Thursday, July 31, 2008

July 12-18, 2008: Chattanooga

The last destination on my overseas journey was - bizarrely - Chattanooga, Tennessee. Not an obvious stop-over after traversing the UK, perhaps, but again it was work commitments that brought me there. And if the town of Chattanooga reminds you of a certain song, perhaps you can share a gaffaw at my accommodation - the Holiday Inn Chattanooga Choo Choo!

The Chattanooga train station serviced passengers from 1909 through to 1970, and was then converted into a holiday complex. The terminal station is now the grand lobby of the hotel.

Guests can stay in renovated train carriage rooms or the more ordinary hotel building at the far end of the old train platforms.

The platforms stretch as paths from lobby to hotel, and the lines have been filled in as pretty manicured gardens.

Downtown Chattanooga can be pretty lifeless. There's a small zone of family-friendly restaurants surrounding an IMAX and an aquarium but that's it. There are blocks and blocks of tall grey buildings and wide streets without a cafe or dress shop in sight. It doesn't make for particularly interesting strolling and thus, there are very few people to be seen strolling. Amongst the clean and dreary streets, however, lies the Country Life Vegetarian Restaurant. With its cafeteria-style tables and harsh fluorescent lighting it didn't really evoke any country life I aspire to, but the gentle staff and nourishing food were ample compensation.

The restaurant offers just a couple of different dishes each day alongside baked goods and a salad bar. The legume-filled fajita with soy sour cream was fantastic, as was the tender and herby shredded soy chicken. Coleslaw seemed like a complementary side but I should have known it would come with triple the dressing it needed - the US of A's primary salad sin.

Tracy (you remember Tracy? She and Lee were my Choo Choo room-mates!) tried one of Country Life's blueberry muffins and as you can see, it was larger than her entirely adult-sized fist. It was soft and cakey (particularly for a vegan muffin, which I think it was) and not as excessively sweetened as I expect American muffins to be. Indeed, this was to be the healthiest meal that we would eat in Chattanooga... by a loooong way.

The horror began very shortly after this meal as we took an exploratory look in a nearby variety store (you know the kind - they sell junk food and plastic stuff and cheap toys and shampoo).

Just say no.




Nuh-ugh grfgllll...... can't resist... the lure... of Reese's. The peanut butter cup has long been my undoing. A nasty, nasty American convenience food; full of sugar, salt and saturated fat, yet I love them. Though I saw them on that first day in Chattanooga, I didn't allow myself to buy a packet until just a few hours before I left. I knew what temptation they'd be, lurking in the hotel room.

Of course, breakfast at the hotel wasn't much better. The buffet entreats guests to eat all that they possibly can, and very little of it is nutritious. Eggs are filled out with cheese and two or three kinds of meat. Even the granola, yoghurt and fruit tasted like dessert and made my teeth hurt. (The promised strawberries were actually just jam.) Instead, I retreated to the neighbouring cafe and ate sparingly, if not healthily.

Tea and a cinnamon roll.
I declined the offer of glaze (i.e. thick icing).

Tea and a bagel.

Tea and a square cranberry muffin.

I can see the food part of this post is getting a little dire, so how about an interlude? Check out this serene garden, tucked away by the river.

Feel the cool breeze against your skin, perhaps it carries a soft tune...
you are at peace.

That better? Good. 'Cause now I've got to tell you about my meal at Cheeburger Cheeburger, and it's not pretty.

Certainly the decor isn't pretty...

... though the kids' meals are kind of cute.

As you can probably tell, this is the all-American franchised diner experience. It's all about burgers and fries and 75 milkshake flavours. And did I mention over-eating? Their Famous Pounder is a burger with 20 oz (that's almost 570 g) of meat - if you can finish one of those, they'll stick your picture on their Hall of Fame. And for all those still-growing stomachs out there, there's a smaller burger and junior Hall of Fame for the under 12s.

I was not expecting to eat much more than fries here, 'cause Chattanooga's not exactly a vegetarian's paradise. Country Life aside, I'd been subsisting on side orders of salad and fries, even having to order one salad without the standard hot bacon vinaigrette. So I wondered if my eyes were playing tricks when I saw not one, but two vegetarian options on the Cheeburger Cheeburger menu. I initially planned on a veggie burger but ultimately chose the grilled portobello mushroom sandwich. It probably didn't make much difference either way - it was always going to be served smothered in cheese, on a doughy white bun.

We ordered a half serve of fries and onion rings and received more than the three of us could hope to eat. The onion rings were an utter disappointment - soggy and dripping with oil, they were nothing like the crunchy delights in the UK.

Determined to finish the night with some genuinely enjoyable American junk, we hit Ben and Jerry's for ice cream. They rock.

Perhaps you're feeling a little stuffed again, hmmm? Let me distract you with some pictures from the aquarium - I was very lucky to visit in the evening as part of a work function. No school groups or families on holidays, just a bunch of biologists getting a nerdy nature fix!

The temporary seahorse exhibit was just spectacular - can you believe that seaweed looking thing above is actually a sea dragon?! Do a google image search for some more, you've got see some better photos of them than mine.

By the end of the week I'd had more than enough of the deep-fried fast-food American experience, but had failed to locate any real Central American or Southern cuisine. But on the final morning a friend-of-a-friend took a few of us on a short trip out of town for a country style breakfast at the Cracker Barrel. (Another franchise - there is nary an independent business to be seen 'round these parts.)

As usual, there was an awful lot of meat goin' on - with eggs, with French toast, biscuits and gravy. The three "Low Carb Options!" each consisted of three eggs, three kinds of meat and a tomato. Diet-licious!

Actually, I managed a super-cheap and ample vegetarian breakfast of some unfamiliar foods: hash brown casserole (with onions and cheese), fried apples and a biscuit. Though I would have liked to try some gravy with my biscuit, the thick white stuff harboured chunks of pink sausage. Pass. The biscuit itself was great though, a light fluffy cloud of a scone. And in spite of my new-found fry aversion, the hash brown was pretty tasty.

I didn't think I liked Chattanooga. The streets seemed soulless, the people obtuse and the eating excessive at every meal. Yet it had its charms, too - the tranquil and surprising sculpture garden, the free and frequent electric buses, and punchy, toe-tapping brass band at the conference dinner. What struck me most was the staggering hospitality of every one of Chattanooga's citizens - from the suits to the unemployed folks on the bus - all of them proclaimed their pride in their town and wished me a wonderful stay. And you know what? It wasn't bad.


  1. Not exactly a gourmet stay! But at least you got the Reese's peanut butter cups - yuuuuum.

    And did you buy any cheese in a can? Weren't you tempted? Even a little bit? ;)

  2. The USA seems like a country of such huge contrasts and weirdness - but a place that produces ben and jerry's can't be all bad - and that hotel looks amazing even if they can't get the breakfasts right

  3. What a mixed up country the USA seems to be! Looks like the food is as awful as some of the nature is amazing. (both amazing in good and bad ways haha.) Your travels sound great!!

  4. Agnes, I didn't buy the cheese-in-a-can! I was tempted, just for the gross-out factor, but decided that a photo would suffice. :-D

    It is a funny place, Johanna, and with quite some regional variation. I was expecting the hotel to be overwhelmingly tacky but it had its pretty spots. :-)

    Hi Cathy! Not all the food in the USA is awful, but constantly eating out in this part of the country poses challenges! I didn't expect to see anything of nature at all, so that was a pleasant surprise. :-)

  5. Cheese in a can... as a teenager I had a recurring nightmare where I applied for a highschool exchange program and went to a small town in the US where they only ate stuff like this. Suffice it to say I did not apply for the program!

  6. Brian, that is hilarious! As a friend just reminded me, you should be equally afraid of Cool Whip. Click at your own risk. :-)

    Actually, I've had a number of very pleasant eating experiences in the US. In fact, my study semester there in 2004 inspired our current state as vegetarians! To anticipate the next question - it was some fine home cooking and *not* the scary over-sized ribs that converted us. :-D

  7. Cheese in a can: The rest of the world says "Oh dear god, please, NO!"

    Have been absolutely adoring all your overseas-eating posts. I have so many delicious ideas now for when I eventually get over to Britain.

  8. Thank you, Hayley! I was surprised by how many novel eating experiences were on offer in the mother country. The high quality pub food was a constant temptation - be warned. :-)

  9. note: the hash brown cassarole from cracker barrel is not vegetarian...there is a lil note on the menu that lists the items they cook up using lard (liquid pig fat)...its used in the hash browns, corn muffins, green beans and a few other things that should be veggie only....

  10. Gee, really? I thought I gave the menu a good looking over but I guess not. It's unlikely I'll be back to make the same mistake again anyway. :-)

  11. Obviously, you're brief encounter and subsequent review of Chattanooga lacks any kind of full understanding of the incredibly diverse city it has become. The immense positive INTERNATIONAL exposure Chattanooga has received over the last few years is well-documented, and covers the very things you say it does not have. Stay more than a few days, get a better understanding through knowledge and experience, then write another review. You'll see how wrong you were on this one.

  12. Don, it's true that my visit was short and my observations were no doubt superficial. Chattanooga's positive international exposure hasn't made it quite so far as us folks here in Melbourne so I'd welcome any tips you have for travelling through that part of the world.

  13. Cindy and Michael,
    Stumbled upon your blog and enjoyed reading this post, though I guess by now it's been a while since your Chattanooga visit! I've lived in Chattanooga for several years now, but I'm from Nashville originally, so I've lived in Tennessee all my life. (By the way, “Central America” only refers to the countries south of the U.S., as in lying between North and South America. Regions of the US are North, South, Deep South, Midwest, West coast, & East coast.) Sorry your trip here wasn't more stellar! Wish you'd had a local guide to show you cool stuff, cause there is a lot going on artistically and creatively in Chattanooga, not to mention good- I mean actually good- food.

    It's true that the US is hugely diverse in its population, even between different regions of the country. (I was recently in California and was confronted with Southern stereotypes. Very annoying.) Down-home Southern cooking, the likes of which Cracker Barrel serves up, can never be assumed to be vegetarian (they do tend to use fatback in everything. But damn that hashbrown casserole is tasty.) But there are increasingly more vegetarian, even vegan, options in urban locations, including Chattanooga. (Sluggo's is one that comes to mind.) Many new NON-chain restaurants have been opening up.
    (May I also commend you on your decision NOT to buy canned cheese. That orange stuff is not cheese, it is an abomination, a scourge on the Earth.)

    Chattanooga, situated in the valley of Lookout and Signal Mountains, is known as the "Scenic City" because of its proximity to an abundance of outdoor activities, and the lovely scenery. You can be on a beautiful hiking trail or swimming in a cold mountain stream in a matter of minutes. (If you're into climbing/ bouldering, it actually is a world-class spot due to its natural topography and geography.)

    Some fun things to do/ parts of town to check out should you ever end up here again:
    Nightfall (free outdoor concert series on Friday nights during the summer)
    Chattanooga Market (during most of the year, open air market featuring local vendors selling jewelry, clothes, crafts, art, cheeses, jams, produce. Right now it’s peach season!! Also live music)
    Walnut Street Bridge (I think it's the world's longest pedestrian bridge! the view is absolutely charming.)
    North Shore/ Coolidge Park (lots of cute shops, an awesome public park with water works the kids can play in, and hand-crafted carousel)
    Bluff View Art District (museums, coffee shops, restaurant, bakery, gorgeous overview from the bluff)
    Southside/ Main Street (cool street that continues to bloom: hub of arts, sustainability initiatives, delicious Bluegrass Grill restaurant, etc.)
    There’s always the uber touristy but somehow worth-it trip to Rock City, atop Lookout Mountain, and you can “ride the Incline” (cable car) up the mountain.
    Local breweries/ microbreweries if you like the beer.

    Sorry to ramble, especially if it's not even relevant at this point, but I felt like someone should highlight some virtues of Chattanooga, rather than just complain at you. Hope y'all make it back!

  14. Hi Allie! Thanks so much for all those suggestions - there's a lot of things in that list that I wish I'd seen for myself. Regardless of whether Michael and I make it back, someone is sure to stumble across this page and appreciate your advice. :-)

    Oh, and by 'Central America' I did mean food originating from south of the U.S. border... the Mexican/Tex Mex/etc food available even in the northern-most states of the U.S. far outstrips anything we have here in Australia!

  15. ooh gotcha. cool. If I make it over to Australia I will definitely consult your site first for culinary guidance! I was browsing past entries before lunchtime yesterday (bad timing) and it made me reaaally hungry..