As is the custom in many families, cooking was a skill passed from generation to generation for Nancy Adams, owner and chief cook at Southern Star. For Adams, those are treasured memories.
"I remember my grandfather cooking Brunswick stew over an open fire in a cast-iron washpot," she says. "He put pork and chicken in his, and some family members say he sometimes added squirrel. Yikes!"
Adams and her husband, Rick, moved to Chattanooga in 2000 and opened Southern Star in a small, shotgun-style eatery on Market Street across from the Chattanooga Choo Choo. The restaurant became so popular, they had to move to a bigger space down the street. They stayed there for seven years before moving Southern Star to Signal Mountain, offering prepared meals for takeout only. In 2008, the couple opened a second location on Broad Street at the corner of West 13th Street, offering both in-house dining and takeout. During the bleaker days of the pandemic, they reverted solely to takeout, but now they're back to offering in-house dining between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and takeout from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"We were uniquely situated to handle the challenges of the last year and a half, because we had been doing the take-away thing for a while," Adams says, referring to the struggles many restaurant owners faced due to COVID-19. "We never closed our doors in either place — Signal Mountain or downtown."
Here, Adams tells of her childhood growing up with great cooks who taught her the tricks to great Southern cooking, a specialty at Southern Star.
Q: Who taught you to cook?
A: I grew up on a farm in South Georgia surrounded by excellent cooks and learned to cook watching my mother and grandmothers. One grandmother lived on a farm that raised all of the food that her family ate. They raised their own cows, chickens and hogs and had a huge summer garden and a huge fall garden. My summers were filled with shucking corn, weeding, picking peas and beans, digging potatoes and helping "put up" the vegetables.
My other grandmother did not live on a farm, but in a nearby small town. She was a great cook as well, but very different than my grandmother on the farm. She could be found on holidays dressed to the nines. I never saw her in pants. She always had on heels, stockings, jewelry, makeup and a fabulous apron over everything. She would flow through the house making sure everything was just perfect: china, crystal, flowers, the good silver, tablecloths ironed, the dessert table piled high in her den.
I have so many fond memories of food from my childhood. On Grandmother's farm, we were likely to be eating fried chicken from chickens that had been running around in the yard that morning. Can you imagine butchering, cleaning and frying enough chicken for 16 or 20 people in two cast-iron skillets on the stove?
Q: Have you changed the menu much since first opening in Chattanooga?
A: No. I guess I always thought I should cook the foods that I know the best.
Q: What's the top-seller on the menu?
A: It would be a tie between Brunswick stew (no squirrel added) and banana pudding. We have made both of these every day for over 20 years.
Q: Which item on the menu do you enjoy making the most?
A: I love cooking, and I love baking, though I'm not the most precise baker. I can make a mean strawberry shortcake: no recipe involved, just perfect cream biscuits split and layered with freshly whipped cream and perfectly sweetened fresh berries.
Q: What dish gives you the most trouble?
A: What I cannot make is a pound cake, probably too much ad lib on my part. My mother makes the best pound cake, and my grandmother made outstanding pound cake. I don't think I was paying attention.
Q: As more restaurants open on the Southside, what are you doing to stay relevant?
A: When we first moved to the Southside in 2000, people said, "Nobody is going to go eat down there; you need to be near the [Tennessee] Aquarium." The Southside, though, has been very good to us, and we've seen it really grow. We have never been open on Saturday or Sunday because, when we started, the kids were young. Now that they are all grown up, we're thinking a little about weekends. But then we are getting a little old, so maybe not. But never say never.
Q: What food is your guilty pleasure?
A: Bacon or dark chocolate.
Q: What's Thanksgiving like at Southern Star?
A: The busiest day of the year in either store is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. We make literally hundreds of casseroles and cakes and pies. We are so busy, in fact, that last year we stopped taking preorders and offered all of our Thanksgiving foods on a first-come, first-served basis. We will never go back to the old way, as we simply do not have the personnel to handle all of the special orders, nor the refrigerator space to keep it all cold. This new method allows us to make all the same foods — and in even bigger quantities — and people pick them up hot, just out of the oven. Our sweet potato souffle and cornbread dressing are the biggest sellers.
Q: What's your favorite dish on the Thanksgiving table?
A: Thanksgiving is all about the cornbread dressing for me.
Here is the recipe for Southern Star's Sweet Potato Souffle.
Southern Star's Sweet Potato Souffle
4 pounds raw sweet potatoes, peeled and diced into large chunks
2 large eggs
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 cup chopped pecans
Make the filling: To a large stockpot, add the sweet potato chunks, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook over high heat until sweet potatoes are fork-tender. Drain well. and transfer to a large bowl.
Heat oven to 350 degrees, and spray a 2 1/2- to 3-quart baking dish or a 9- by 13-inch baking pan with cooking spray; set aside.
To the large bowl with the sweet potatoes, add the eggs, butter, milk, brown sugar, granulated sugar, vanilla and salt; beat with a handheld electric mixer on medium-high speed until combined and fluffy.
Turn out into baking dish, smoothing the top lightly with a spatula; set aside.
Make the topping: To a large microwave-safe bowl, add the butter, and heat on high power to melt, about 1 minute. Add the brown sugar, flour and salt; toss with a fork or your fingers until moist crumbs form. Add the pecans, and toss to incorporate. Evenly turn topping out over filling.
Bake the sweet potato casserole for about 45 minutes.
If you go
— Where: Southern Star restaurant, 1300 Broad St. downtown; 1238 Taft Highway, Signal Mountain
— Hours: Downtown, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday (no sit-down service at this time; takeaway hot lunches served until 3 p.m., grab-and-go selections until close); Signal Mountain, 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday
— Entree price range: $5-$11
— Phone: 423-267-8899 downtown, 423-886-7004 Signal Mountain
— Online: southernstarrestaurant.com