

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Shabby's offers an excellent quiet quaint little spot to sit a spell, sip on a sweet tea, and enjoy a delicious lunch.

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Jeff ordered the scrumptious (very last) chicken pot pie. I was surprised, and pleased, to discover that their pot pie comes with only a thin (but flaky yummy) top crust.

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Since Hubby took the last pot pie, I opted for a delicious trio of smoked turkey and cranberry salad, chicken salad, and egg salad with a buttery croissant.

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.

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The chili cook-off stayed this crowded the entire time. Lots of long lines.

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Armed with our admission wrist bands and tasting sporks.

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.

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The folks from Las Ositas entered one darn good dish! A delicious green pork chili.

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.

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Despite their poor choice of booth decor, Dolly Parton's Dixieland Stampede made an equally darn good chicken and corn chili!

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.

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Chili kindly served up by a local member of our military.

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I wasn't expecting Elvis to be there! But he was cool.

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Nothing says chili cook-off or Appalachian culture like...belly dancers?

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The moonshiners made a go at it. That's their cook at the top of this post.

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Even Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Wicked Witch showed up!

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.

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Downtown Gatlinburg was lit up with beautiful winter holiday lights.

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And then we came across this monstrosity -- the Christ in the Smokies Museum & Gardens -- who we're guessing wanted to make sure that "Christ" (even a gigantic Light Brite depiction) stays in the meaning of "Christmas". Disclaimer: We're both hard core Christians, but we found this display just a bit too tacky for our taste.

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And we really couldn't figure out what swans, a rose, and flowers had to do with the true meaning of Christmas.

  • Dpbaker99

    Next time you’re on the Craft Loop try out The Wild Plum Tea Room. It’s been there 27 yrs. Has different items on the menu every few days.

  • Just me

    Southerners weren’t raised with hot peppers of anything stronger than bell peppers, old style chili was never hot or spicy unless the gentlemen added hot sauce. So I am not surprised there was not much spicy chili if they were going for “old time” style. I like it both ways now but until I was probably 13 I had never eaten anything spicy that wasn’t from tabasco. (over 50 yo)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeremy-Sallee/55706349 Jeremy Sallee

    Thanks for the blog post, we’re going to that area for a few days at the end of the month. I was wondering if you found any restaurants that highlighted native Appalachian foods?

    • http://about.me/colleengreene Colleen Greene

      Jeremy,

      These are our Appalachia-related posts: http://www.thetasteplace.com/tags/appalachia/

      We recommend the Dillsboro, NC spot for excellent local style BBQ. As well as Champy’s in Chattanooga (a very cool place to visit, on Lookout Mountain). And the Wear’s Valley roadside BBQ stand.

      We actually did most of our own cooking while in the Smokies, at our rental cabin. But we did stop and sample a lot when out.

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