Ralph’s Donut Shop a local Cookeville landmark for coffee, pastry and community

Cynthia and Mark Pullum operate what may be the sweetest spot in Putnam County. Ralph’s Donut Shop rolls out well over 5,000 yeast and cake donuts a day, which rounds out to about one-and-half million a year.

Five-year-old Charlotte knows exactly what she wants when she goes to Ralph’s. (Photo by Ken Beck.)

The wife-and-husband team has been the guardian of the legacy business for the past nine years, as they took the reins after the death of Cynthia’s father, the eponymous Ralph Smith who started it all.

The only downer about Cynthia and Mark’s success is that they rarely sample these delicious, deep-fried hunks of sweet dough.

Asked how many donuts he eats a day, with a smile on his face, Mark answered, “None. My wife doesn’t either. The donut shop is run by two diabetics. I might eat one a year.”

Nevertheless, they know about everything there is to know about donuts. Ralph’s Donut Shop was voted the best in Tennessee in a 2015 online “Donut Brawl” poll, and its glazed donut was selected one of best 25 donuts in America in 2016 by The Daily Meal.

Ralph and Evelyn Smith opened Ralph’s Donut Shop in September 1962 with only six stools. Today the sweet spot boasts 26 stools around two, long U-shaped counters and a small table that seats three. Ralph made the donuts, and Evelyn did the waitressing. This vintage photo rests on a shelf in the shop. Before the donut shop moved in, the building was home to Haskell Grogan’s grocery store and then a Greyhound bus station.

(Believe it or not, the average American is estimated to eat 31 donuts a year, while U.S. donut shops make more than 10 billion donuts annually.)

Much of the credit for the success goes back to Ralph, who was born in Carthage and grew up on a farm in the Smith County community of Buffalo Valley.

The World War II veteran and his wife, Evelyn, owned and operated the shop for 48 years, until Ralph’s death in 2010 at the age of 84.

Describing her dad, Cynthia said, “He was kind of gruff. He scared a lot of people with his voice, but he was jolly and loved to have fun. He was a big cut-up and loved to be the center of attention.”

She shared that their donut recipe was concocted by her father and Dallas Frazier, who also worked at the shop 48 years.

“My dad and Dallas came up with the recipe themselves. Dallas is every bit as important as Ralph,” said Cynthia.

Ralph and Evelyn sold their first donut in September 1962, and Ralph’s nephew, James Smith, was an eyewitness to the transaction.

“I can remember going up there the day they opened with my parents and my two aunts. One of the aunts said, ‘I want to be the first customer.’ She orders up a donut and a carton of milk, and it was less than a dollar. Ralph took that dollar bill and laid it on the counter beside the cash register and said, ‘That’s not going in the register.’ Later they had it framed and put on the wall,” said Smith, who lives in South Carthage.

“That place was a blowing and going back in the ’60s. Ralph and Evelyn put in some hours. A lot of the success was because of their willingness to work. Ralph was always smiling,” added Smith, noting that his uncle would not sell a donut over 24 hours old.

At first, the shop held only six stools for customers to sit in while they fueled up on donuts and coffee. In 1974, the couple remodeled the shop, and the result was 26 stools parked around two long U-shaped counters. Most mornings before 9 a.m. or so, it is not unusual for every seat to be filled.

From its inception until 1992, the donut shop operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Nowadays it is open 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Nobody knows how many donuts have been produced here over 57 years, but Frazier, who also made and decorated cakes, takes a guess: “I’d say it’s up in millions or billions.”

He recollected that his first day on the job, Ralph told him there was a little problem.

“Ralph said, ‘I’m working two types of donut mix. I cannot get a good one out. One’s too tough, and one’s too slack.’ I asked, ‘What are you mixing?’ He said, ‘Eighteen pound of each mix.’ I said, ‘Let’s mix nine pound of each dough and see how it comes out,’ and that’s what they’re running today,” said Frazier.

CHOCOLATE OR GLAZED? These are but two of 40 donut and pastry choices at Ralph’s Donut Shop, a Cookeville landmark that served its first donut 57 years ago. The donut shop has been operated by Ralph’s daughter, Cynthia, and her husband, Mark Pullum (seen here), for the past nine years. Ralph’s Donut Shop was voted the best in Tennessee in 2015 and its glazed donut named one of the best 25 donuts in America by The Daily Meal in 2016. (Photos by Ken Beck)

As for how Ralph entered the donut business, Cynthia shared the details.

“My mom’s brother, my uncle Bill Elam, had opened a donut shop in Dayton, Ohio, in 1960,” she said. Bill’s Donut Shop is in fact still in business, run by two of his children and now located in Centerville, Ohio.

“Mama and Dad went up to Ohio for seven months and learned how to make donuts. Then they came back, and he drove a gas truck for Apple Oil Company. They saved their money and opened in September of 1962,” she said. “I remember telling my dad when I was 8 years old I was ready to come to work, and he put me on a Coke case washing pans every Saturday.”

Mark did not get his hands into the dough until 2010, the year they married.

“I got plunged into it. My wife and her brother [Jimmy] inherited it. She called me and asked me if I would run it. I been here ever since,” Mark said.

Mark actually made his first visit to Ralph’s with his mother more than half a century ago  — literally before he was born. “She was eating donuts here when I was in the womb,” he said.

As a boy, Mark would come with his dad to town on Saturdays, and his father would give him a quarter and send him to get a donut. “I would buy a donut, and Ralph gave me my quarter back and would say, ‘Don’t tell your dad.’”

As for what it takes to make a great donut, the donut man said “patience and learning how to work with the dough.”

The shop, which employs a staff of 20, turns out 40 varieties of donuts and pastries. Their best-seller is the butter twist, followed by a tie between the apple fritters and lady fingers.

Cynthia holds a day job in the Putnam County clerk and master’s office, but works at the shop on Saturdays panning donuts and waitressing while Mark tends to farm chores.

She says the best thing about owning a donut shop is “watching somebody who has never had a donut before they take their first bite.”

About their tasty, doughy morsels, Mark said, “We just try to take our time and do it right. It’s all done by hand. Nothing has changed since it started. We’ve added a few things [to the menu], but otherwise it’s exactly the same as when Ralph was here.”

Retired donut guru Frazier explains that he had to bargain with Ralph before he was hired.

“I was working at a donut shop up the street, and he sent for me to come down there, and he wanted me to work for him. So I told him, ‘I got a job.’ He said, ‘Well, I need you.’ I said, ‘What do you pay?’ He said, ‘I can pay a dollar and a quarter an hour. I said, ‘Naw, I’m making that where I am. I have to have a dollar thirty anyway.’ He said, ‘I can’t pay that.’

“I started for the door, and Evelyn said, ‘You better call him back.’ He said, ‘I’ll pay you.’ I went to work for them about a week later.”

Donut maker Cletus Spivey, hoisting a batch of chocolate twists, is a third-generation employee at Ralph’s Donut Shop. His mother, Michelle, worked here 32 years and his grandfather worked here before he was born. (Photo by Ken Beck.)

On a typical morning, Cletus Spivey works with gusto in the kitchen making chocolate twists and cinnamon rolls. The Cookeville native clocks in between 1 and 2 a.m. and hits the ground running.

Spivey and his family have seen a lot of donuts come and go, too.

“I’m a third-generation employee,” he said. “My mama [Michelle] worked her for 32 years, and my grandfather Harry worked here before I was born.”

Dana Garrett of Bloomington Springs provides another veteran hand in the shop.

“I worked here 15 years ago for Ralph and then went to work at the car wash. Every time Cynthia came by she said, ‘Come back and work for us.’ I’ve been back about six months now.”

In her estimation, the old-fashion buttermilk donut is “the best by far,” she says. “I eat about two a day.”

The shop might be compared to the “Cheers” bar from the famed TV series, except Ralph’s regulars are hooked on donuts and coffee rather than beer and pretzels.

About the early morning crowd, Mark said, “We have a lot of old guys cutting up, aggravating everybody. We try to have fun with the customers. The older customers are like family. I’ve got a lot of their phone numbers, and if one of them doesn’t come in after a few days, I call them.”

Mark said his favorite moments at work are when the youngsters come in. “When they look at that showcase and see sprinkled donuts, they just light up,” he said.

Meanwhile, some of his most loyal customers make pilgrimages to the shop from many miles and even many states away.

“I’ve got one lady who comes from Knoxville once a month and gets 14 dozen that she takes back to her office. And there’s a lady from New Hampshire who comes every Christmas. Last time she brought me maple syrup. She wants me to open a shop in New Hampshire,” said Mark, who has no plans to make donuts in New England.

Dallas Frazier, Ralph’s right-hand man across five decades, provides some final words. He
stops by the shop every now and then and admits, “Oh, yeah, I eat a donut, but I don’t pay for anything.”

Asked what made Ralph’s Donut Shop such a popular place, he answered, “It’s got to be the merchandise. If you make something bad, people are not gonna buy it, but if you got something that’s good, people will keep coming back. They do make a good donut.”

Cookeville mom-on-the-go publishing (healthy) hamburger cookbook

Alane Boyd isn’t a woman with a lot of extra time on her hands.

The Putnam County software engineer-entrepreneur may have “retired” for the first time at just 35 after selling a successful company she and her husband co-founded, but her daily life remains a whirl of activity and enterprise — hence her Instagram handle: @the_hurricanealane.

Boyd spends most of her waking hours working in assorted roles as business consultant, marketing specialist, entrepreneur coach and motivational speaker. And that’s in addition to pursuing various avenues of philanthropy and volunteer activity in the local community and beyond.

“I’ve got a three-year-old, I’ve got multiple businesses, I’ve got a husband and I travel all the time,” Boyd told Center Hill Sun recently at her Cookeville office in The Biz Foundry.

Well-Heeled Homemaker

Typically the antithesis of a frowsy hausfrau, on any given weekday Boyd’s rarely spied attired in footwear other than her trademark stilettos.

All the same, Boyd’s foremost functions as a woman of industrious pursuits are far and away those of wife and toddler’s mommy. And in keeping with her unwillingness to compromise her ambitions, she’s wholly resistant to outsourcing her homemaking labors of love to unwholesome outside influences.

A daily question with which Boyd wrestles is, “How to manage it all and try to eat healthy?”

“BurgerFit,” a cookbook by Putnam County food show host, author and tech entrepreneur Alane Boyd, is coming out June 1.

In fact, she’s something of a fanatic about feeding her family well.

“Cooking healthy and tasty meals is my passion,” says Boyd, who also hosts an amiably instructional Youtube channel called, “Cooking With My Friends.”

She bills her program, “The best healthy cooking show on the internet.” On a typical episode, Boyd and her guests whip up quick and easy recipes usually intended to emphasize you’re “never too old or too young to start eating vegetables.”

Later this spring — just in time for grilling season — Boyd is set to release “BurgerFit.” It’s a self-published cookbook cataloging a bumper-crop of unexpected components and directions for rustling up healthy versions of “America’s favorite food.”

Does it sound counterintuitive or implausible to think of hamburgers as “health food”?

Well, bear in mind that Boyd is an engineer by trade. That means she specializes in developing systems that work.

She has appetizingly discovered that hamburger patties make an ideal delivery means for surreptitiously smuggling vegetables into an unsuspecting family member’s diet

“No one asks before they take a bite of burger, what is in it,” Boyd writes in the introduction of her cookbook. “A burger is a trusted food.”

Sustainable Slenderizing

When she was in middle school, Boyd began struggling with weight issues — a problem that followed her into adulthood. She and her husband, Micah, would often go out for drinks and dinner after a long workday. Invariably, they’d overindulge. She recalls often thinking, “I’ve got to get myself under control.”

But it took a “wake-up call” in the form of an early-onset high blood pressure diagnosis to finally convince her that lifestyle adjustments were required.

So, using the Whole30 weight-loss program, she shed 40 pounds and gained a new outlook on food and health. “A huge component of my success was replacing meals that I usually ate with bread and carbs with vegetables,” she said.

Over time it became apparent to Boyd however that while an elimination-style diet may have worked wonders for her, it carried little appeal to those around her — especially her family from Louisiana, where she grew up.

Hamburger Humbuggery

When Boyd’s kin from Cajun Country popped in for a visit, they bluntly regarded meals devoid of sugar, carbs, dairy and beans as preposterous and repellent. To their way of thinking, those were key ingredients in life’s happiness recipe book.

“They wouldn’t eat anything that I cooked,” Boyd said. “They’d just eat a piece of meat and then go to the grocery store and get bread, and they would just eat meat and bread.”

One of the things Boyd learned on her own journey to better health is that changes made to your eating habits need be enjoyable to become sustainable. They won’t last otherwise.

She inevitably concluded that healthy cooking for her meat-loving, veggie-loathing family would require a generous dollop of subterfuge.

“I started blending up the vegetables and making the burgers with them,” she writes. “If they saw me cooking the vegetables, I would tell them that was for my dinner and they didn’t have to eat them. When they weren’t looking, I would make the patties with the veggies.”

Over time, Boyd cultivated a sly culinary aptitude for the art of skillet skulduggery, all the while gaining evermore beguiling skills as a cunning cheeseburger enchantress. Of course, were she ever found out, Boyd understood that dark oaths and perhaps accusations of witchery might fly in her direction — especially from her brothers, who she said never made it a secret they were “opposed to vegetables.”

But that didn’t happen. On the contrary, Boyd’s assembled an ample menu of meat-and-veggie patty blends that unfailingly cast a satisfying spell over even the most ardent carnivore test subjects.

“Everyone would rave about how delicious they were, and then ask what was in them,” Boyd writes in BurgerFit. “I got very comfortable with not telling them the truth. If I did, they would never eat another burger I made them. I would brush the question off and name a veggie that I knew they liked that looked similar to the veggie in the burger that they wouldn’t eat. Green peas became greens, red beets became purple cabbage, carrots became sweet potatoes.”

Boyd hopes BurgerFit becomes a hit for making all manner of ground-meat creations, not just hamburgers and not just beef.

“You can use any type of ground meat you would like,” an FAQ page on Boyd’s website communicates. “Ground pork, turkey, chicken, etc. make delicious BurgerFit burgers. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you can even replace the meat with lentils, beans, or your favorite meat substitute.”

Most any meat can make a nice patty if the meat-to-plant-material ratios are correct, Boyd said. However, it’s generally not a great idea to try and force more than two cups of cooked and cut-up veggies into a pound of ground meat, she reports. Doing so runs the risk of burgers falling apart, and thus detection

Boyd keeps a stash of pre-made burgers on hand in the freezer for quick access and fast prep. And she doesn’t hesitate to “deconstruct” them for other uses, especially tacos.

The ultimate message of BurgerFit is that you don’t have to compromise great flavor to compose a burger that’s got more nutrition to it than meets the eye.

“Even if you don’t like vegetables, don’t have time, and don’t like cooking, BurgerFit burgers are so easy to make and taste so good, that you can’t help but make them,” said Boyd.

If you’d like to get an early look or pre-order a copy of BurgerFit, which is scheduled for release in early June, visit Boyd’s website at http://burgerfitcookbook.com/.

Press Release from the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association, March 26, 2019:

Cookeville, TN – The Upper Cumberland Wine Trail wineries will hold their 2019 Upper Cumberland Wine Festival on April 13, from 12:00 noon to 5:00 pm at the Pioneer Village in Historic Granville.

The UC Wine Trail wineries come together only once or twice a year for a tasting festival. Wines will be available for purchase during the event. Wine Festival tickets are $15 available in advance on line www.uppercumberlandwinetrail.com. This year we added special group tickets for 5+ at $12 per person. Day of the festival the tickets are $20 per person at the gate.

Until Friday, April 12 close of business, advance tickets are also available at Sutton Store, Cellar 53, DelMonaco, Northfield and Chestnut Hill wineries. Photo ID required for entry – no exceptions. Tickets are non-refundable. Event will take place, rain or shine. No coolers or outside food/drinks allowed.

The festival ticket will include a souvenir wine glass and coupon for 10% off purchases at Sutton General Store, Granville Gifts, and Granville Antiques & Gifts.

The Upper Cumberland Wine Trail wineries at the festival include Brush Creek’s Cellar 53, Crossville’s Chestnut Hill, Baxter’s DelMonaco, Jamestown’s Highland Manor, Livingston’s Holly Ridge, Sparta’s Northfield Vineyards, and Cookeville’s new Paris Winery.

This is a day the whole family can enjoy. To participate in the wine tasting you must be 21 years or older. Visit the Upper Cumberland Wine Trail’s website uppercumberlandwinetrail.com or Face Book site for updates.

The festival will coincide with the launch of Historic Granville’s 2019 Summer Season, presenting special exhibits at the Homestead and Museum with the 1960’s Mayberry Decade. Granville’s Genealogy Festival will feature the Carver and Fox families.

Guests will have the opportunity to step back into time as they stroll through Historic Granville to visit the Antique Car Show, Sutton Homestead, General Store and Granville Museum. Several gift & antiques stores will be open for some shopping. Granville is nestled on the banks of the Cumberland River. This peaceful sleepy town comes alive for the yearly festivals. It’s a perfect day to dress in 60’s attire with your friends, or plan a group ride to Granville, group discounts are available for the Wine Fest.

Plan now to stay for dinner and a show as a special Blue Grass Dinner Show featuring the Bilbrey’s is scheduled at the Sutton General Store. This dinner will offer attendees their famous family style southern cooking. Dinner is served at 5 p.m. The 11th Anniversary of Sutton Ole Time Music Hour & Radio show begins at 6 p.m. Make reservations soon at 931-653-4151 as this will be a sold out show.

For more information about the festival, go to www.uppercumberlandwinetrail.com or https://www.facebook.com/UpperCumberlandWineTrail. For more information about Historic Granville, go to http://www.granvilletn.com.

Flavor-making is the spice of life for Cookeville entrepreneurs

Part of running a successful small business is knowing how to focus your energies where they’ll do the most good.

For Putnam County taste-creators John and Amanda Brantley, that means concentrating on the two aspects of their business they love most — the making and the marketing of their highly palatable spice-package products.

The Brantleys specialize in concocting a variety of culinary enhancement delights. They share an appetizing talent for mixing up flavor-packed batches of meat rubs, cooking-spice blends and other multi-purpose chow seasonings.

John Brantley and his wife Amanda run a pair of Cookeville-based culinary enhancement businesses: The Lagniappe Spice Company and the Tennessee Spice Company

Among their best-selling grill-mates for making mouthwatering flesh and fish dishes are products with names like Dixieland Steak Seasoning, Bodacious Blackened Seasoning, Booyah BBQ Shrimp Seasoning and Caribbean Citrus Seasoning.

Other products they prepare and sell include peppery-taste-laced jellies and jams, kits for supercharging stone-ground grits, and a line of gourmet cocoa mixes irresistibly infused with mood-warming essences like hazelnut, raspberry, peppermint and mocha.

The Brantleys founded their business in 2010, with the idea of sharing their shared fondness for down-home cooking and Southern food culture — especially New Orleans flavors.

They sell their products through a pair of homegrown companies — The Lagniappe Spice Company and the Tennessee Spice Company. “Lagniappe” is a Louisiana Creole French word that means “a little something extra,” or “an extra blessing.”

“Our custom blends are rooted in our Southern heritage and are sure to enhance your favorite recipes, and hopefully, a few new ones,” their website declares.

Blessings of Being a Small Business

For the Brantleys, living up to their company name means striving for “a little better quality and more product in a bag,” and both at a price that’s affordable to anybody who wants to add some zest to their kitchen cuisine repertoire and pizzazz to their backyard barbecue proficiency.

John said their adventure in commercial spice-making all began when he discovered a particularly savory Big Easy-style seasoning blend that he truly relished, but couldn’t get past the fact that it was a little on the bold side. “It was just too hot to eat in any quantity,” he said.

So he decided to improve upon it by dialing down the heat a bit in order to make it a little more accessible to palates unaccustomed to blistering levels of capsaicin-saturation. The result was a blend that was so popular with his friends that he had trouble keeping it on hand. So he decided to go into the business of making it for profit.

“That’s kind of how we got started,” John said.

“And here we are, 20-plus products later,” added Amanda.

Nowadays, friends and customers often tell John and Amanda they ought to open their own store or restaurant. But the Brantleys say they’re pretty sure that would cut into the fun factor of what they do — and cause unnecessary headaches

“We don’t have a lot of interest in running our own storefront,” said Amanda. “If people can sell it for us and customers see us enough locally, and they know where they can get our products, then that works just fine for us.”

John says one reason he’s an entrepreneur rather than a clock-puncher for someone else is that he gets to organize day-to-day production activities and business operations so as to avoid otherwise avoidable headaches.

“I really like flexibility,” said John, who spent two decades working as a quality-control and research development scientist in the commercial food-manufacturing industry.

Lagniappe Spice Company and Tennessee Spice Company are available direct-to-customer online and at a range of local and regional grocery stores and local-products boutiques.

“Our stuff is carried from time to time in places like Opryland,” said Amanda. “There’s a growing demand for ‘Made in Tennessee’ labeling in tourist-destination spots.”

She said the state Department of Agriculture’s “Pick Tennessee” program has been a good boost for their business — although she’d like to see more PickTN-focused shows and events around the state to promote Tennessee-based products to other Tennesseans.

Home Cooking at Home Shows

John, who helps plan the Upper Cumberland Home and Garden Show’s kitchen demonstration lineup, said he’s particularly fond of participating in trade shows and lifestyle expos.

There he and his wife get to meet not just large numbers of people in short periods of time, but also come in friendly contact with people who might never come across their products otherwise — and who may, as a result of sampling a succulent morsel of John and Amanda’s handiwork, become regular customers.

John especially enjoys conducting demonstrations on “doing something a little different” in the kitchen that people maybe haven’t seen before — like fashioning a meat or seafood glaze out of Lagniappe’s spiced jams or jellies.

“He’s cooked pork tenderloins and steaks before. People alway seem to like that,” said Amanda.

At the Wilson County Southern Home & Garden Expo in February, John gave a lesson on how to whip up a savory shrimp dip guaranteed to please at any party.

John said the culinary demonstration aspect of the Upper Cumberland Home and Garden Show has really come into its own the past few years as Cookeville and the surrounding region continue to draw in skilled chefs and food-and-beverage entrepreneurs.

“It’s nice to be able to showcase local talent,” he said. “Cookeville is becoming a great place for really good food.”

Prospects brighter for giant provider of wood, food and forest shade

As it often turns out, for better or worse, the future just ain’t what it used to be.

But in the realm of hardwood forest health, that actually ought to be a big win for the tall, dark and handsome black walnut, which is certainly no stranger to the wooded hillsides, valleys and ridges of Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region.

Not so long ago, though, it looked like dismal days indeed lay ahead for the opulent heartwood of the eastern U.S. heartland. A tiny twig beetle was casting a long and ominous shadow out over the horizon, potentially menacing the survival of many millions of black walnut trees across their native range.

Given the appalling pandemic that befell and felled the American chestnut, and the ongoing disaster unfolding as a result of the emerald ash borer’s baleful spread, anxiety among forest health experts soared back in the early years of this decade when a malevolent blight called thousand cankers disease, or TCD, was discovered in the Knoxville area.

Thousand cankers disease is described by scientists as a “disease complex” that is native to the western United States. It is an arboreal ailment that scientists say results from  “the combined activity” of a fungus (Geosmithia morbida) spread by the walnut twig beetle (Pityophthorus juglandis).

Walnut twig beetle

A disease that primarily affects black walnut trees, TCD gets its name from a pernicious propensity to inflict numerous small ulcers or “cankers” on trees. If proliferation of the cankers brought on by the beetle’s “overwhelming attacks” goes unchecked, it will kill the tree.

Of particularly worrying concern when the twig beetle and TCD was detected in Tennessee was not only that the pestilence had not yet been observed east of the Mississippi, but that the Volunteer State essentially constitutes the very core of black walnut country.

“Tennessee is roughly in the middle of the native range for black walnut trees,” said Steve Powell, the state’s chief entomologist. “So when it was found in 2010, it was really unfortunate.”

Tennessee’s Division of Forestry estimates there are 26 million mature walnut trees growing throughout the state’s countrysides, and another 1.3 million in urban areas, representing a combined standing economic timber value of $2.84 billion.

Forest Fears Festering

The sinister dread primarily bugging scientists, conservationists, loggers and forestland owners after the discovery of thousand cankers disease in east Tennessee was that black walnut trees were facing a crisis similar to that currently witnessed with emerald ash borer, which is now in more than 60 Tennessee counties. EAB is a bonafide “catastrophe” for ash trees wherever it appears, according to Vanderbilt University biological sciences professor Steve Baskauf.

“The emerald ash borer has been expanding its range throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada at a steady pace and there is currently no way to stop it,” Baskauf wrote in 2015. “All attempts at quarantine or creating ‘firebreaks’ have failed. The only real question is when the EAB will arrive in an area. It’s like a giant steamroller slowly rolling down a hill towards your house. You can see that it’s coming and you know that when it gets there, it’s going to smash your house. But there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Fortunately for black walnut trees, though, TCD isn’t EAB.

While TCD has in fact ravaged black walnuts in the Western United States, those trees are not native to that environment. They were historically introduced from the Midwest and Eastern U.S.

“The pioneers took their black walnuts out west and planted them,” said Alan Windham, a plant pathologist with the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture. “They had black walnuts in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado — usually planted along streams and rivers.”

Windham said it appears now the black walnut’s devastating susceptibility to TCD in the West looks to be greatly exacerbated by natural environmental stresses as a result of the drier climate out there, which greatly inhibits a tree’s ability to fight off and survive the condition.

No Place Like Native Home

The wetter Eastern U.S. climate is, by contrast, more to the black walnut’s liking than the arid west.

Trees here appear much more capable of fending off the disease — and even recovering after a TCD infection sets in, which is uncommon in the West, said Windham.

“When TCD showed up here, there was an assumption that the same thing would happen here that happened there — that it would be very damaging to the species,” Windham said. “But here we are, more than seven years later, and it really hasn’t moved much from the initial location in Knox County. The good news is that we have had a totally different experience with thousand cankers disease in the Eastern United States than what the scientists who had followed it out West were perhaps anticipating.”

While black walnut trees are not as plentiful in Tennessee as in some states, especially further north, they nevertheless play a crucial role in forest ecosystems and wildlife habitats here. Demand for the delicious nuts, among both humans and fulltime forest-dwelling fauna — like squirrels, raccoons, turkeys and bears — is robust.

And like sapling shoots invigorated with the spring, walnut timber prices are reaching ever upward. Demand for the exquisite, richly-grained black walnut wood, especially for decorative veneer, is “extremely strong right now,” said University of Tennessee extension forester David Mercker, who tracks Tennessee timber prices as part of his job.

“It increases almost on a weekly basis,” he said.

And that has been the case for a while now. “The loggers and mills just can’t get enough of it,” Mercker said.

Jonathan Boggs, who manages a woodland resource consulting firm based in Dickson County, said that while it’s true walnut trees are currently fetching premium prices, don’t assume you’re in for a tidy and effortless payday just because you have one growing out on the lawn in the subdivision where you live.

“Believe me, I get two or three calls a week from somebody that’s got a walnut tree in their front yard and they’ve been hearing the same thing that everybody is hearing, that prices are real high,” said Boggs. “The reality is that it may be worth something if you’re willing to cut it down yourself and take it to a mill. But you’re probably not going to get a buyer to come and cut a single tree — or even a few trees — out of your yard. It just isn’t going to be feasible for them to do that.”

Boggs added, though, that if you’re a logger or a landowner contemplating a timber sale, a 25-foot walnut log that’s at least 24 inches on the small end might yield $10 a board foot. “There could be 500 board feet in that tree, so in all reality it could bring $5,000,” Boggs said. “But most yard trees aren’t going to have that quality or board feet in them.”

A forest-grown black walnut tree is “going to have better characteristics” than an urban tree — like “not having any low-hanging limbs,” he said. “They self-thin themselves in the woods.”

Going for Nuts

For some rural landowners and freelance foragers, the nuts are basically just another crop to harvest when they start dropping in the fall.

The two Upper Cumberland black-walnut buying-and-hulling stations in 2017 were Jackson County Farm and Garden in Gainsboro, and at local rancher Brent Hewitt’s place near Morrison in western Warren County. Both sell their walnuts to the Hammons Products Company in Stockton, Missouri.

“The flavor of black walnut is very rich and robust, very distinctive from English walnut,” said Brian Hammons, the company’s third-generation president. “Chefs are increasingly intrigued with what that flavor will do in their dishes. So they are using it more and more all the time.”

Hammons’ grandfather, Ralph, launched the operation in 1946 after he tracked down a used nut-cracking machine for sale in Tennessee and hauled it back to his hometown in the Ozarks, whereupon he started buying walnuts from whoever wanted collect them and bring them in to him.

Today, the Hammons company buys 20-30 million pounds annually. Last year they bought black walnuts from more than 235 hulling stations across 15 states.

Jacob Basecke, vice president of marketing and sales at Hammons, said 2017 was “a really, really strong year in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio.” Hammons purchased about 731,465 pounds out of Tennessee.

“The 10 year average is about 475,000 pounds, so it was up last year,” Basecke said.

Hewitt, whose hulling station is located about 10 miles west of McMinnville, said he’s been rolling in black walnuts ever since he got into the business five years ago. Like all Hammons-backed stations, Hewitt paid his clients $15 dollars per hundred pounds in 2017, post hulling. Five years ago the price was $13, he said.

“This was a good year,” Hewitt said. Although it could have been even better were it not for some frost-loss, he said. “I done almost 200,000 pounds. That’s about the same as the year before,” he said.

In fact, he actually took in a few hundred more pounds in 2017 than 2016. “I lacked just 306 pounds from having 200,000 pounds this year,” Hewitt said. “Last year I think I lacked thirteen-hundred.”

For Jackson County Farm and Garden, this year in fact wasn’t as good as last, said store manager Alana Pippin. They hulled 95,000 or 96,000 pounds, she said. In 2016 they did 103,000.

“The always say you’ll have a good year, then one bad, then a good one and then a bad one again,” she said. “Some years it’s good, some years it’s not. This was kind of an off year, so hopefully next year will be better.”

Black walnuts are actually alternate bearing, Call it “alternutting,” if you like. They tend to produce noticeably larger average crops every other year.

A lot of people bring in harvest hauls from neighboring counties,  and often those taking particular advantage of the black walnut buy-up are families and individuals of modest means, Pippen said.

“People will drive pretty far to come down here,” she said. “And a lot of times you can tell that they really need the extra money.”

There’s obvious truth in the observation that unforeseen slips often come ‘twixt cup and lip. It’s easy to forget, though, that much goes into making the cup’s contents worthy of attempting a sip to begin with.

Local roasting experts agree that starting with freshly roasted coffee beans makes all the difference.

Coffee flavor stems from the bean itself and Eric Tate of Bootleg Roasting Company takes time to learn the best roasting profile for each bean he sells.

Bootleg specializes in a dark roast, but they have found certain high-end beans, such as those from Hawaii’s famed Kona Region, taste much better at a medium to light roast. BRC, derived their name as a joke about being a black-market bean provider: they were an underground source for fantastic coffee for their family and friends.

Calfkiller Brewing Company’s fire-roasted blend sprung from roaster Don Sergio’s love of a quality cup of coffee and a need for something special to add to a coffeehouse stout beer. After experimenting with a homemade contraption over an open fire, Sergio developed his own roasting system to take advantage of his unique take on flame-based roasting.

It isn’t too difficult to fashion your own intermediate-sized coffee roaster, like this one one built into a propane grill.

Roasters in our region all tell a similar tale that starts with equal parts love of good coffee and passion for local marketing. They began roasting at home, then grew to providing coffee for family and friends. They built their own intermediate-sized roasters – each adding a unique take on the concept. And as their skills developed, they took the plunge into the retail market.

Yet there is more to roasting coffee than simply applying heat to a green bean, according to Zach Buckner of Broast in Cookeville.

Ambient temperature, airflow and relative humidity can impact the speed of the roast as well as the flavor of the end product. Buckner compares using freshly roasted coffee to using fresh herbs.

Buckner says there is just no comparison between a coffee roasted four days ago and one that has been sitting on a shelf for six months. In sum: Freshness matters.

With the growing number of micro-roasters in the Upper Cumberland region, there is likely a fresh bean that meets the preference of any coffee drinker. Consider trying something new in your morning brew from a local craftsman.

Local Microroasters
● Calfkiller, Sparta: http://calfkillerbrewingco.storenvy.com/
● Broast, Cookeville: http://www.broasttn.com/
● Bootleg Roasting Co., Cookeville: https://www.facebook.com/bootlegroastingco/
● Holler Roast Coffee, Lancaster: HollerHomestead.com

Nicole Sauce is a local coffee roaster, backwoods podcaster and publisher of Center Hill Sun. Learn more about her homesteading endeavors at LivingFreeinTennessee.com.

Time to mark your calendars to start setting aside a little early evening time on the third Friday of each month for dropping by the Sparta Green Market.

The monthly festival of fresh food, open-air local shopping and lively music begins Friday at Metcalfe Park near Liberty Square in downtown Sparta.

Starting at 4.pm., it’ll include a full pavilion of food and craft vendors, talented musicians and entertainment for kids.

Green Market chairwoman Margaret Petre says to expect more than two dozen booths and attractions at the May 19 fest, including local beef-raisers, bakers, produce growers, face painters, balloon-animal designers and honey producers. Featured musicians scheduled to perform include Green Market veteran Whitney Newport, a keyboardist back for her third season, and guitarist Eli Payne, who’ll be playing the market for the first time.

The Green Market takes special pride in attracting and displaying “top quality products from the Sparta area,” said Petre.

In addition to free entertainment and educational booths, the market provides a vibrant hub for buying and selling local meat, fruits and veggies, honey, flowers, eggs and a whole lot more, she said.

“An evening event in Sparta is a good way for families and friends to eat dinner downtown, visit local businesses, enjoy the Green Market, and listen to a free bluegrass concert starting at 7 p.m.,” Petre said.

Don’t forget: it is always a good idea to bring chairs and an iced cooler for meats, poultry or other items you might purchase at the market. Also, because Sparta Green Market is in fact a “green” outing, organizers encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags for produce and other goods they purchase. No smoking or pets are allowed.

For more information, contact Ms. Petre at spartagreenmarket@gmail.com, or send a message on Facebook.

Out-of-the-way White County restaurant prides itself on amiable ambiance, hearty cuisine

Chef Edward Philpot and his right-hand woman, Lisa Harris, know their alluring little supper-serving outpost in Walling is hard to locate.

Their motto is, “You’ve got to get lost to find us.”foglighbutterfish

The actual address is 275 Powerhouse Road. That’s well off the beaten path for most folks who don’t happen to be visiting Rock Island State Park’s Twin Falls observation area just down the lane.

If you know the restaurant is there, you might catch a glimpse of it glimmering above the Caney Fork River banks as you zip across the Highway 136 bridge. If not, you might just keep cruising along — unmindful that you’ve just missed one of the Center Hill Lake region’s most distinctive, scenic and relaxed first-class dinner venues.

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Click on the map for directions

Their forte at Foglight Foodhouse is superior fare made from fresh ingredients.

“We don’t rely on a freezer here,” says Lisa. “Our steaks are hand cut. Our salmon is fresh and so are all our sauces and vegetables, which we always try to get locally in summer. We use farm-fresh eggs in all of our desserts.”

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Lisa Harris, assistant chef at Foglight Foodhouse

Innovative appetizers, hand-cut steaks, Cajun dishes made from scratch, crisp and creative green salads, smoked pork, tasty tossed-pasta concoctions, grilled chicken, seafood and freshwater fish aplenty; Lisa describes the menu as “an eclectic collection of everything — eating here is truly a unique experience.”

Despite the not-so-obvious location and the backwoods backdrop, the Foglight isn’t a particularly well-kept secret. “If we’re open, we’re busy,” says Chef Edward.

A typical night’s clientele is both homegrown and far-flung, with regulars mixed in from both groups. Much of Foglight’s business is return customers from out of the area and out of state.

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Fresh seafood and hand-cut steaks are Foglight Foodhouse’s strong suits. Chef Edward Philpot believes running a successful restaurant means trying every night to reach perfection — even if you know there’ll always be room for improvement. “It’s taken us 19 years to become an overnight success,” he says.

Foglight doesn’t take reservations, so it’s probably not a place you want to visit when you’re in a hurry. Sometimes the wait for a table — either inside or on the veranda overlooking the forest and the water — can be a little lengthy. But with plenty of cold microbrews on tap — including selections from nearby Calfkiller Brewing Company — and an outdoor fire pit to gather and relax around, the wait tends to be quite bearable, even enjoyable.

“That’s part of the entertainment,” says one of the Foglight faithful. “You meet friendly people here from all over.”

The Foglight Foodhouse serves dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5-8, Friday and Saturday 5-9.