Monday, April 30, 2012

CATFISH AND BLUEGRASS…


I thought Louisiana was the land of festivals, but middle Tennessee rivals the bayou state in celebrations that feature food and music. Yesterday, our good friend Sarah Boykin, an architect who teaches at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, called just before lunch to invite us to a fundraising event for the Belvidere Fire Department in Belvidere, Tennessee, about a half-hour drive from Sewanee, Tennessee.

Belvidere is in Franklin County and boasts a population of 2,000 people, a large percentage of which are engaged in horse and cattle raising and growing of row crops. We’ve been in the Belvidere area several times, foraging for chocolate chip cookies at a wonderful Swiss Bakery just down the road from this unincorporated town and have always admired the neat farms scattered throughout the rolling hills alongside Highway 64, many of which belong to Mennonites.

Also in the Belvidere area is a Tennessee Historical Site, not quite a mile west of Walnut Grove Road that marks the spot of the homestead, “Kentuck,” which David Crockett occupied and named in 1812. It’s marked near a well in a field and is the spot where Crockett built his home. Crockett went from Kentuck to the Creek War to defend the area against Creek Indians who had mounted an offense at Fort Mimms. He also fought in battles at Talladega, Fort Strother, and the Florida Expedition and in conflicts with the British. His wife died shortly after his return from war, and he remarried Elizabeth Patton, moving his family to nearby Lawrence County, Tennessee, but Belvidere lays claim to the famous Tennessee hero who died at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.

After arriving in Belvidere, we joined a long line of hungry people in front of the old Belvidere School built in the late 40’s, which is now the town’s Community Center. The scent of fried catfish drifted in the warm April air from this huge un-air-conditioned building on a small mound.

Almost an hour later, we gained entry to the food tables, but along the way we met a musician who organizes bands for another Belvidere fundraiser called “Songs for Paws,” a country and bluegrass music show that benefits Animal Harbor Animal Shelter. The musician, who wore rainbow-hued reflecting glasses and a large cowboy hat, explained that his mission in life had become that of capturing feral cats and taking them to vets to be sterilized so that they could live out their nine lives without fear of being “put away.” The “Songs for Paws” event will take place next Saturday at the Belvidere Community Center — the two events scheduled in successive weeks impressed us that Tennesseans in this little town turn out to support community fundraising events. Of course, the events usually feature rich food and music, shades of Cajun Country with its gumbo cook-offs and pepper eating contests accompanied by zydeco music.

When we finally entered the building, we heaped our plates with fried catfish, smoked chicken, hushpuppies, slaw, and fries, stopping before a dessert table of cakes, pies, and fudge. The tickets we had bought entitled us to all the food we could eat if we weren’t concerned about weight or cholesterol. We sat in the heated room for as long as we could stand to be in a hall where no fans stirred the listless air, listening to several bluegrass bands. One band, directed by a country preacher, featured a young woman dressed in black who played the fiddle and sang Gospel in a sweet country voice that mesmerized the crowd. The band and singer had names but no one could hear announcements in the large room that appears to have once been a gymnasium and which had poor acoustics. When the next lively group of musicians performed “Jambalaya,” I felt like I was back home on the bayou listening to “chanky chank,” eating boudin, and passing a good time!

Last year, the Belvidere event brought in 1,000 people, and at $11 a head, I’d say that this catfish and bluegrass festival in a small unincorporated town in Davy Crockett country turned a great profit for a good cause — fliers on the table informed us that if the fire department was unsupported, insurance rates of homeowners would increase considerably.

Our friend Sarah mentioned that the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, Tennessee was scheduled down in the valley the following day, but we decided against heavy feasting for two successive days, even though we know that chefs from throughout the country compete in this highly touted event. As I said earlier, middle Tennessee rivals south Louisiana with its food and fun festivals, but we have to “save room” for an upcoming visit to Nashville. 
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