Tennessee Renaissance Festival a Lifelong Quest

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Photo courtesy of Tennessee Renaissance Festival

Once upon a time… before watching Game of Thrones or touring castles in Europe… I taught my  children and literature students tales of fairies, dragons, and knights. That chivalry must never die and dreams do come true. 

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Love of history, fantasy and escape is alive and well at the Tennessee Renaissance Fest. Here you can feast on turkey legs like a king, see fairy houses, or hunt for dragons’ eggs.

We’d then travel to The Tennessee Renaissance Festival to wander Covington Glen, a 16th Century village located outside of Nashville.

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There I tried to teach my son and daughter archery as my dad had tried to teach me. I still remember the archery tournament in Kentucky where he’d won the “Robin’s Hood Award” for hitting the bull’s eye with his first arrow, then splitting that arrow with his second shot. He wanted me to compete in contests, too. No pressure. 🙂

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Two decades later… a couple of weeks ago my daughter chose to celebrate her birthday at the Fest where we watched jousting and my son handed me a bow and quiver of arrows to see if I could still hit a target. Last weekend I returned to finally meet the man who created the beloved tradition that throngs of folks enjoy–many in costume–yearly. 

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Photo courtesy of Tennessee Renaissance Festival
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Fans dressed as mythical creatures line up at Tennessee Renaissance Fest
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Great Family Fun at Tennessee Renaissance Festival
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Fest Fans

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Outlander fans will feel at home at the Tennessee Renaissance Festival, too.
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Photo courtesy of Tennessee Renaissance Festival

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Freeman greets guests outside Castle Gwynn, located on forty acres he bought in 1976 near Triune. Friendly, fun, and sincere, he tells the inspiring story of a lifelong quest:

The first two most commonly asked questions are, ‘Do you live here?’ Yes I do. For the last 31 years I’ve lived here with my wife, Maggie, and our 2 dogs. The 2nd most commonly asked question is, ‘When are you going to get it finished?’ The answer: ‘When one of you wins the lottery, please remember me!’ I’ve been doing that for the last 34 years. It hasn’t worked yet. (laughs)

In 1970 I was a senior in high school who drew my dream house, a castle, in architecture class. Being a poor boy from Flat Rock, the only way I could do it was to build it myself. I am proud to say I built something from scratch, which means I started with zero. I did have a lucky break. By chance I got into photography my senior year of high school. My next door neighbor had been in Viet Nam and won a camera in a poker game and had forgotten how to work it. The deal was to learn how and teach him.

He did, and by graduation of his senior year, he photographed senior prom. Next he worked for a photography studio that needed 13 high school composite shots done in a month.

I got it done for them, and it only took me only 360 hours—90 hours a week. I used to think that was a lot of hours until I went into business for myself. (laughs) It you are willing to work 12-18 hour days, I guarantee that you can do absolutely anything in the world if you want to bad enough. I proved that, but to say I did this all by myself would be a gross exaggeration. I had a whole lot of help from a whole lot of people to make this dream possible including yourselves for coming out to the festival this year.

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The color of Castle Gwynn, Welsh for “White Tower,” is typical of medieval castles. Anyone trying to scale these fortresses would have been seen in the dark.

He gives credit to his wife, Jackie Harmon, who he married in 1988, the first wedding held at Castle Gwynn; to his parents, and to a master mason and his four sons who worked with him weekends for almost two years laying the brickwork in the kitchen. They started with 8 brick arches, but by the time they finished, they had 60 of them. 14,000 bricks Hosting four weddings helped with the cost. For the full story and credits of building the castle, go here.

 

 

 

 

 

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I asked Mike what inspired a high school senior to want to build a castle. He said when he was five, his father returned from WW2 with a book of postcards of castles along the Rhine River. I asked if any movies or books were influential, and he immediately said Charlton Heston’s The War Lord, a 1965 film about Medieval warfare in 11th century Normandy. His interest in history and sense of humor can be seen throughout the property.

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My favorite hero is in the top left corner.

No costume? No worries! But if you want one… there are many on site.

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I confess I returned, too, to stop by the Lady Smith Jewelry booth to look again at her cameo mermaids and sterling silver Celtic pieces.

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The Fest runs yearly every weekend of May through Memorial Day. Check schedule for jousting, shows, and castle tours. Vendors for food, beverages, rides and games accept cash only though the admission gate and some vendors accept credit cards. Other Rules of the Realm are here. Stop by, sit a spell, and enjoy the magic.

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For a magical perspective, stop by the Tennessee Renaissance Festival.

 

 

What’s Happening in Nashville: Cheekwood in Bloom

Margaret:  “It’s going to rain!”
Marianne:  “It is NOT going to rain.”
Margaret:  “You always say that and then it always does!”
Marianne:  “There’s a bit of blue sky, let us chase it!”

Sense and Sensibility 1995 movie based on Jane Austen’s novel

Find your inner romantic/Marianne and a bit of blue sky April 14-15 to take advantage of half-priced admission at the closing weekend of Cheekwood in Bloom 2018. Spring blooms and the Beer Garden with seasonal brews, craft cocktails, food trucks and live music 11-4 PM beckon. Other weekend events and more details can be found here.

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Cheekwood Botanical Gardens transports me to the Lake District in England and other sunny times when I need them. Members can roam here regularly.

 

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The Sphinxes of Cheekwood are calling. Sphinxes with female faces became popular as garden ornaments in the 19th century.

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Barcelona Tulip is one of my favorites. Love the city, too!
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Miss these from my grandmother’s garden where my sister, friend, cousins and I carried them as children in pretend weddings with the boys next door.

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Recent posts on Cheekwood Botanical Gardens:

Cheekwood’s Celebration of El Dia de los Muertos

Cheekwood in Fall

 

Woods in Winter

Today was the first time in almost three years I’ve crunched through snow. I didn’t laugh like I did  sledding in the Atlas Mountains,  but sliding along with Ella in our quiet Walden Woods was happiness. Peace. A snow day–time no longer spoken for– is a gift that feeds the soul. Frozen flakes falling like manna from heaven. An invitation to simply, beautifully just be.

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Knoxville & Smoky Mountains: Great Escape and Journey Home

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Though I am writing this on a Dominican Republic beach a couple of hours from Santo Domingo where I’ll return to work on Tuesday, I’m reliving the mountain escape I had while home for the holidays.  I’m sorry I missed the snow in Tennessee that arrived just after I flew back to the Caribbean on Wednesday, but  I am glad my son and I had clear roads for a trip to the Smoky Mountains while I was there.  Cole moved to Knoxville last summer and with each visit I understand more why he likes the city where he chose to work.  Nashville’s growth spurt since I’ve been gone has frustrated natives and longtime transplants with the high rise apartments and traffic chaos that came with it.  Knoxville feels much like Nashville did before the boom and with the bonus of Gatlinburg one hour away and The Biltmore two (which we plan to see next summer when the gardens are in bloom), it’s a great destination for more than Vols fans.

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View of Smokies in the Distance from my son’s area of Knoxville

Tennessee is a hiking and wildlife lover’s paradise.   My first morning there while drinking coffee and looking out my son’s sliding doors I saw the usual–a cardinal, squirrels chasing each other–and then something moving in the brush behind his apartment that looked like a bobcat but larger.  Then there were two of them.   I grabbed my camera to zoom in and started snapping; while focusing and scanning the second creature disappeared.

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Whether they were both coyotes (a growing problem in suburban Nashville as well), coywolves or one was a deer that took off like the roadrunner I am not sure, but one of these guys stayed and stared  me down.  The sighting seemed another sign that 2017 will be full of surprises.

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Thrilled to be home for the holidays for the first time in two years, I had wanted to rent a cabin in the Smokies for our family, but with the recent fires we weren’t sure how much of the area had been destroyed and which roads would be closed. Instead we drove to Cade’s Cove and stopped for lunch at Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant, a hot spot for locals and tourists. We saw no fire damage and given the line of cars, neon lights, and ticket sales the Pigeon Forge “strip” was still going strong.

The good news about southern food is the comfort.  The better news is there are gorgeous opportunities to hike it off.  Living two years in the desert and the last six months in the tropics, I had so missed journeys amidst farmhouses hidden in hills; cows and horses in fields; and cold, crisp air on moss-covered banks beside mountain streams.  My questions about the future, usually rushing like water over rocks, are hushed and stilled by a winter forest.

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Applewoods was packed with people and home cooking.  I couldn’t decide between fried chicken, chicken pot pie, and chicken and dumplings so had all three.  The apple fritters with apple butter below…wow.

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Beaver Dam

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Later in the week Taylor drove up and joined us for some amazing Italian food and a day in downtown Knoxville at Market Square.  I highly recommend Altruda’s for an authentic, family-owned atmosphere and The French Market for a quick trip to Paris.

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Reviews raved about the family-sized salad and garlic rolls–well deserved praise.

 

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The ziti is amazing.

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So many choices
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The Crepe Suzette may have been my favourite treat over a holiday full of scrumptious food.
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Taylor liked the chocolate crepe and hot chocolate as well, but Cole waited for our next stop, brunch at Tupelo Honey’s.

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Macarons to go

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For the blueberry jam and biscuits (or the joy of being with my grown kids below)…no words are adequate.

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We took a quick walk around Market Square where there are many Sunday brunch places, unique shops, an ice skating ring, and history.

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It was New Year’s Eve day so most were indoors waiting for the big party that night.

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As we took a shortcut to our car, we happened upon an alley of street art.  Again, it seems, technicolor surprises are just around the corner this year.

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We saw Arrival, nominated for 2 Golden Globes. Cole had already seen it and thought I’d like it. He was right.  Among other vital truths, it stresses that we can’t survive without communication and global collaboration.

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Knoxville sunset

As I felt when the holidays were over with my children in London and as most moms feel when the world goes back to work and “reality,”  (and though I am forever grateful for the beauty and adventure of the time spent abroad), nothing brings me joy like relationship.  Translated: quality time spent with my kids/family.  I loved Marrakesh, but it was too far from them.  The Dominican Republic, though many hours closer, is as well.   They are grown and have lives of their own, but my heart longs to see them more often.   We are bonded across miles  by blood and years, vacation times spent together, technology and our love for one another.  And we’ve learned, or at least I have, that home is what we are to each other–not one place.  Good to know since Taylor is in Nashville and Cole is in Knoxville now.  (Likewise, my sis is in Nashville but mom is in Kentucky.)   And though I’ve learned “home” is wherever I am at peace with God, as a southerner I feel tied to place, to roots, to people–my people–my kids, family, and closest friends.  And so my journey back has begun.  I look forward this year to following the path God charts to my dream destination.

 

Staycation in Nashville…Fond Farewell

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One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.–Henry Miller

I’ve always enjoyed staycations in Nashville, my home for almost thirty years.  After two years of living in Morocco, I am in town for the summer, and, as friends said I would be, stunned by how much this It City has grown.   In a week I move to The Dominican Republic–this time with my daughter who  wants a new adventure, too. Thanks to Omni Nashville–the premier location for enjoying downtown  — we had a perfect celebration as Taylor bid her birthplace a fond farewell for now.

Nashville, voted #1 for Girlfriend Getaways by Travel and Leisure, draws women of all ages with its southern hospitality, great food, shopping, and entertainment.  Here females have fun and feel safe whether gathering for bachelorette parties or mother-daughter escapes. Opened in 2013,  Omni Nashville is within walking distance of Music City’s best–its 800 guest rooms and 54 luxury suites offering a gorgeous place to relax before or after a big night out.   It shares multiple levels with The Country Music Hall of Fame ,  is next door to the Music City Center, and a short walk to The Schermerhorn,  The Tennessee Performing Art CenterThe Ryman,  Johnny Cash Museum (Taylor and I are big Johnny and June fans),  Ascend Amphitheater and world-famous Broadway.

 

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Soon to be TWO Southern Girls Gone Global

 

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When the carriage driver assumed we were tourists and asked if we wanted a ride, Taylor said, “I wish.”  I said, “Let’s go.”

 

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Photo provided by Omni

We loved our room with its amazing view.  After checking in, we took a short walk and had a delicious and relaxing lunch at Country Music Hall of Fame’s  Bajo Sexto recommended by Nashville Lifestyles.com and others.

 

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Back on the Omni property we visited Hatch Show Prints, a Nashville institution.

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Rotated from Country Music Hall of Fame are costumes worn by icons–one that brought back memories from my childhood of the Harper Valley PTA.

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The Five and Tenn stocks local products from  Jack Daniels to Goo Goo Clusters, from Col. Littleton leather goods to Lucchese boots.

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Forgot something?  Like going to the general store, you can find what you need.

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Barlines is the Omni’s live music and sports venue.  With the hearTV app inside or on the patio patrons can stream live audio from any TV in the restaurant from their own iPhone or Android.

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Onsite is Bongo Java–Nashville’s oldest coffee company.  Taylor was impressed with the playlist here and throughout the hotel.

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The Omni brand prides itself in designing each hotel to reflect the character and culture of each host city.  Local artwork was chosen to represent the multi-genre world famous music scene that is Nashville.

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The Ryman

Though we had hoped to use the pool, the weather didn’t cooperate, so after exploring we decided to take a nap before our night on the town.

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Relaxed and rested, we headed toward the lights of Broadway for music, dinner, and a last look for awhile at an amazing city.

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The next morning I was given a tour by Tod Roadarmel, Area Director of Sales and Marketing, and his team to learn more of Omni Nashville’s story.

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We headed to Kitchen Notes, The Tennessean’s 2016 TOAST Reader’s Choice Awards as one of the contenders for the Best Sunday Brunch.  If you’re a local or tourist who has fallen in love with their biscuit bar or brunch, today is the last day to cast your vote here.

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The property has 80,000 square feet of meeting and event space.  Above is one of two ballrooms where wedding receptions are held.  Below, bridal parties and other guests can choose from many services at Mokara Spa.  Locals can also book spa days which includes use of the outdoor pool, named as one of the Top Ten Pools of 50 Omni international hotels.

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Photo provided by Omni

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Photo provided by Omni

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Within a year of its opening in 2013, Omni Nashville was ranked #4 of US Hotel Meeting Spaces.  Here  from the band stage to the boardroom creativity is ubiquitous.  When Tod asked Gibson to donate guitars to be used in the conference room, he didn’t expect to receive pieces played by B.B. King, John Lennon, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Billy Gibbons.

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At Bob’s Steak and Chop House patrons include Reba and Vince.

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Photo by Omni
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On my tour I imagined a bubble bath with a view in the Johnny Cash Suite.

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I remember the night Keith Urban was hanging out on Demonbreun.  He set down his drank and took the stage.  One day I hope to run into his wife, Nicole, who shot the Queen of the Desert in Marrakesh.

Distance gives fresh perspective, bringing life into sharper focus.  With our eyes filled  with the wonder of tourists and our hearts with the love of locals, I said hello again to a town I’ve missed and will always be a part of me as Taylor said her goodbye.  Nashville was a great place to raise my children…a place that gave us all roots and wings.

Thank you, Omni Nashville, for a wonderful stay.  As always, the opinions here are my own.

 

 

 

Tennessee Backroads…Natchez Trace and Loveless Cafe

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My life is a Tale of Two Cities…both tourist towns.  At Nashville’s center, 2nd Avenue, I rubbed shoulders this summer with girl gangs in shorts and boots out for barbecue and beer.  In Marrakesh’s marketplace, Jemaa el Fna, I rub shoulders with girl groups in harem pants and sandals out for a bargain and mint tea.  But sometimes the best stuff is found on country (or desert) backroads.

Though Sundays when I was growing up and picnics with my kids meant fried chicken, the last few years I’ve rarely eaten anything fried. But when on my layover in Madrid on the way to Tennessee I almost opted for KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) over a tapas bar, I knew it was time to go home. I missed biscuits and gravy.  And like I said in my first Southern Girl Gone Home post, I dreamed one night of bacon.  I’ve never eaten country ham other than at Christmas, but I couldn’t wait to taste it again. While home I porked out—literally–particularly at a place considered a national treasure.    I’m ashamed to say I have been in Nashville since 1987 and never made the trip to the Loveless Café.  Since only home for a month, I decided to check out the place People Magazine says the country ham is “the best in America” and USA Today calls “the real McCoy of Southern cooking,”  Bon Appetit gushed, “On a scale of 1 to  10, my breakfast came in at about a 14,” and Martha Stewart crooned, “It was the best breakfast I’ve ever had.”  And, of course, there’s the wall of fame– country music legends making claiming the food is iconic.

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The Loveless began as a private home hangout in the 40s where folks gathered in the living room and danced on the hardwood floor.  By 1951 Lon and Annie Loveless were serving chicken and biscuits to travelers on Highway 100 from their front door; they then added 14 motel rooms.  The rest of their history is here and check out their world-famous “Biscuit Lady,” Carol Fay Ellison making biscuits on the Today Show.

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When Taylor, Cole and I were told the wait was an hour and forty minutes, we almost bolted, but I’m so glad we didn’t. We waited only and hour and I was a little disappointed because I was having a great conversation in the Shimai gift shop with owner Becca Ganick. She loves meeting people from all over the world  who stop by.  The restaurant is open 7 AM-9 PM Monday-Friday.  We were there on a Friday at prime lunch time; to beat the crowds it’s recommended to visit Monday-Thursday 7-9am, after 2pm or  before 6pm.  Or stop in on a road trip on the Natchez Trace as I hope to do next time.  To plan it, festivals, sites, and Bed and Breakfasts along the way are listed here. It’s amazing what you can learn on backroads.

We did breakfast at lunch time (so Taylor and I tried the Blue Moon Cocktail–there actually WAS a blue moon when I was home)  but you can get lunch or supper as well. See menu here.

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While Taylor and I had breakfast, Cole chose a dinner classic--meatloaf.
While Taylor and I had breakfast, Cole chose a dinner classic–meatloaf.

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Be sure to try the GRITS–even if you aren’t a “Girl Raised in the South.”  And after the biscuits, you may want to pick up a package of their biscuit mix. I hauled mine back to Morocco…if only I could have brought the ham, too.  And if you want to try one of their recipes, I recommend the Fruit Tea Punch–especially those of you who drink only hot tea because In the south, “sweet tea” on ice is a staple, Banana Pudding with Homemade Wafers (especially if you don’t have “store-bought” wafers), Loveless Pecan Pie, or their signature Elvis Pie.  And please, all you southern cooks, leave your favorite variations and other favorite recipes in the comments for Yankees ( people from “up north” or anywhere not southern US) to try.

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Shelling beans by the bird dog over sweet tea…my mom tells the story of my dad buying a bird dog, Queenie, with an entire week’s pay when she was expecting me. Later he bought another one, Ben Hur.

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