I’ve never forgotten my first funnel cake. I was eight years old and having the time of my life on a family vacation in Gatlinburg. My siblings, parents, and I had spent all day exploring the outdoors before heading toward downtown to peek into storefronts and gaze up, up at the Space Needle.
We smelled The Funnel Cake Company before we saw it—its intoxicatingly sweet scent perfumed the air. We knew we were getting close when more and more strangers passed by with baskets of glistening, deep-fried golden dough dusted with powdered sugar.
When we finally got ours, my siblings and I tore into the piping hot rounds, stuffing our mouths. Sated and smiling, I looked up at my mom. She reached over and wiped the remnants of sugar from the corner of my mouth, then planted a kiss on my forehead. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Sampling culinary institutions
My own ’tween brood—two boys and a girl—are loaded in our SUV. My husband, Jake, and I are taking them on a culinary road trip to experience our favorite sights, smells, sounds, and tastes. A Tennessee native, he too has memories of good food and a checklist of favorites to introduce to the kids, places that have been around for generations. To counterbalance all the sweets we plan on consuming, I’ve got a hike planned to coincide with the fall foliage.
As we roll into town, our first stop is Fannie Farkle’s, famous for its foot-long corndog, dubbed the “Ogle Dog”—not because you can watch it being made behind a glass window, but after the founding family of Gatlinburg, Martha Jane Huskey Ogle and her brood. As you stare down the dog, it turns into a glistening, golden, drool-worthy treat right before your eyes. The kids smothered their Ogle Dogs in ketchup, and Jake had a moderate combo of ketchup and mustard, but I went for the pure un-slathered version—and it was good!
“Who’s ready for something sweet?” Jake asks after we finish up our Ogle Dogs.
“I am!” the kids shout in unison.
The Funnel Cake Company, which has recently been featured on the Food Network, is our next stop—and the taste I’m most anticipating. We order three varieties: blackberry, chocolate, and cinnamon-sugar. With the first bite, my childhood vacation memories flood back. Funnel cake is a treat that stands the test of time. It was everything I’d hoped for; warm and sweet, with just a touch of outer crisp to complement the soft inner dough. Perfection.
Little did I know, but another childhood treat was just around the corner. One of my favorite sweets growing up was the nougat-like, melt-in-your-mouth morsel called divinity. I haven’t had one in years, but Aunt Mahalia’s Candies carries them, along with luscious pecan logs, candied apples, and Smoky Mountain honey.
“They really are heavenly,” says a gray-haired woman who sees me gesturing to the boxes filled with fluffy white candies in small, fluted paper cups. She smiles and adds, “They taste exactly the same as when I was a kid.”
Meeting the mountain
Now that we’re stoked on sugar, I figure it’s time for us to tackle a trail. We swing by the Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen for some traditional taffy to take with us on the hike. The owners here have been turning out the sweet since 1950. They offer 28 flavors. Jake’s favorites are sassafras and watermelon; the kids opt mainly for banana, cherry, and peanut butter. I snag a grownup’s sampler: moonshine logs, including apple pie and white lightin’—each flavor will keep us motivated on our trek.
The four-mile out-and-back Chimney Tops Trail—named for its rocky pinnacles or “chimneys”—is one of the most popular hikes in the Great Smokies.
“My parents used to take me hiking here,” Jake says to the kids as he tops off water bottles and doles out protein bars (a nice balance to our taffy). I remembered my parents and siblings on our family vacation to Gatlinburg, running and jumping under large, stately trees.
We follow the well-maintained route as it switchbacks up Sugarland Mountain, crossing over rushing streams, past trees thick with leaves burnished gold and russet. The final ascent is strenuous as we scramble over rocky outcrops. But the exertion is well worth the panoramic payoff: 360-degree views. My oldest brandishes a selfie stick, and we snap a group shot, mugging wildly over the extraordinary Appalachia scenery.
By the time we return to our starting point, I know what’s coming next: “Who’s hungry?”
Considering Tennessee is a landlocked state, fish isn’t usually top of mind. But what Jake and I know, being Tennessee natives, is that the state’s fresh rainbow trout (collected from lakes and rivers) can’t be beat.
At the Smoky Mountain Trout House, the fish arrives the same day it’s caught. We order platters of cornmeal-breaded, crispy pan-fried and blackened trout for the kids; Jake selects smoked with bacon butter, and I pick the almondine trout topped with sautéed almonds. Glasses of sweet tea are poured, and we all dig in.
The delicate fish tastes of Southern heritage. My eyes sweep the crowded restaurant; from what I can tell, it’s the same at every table: a shared appreciation of food that connects the past with the present.
On the way out of town the next day, we swing by the Karmelkorn Shoppe for tins of tangy yellow cheddar and sweet and salty kettle corn.
We all strap into the SUV. As I turn to the backseat, I see hands plunged into cans that are being passed between laps. These are places that have been around for decades—places that Jake and I nearly instinctively head to when we’re in the area. Will they be around when our kids bring their kids on a tasting tour of Gatlinburg? We’re counting on it, like the classic flavors of funnel cake.