Unofficially adoring: A Dollywood cookbook

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 06-07-2023 10:37 AM

I went to graduate school in East Tennessee many years ago – so long ago, in fact, that the Dollywood theme park (actually, theme parks, plural; there are apparently several related parks) in Pigeon Forge didn’t exist.

Pigeon Forge was a small town near the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. It housed a minor “frontier days” attraction called Silver Dollar City. My friends and I drove by it on our way to Gatlinburg, a tourist mecca that specialized in kitschy Americana, from a Ripley’s Believe It or Not “museum” to a taffy-pulling emporia.

Sometime in the late 1980s, Pigeon Forge was transformed when the Herschends, the owners of Silver Dollar City, teamed up with the singer Dolly Parton to create Dollywood.

Parton was born nearby in Sevier County and had already begun her transition from country star to legendary American cultural icon. I have never been to Dollywood, but I gather that it recreates not just the cabin in which she was born but many of the experiences and dreams of her childhood.

Parton has long been known for her taste in Southern food. She published a cookbook in 1989. Rumor has it that she is working on a revision of that book with one of her sisters. She has also partnered with Williams-Sonoma on some aprons and bakeware and with Duncan Hines on a couple of cake mixes.

I’m not a fan of cake mixes in general, but I have just ordered one of hers online. I’m a sucker for Dolly Parton.

People visiting Dollywood must eat. A frequent traveler to the park with her husband and children, blogger Erin Browne just came out with “The Unofficial Dollywood Cookbook” (Adams Media).

The cookbook is careful to state multiple times that it is unofficial. It is, however, unapologetically worshipful. It’s a love letter both to Parton and to the park/resort/concert venue that bears her name.

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Browne obviously adores both Parton and Dollywood and has done her best to recreate recipes served at the latter.

The recipes are varied. Some of them are basic tourist fare. Browne includes quite a bit of fried food, the sort of thing one eats only on vacation. She does try to provide instructions for baking some of the fried items for people trying to eat healthily.

Some of the food is entertainingly idiosyncratic. Dollywood apparently has its own version of poutine, that beloved French-Canadian snack made with cheese curds. The recipe in the book uses cheddar cheese instead and substitutes sweet potato fries for the traditional white ones.

According to Browne, the park tries for international flavor but generally puts an American/theme-park spin on dishes such as bulgogi (made into nachos) and paella (made with shrimp, steak, chicken and chorizo).

The most appealing recipes to me are the ones with a Dolly Parton connection, such as her family’s stone soup. Browne notes that Parton’s mother tried to include her children in her cookery and often sent them out to look for special stones to add to her chicken-vegetable soup.

I chose two recipes to share here with the publisher’s permission. The first is (to me) very Southern and quite delicious: Fried Catfish. As I noted above, Browne gives directions for both frying and baking. Her recipe is based on fish served at a Dollywood eatery called Aunt Granny’s Restaurant.

The other recipe is ideal for the warm season we are just entering, the Orange Cream Milkshake from Red’s Jukebox Junction. It’s colorful and rich, just like Dolly Parton’s personality. Think of it as a creamsicle in a glass.

Both recipes are excerpted from “The Unofficial Dollywood Cookbook” by Erin Browne.

Fried Catfish

Browne writes, “Fried catfish is believed to have originated from West African people who brought their culinary traditions with them to the United States. Catfish were found in abundance in Southern lakes and rivers of the United States and were easy to prepare over a fire right after the fish were caught.

“Later considered a staple of soul food cuisine when the term was popularized in the 1960s, this well-seasoned and delightfully crunchy fish remains a top pick for Southern plates as well as visitors to Dollywood.”

Ingredients:

1 cup buttermilk

4 (4-ounce) catfish fillets

1/2 cup finely ground yellow cornmeal

1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning

1/2 teaspoon lemon pepper seasoning

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

approximately 2 cups canola oil (for the fry method)

Instructions:

Pour the buttermilk into a wide, shallow container. Pat the catfish dry with a paper towel and add it to the buttermilk, turning once to coat. Let the mixture sit while you prepare the other ingredients.

In a second wide, shallow container, combine the cornmeal, the Cajun seasoning, the lemon pepper, the garlic powder, the salt and the pepper.

Lift a catfish fillet out of the buttermilk, letting the excess liquid drip back into the container. Dredge the fillet in the cornmeal mixture on both sides, shake off the excess, and then set the fish onto a clean work surface. Repeat with the remaining fillets.

For the fry method: In a large cast-iron skillet fitted with a thermometer, pour oil 1/2 inch deep and set the pan over medium-high heat. Heat the oil to 365 degrees.

Working in batches if needed, fry the catfish for 6 minutes or until golden and crispy and cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees, turning once halfway through. Transfer the catfish to a large plate lined with paper towels to drain for 2 minutes.

For the oven method: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place an oven-safe metal rack over a large baking sheet and spray generously with cooking spray.

Arrange the catfish on the rack and coat the fish lightly with cooking spray.

Bake for 20 minutes or until the catfish flakes easily with a fork and reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees.

Serves 4.

Orange Cream Milkshake

Ingredients:

1/2 cup (heaping) vanilla ice cream

1/2 cup (heaping) orange sherbet

1/4 cup whole milk, plus a little more if needed

1/8 teaspoon pure orange extract

1/3 cup whipped cream

1 orange slice

Instructions:

In a high-powered blender, place the ice cream, the sherbet, the milk and the orange extract. Blend just until smooth. If the shake is too thick, drizzle in extra milk 2 teaspoons at a time.

Pour the mixture into a tall glass, top with whipped cream, and garnish with an orange slice. Serves 1.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her latest book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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