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Southern cooking is king at Helma's

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- About a 20-minute drive east from downtown Knoxville, you come to the split of Highways 11E/25W/70, where a big lit-up sign announces Helma's Restaurant.

The sign dates to the 1950s, as does Helma's, with its green and beige vinyl booths and food right out of a Southern country cookbook. You can get biscuits and gravy, grits and gravy, chicken and dumplings, kale greens and turnip greens, fried green tomatoes, fried okra, and a seemingly endless variety of cobblers and pies.

Waylon Jennings ate at Helma's once, then drove around in vain looking for it on his next trip to Knoxville. Roy Rogers ate here, too. Other performers, from Liberace to AC/DC, have had Helma's cater their meals when they were performing in Knoxville.

Helma died in 1993, and since then, the restaurant has changed hands twice. Jim and Teresa Stroud took over in 2002, and though some of the recipes have changed, the Southern cooking -- and the cholesterol level -- have not. "We start making biscuits at 5 every morning," Teresa Stroud says. "Everything is home-cooked. We do homemade meatloaf and pork barbecue. We slow-cook our own meat, then pull and barbecue it."

A sampler of the homemade desserts includes coconut pie, chocolate pie, Almond Joy pie (with coconut and chocolate), banana pudding pie, and various flavors of chess pie. Chess pie is a traditional Southern recipe that has cornmeal in the filling, "so it forms a crust when it bakes," Teresa says.

(Where chess pie got its name is anybody's guess. One story is that pies used to be kept in pie chests after baking, and chess was just "chest" with a Southern drawl. Another is that it comes from a cook who was asked what sort of pie she had made and answered, "It's jes' pie, honey.")

Helma's also has cobblers -- peach, strawberry, apple, blackberry, even something called the "appleless" apple cobbler. This turns out to be a cobbler version of that Depression and World War II-era specialty, the mock apple pie, made when apples were expensive or in short supply.

For the uninitiated, the recipe substitutes Ritz crackers for apples, and many people maintain that it tastes like apple pie. "People ask for it. They are fooled, and I would be, too," Teresa says.

Many of the recipes Teresa uses come from another longtime cook, her mother-in-law, who ran restaurants around Knoxville for 35 years, including Eula's Restaurant downtown.

The Strouds still serve Helma's house specialty: "broasted" chicken. It tastes a lot like fried chicken but is supposed to have less fat and fewer calories. It's made in a special broaster machine (available only to restaurants and those in the food industry), which, as Teresa explains it, is "like a big deep fryer. The chicken is coated in a special batter, then pressure-cooked so it's sealed and doesn't get too greasy."

You can get broasted chicken anytime, including on the gigantic lunch and dinner buffets, which feature another house specialty called white shoepeg corn. "It's thickened with cornstarch and has sugar, butter . . ." Teresa Stroud starts, then stops. "I can't give you all my secrets."

Helma's Restaurant, 8606 Asheville Highway (Route 11E), 865-933-2703. Open daily 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Breakfast $3-$7. Lunch and dinner entrees $5-$13. Lunch buffet $5.99. Dinner buffet $6.99 Monday-Thursday, $7.99 Friday-Sunday.

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