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A restaurant resurrection in Unicoi

Fred Sauceman • Dec 20, 2017 at 10:30 AM

When I began writing about regional food, one of the very first places I covered was Unicoi’s Clarence’s Drive-In. I was drawn to the place by its history, its location, and its genuine, unpretentious menu.

Like so many customers all across our region, I was deeply saddened by the news of the November 14 fire. I felt I had lost a relative. My favorite spot for breakfast had gone up in flames.

The next day, my students and I collectively lamented the loss of the building. We had covered Clarence’s just a few weeks earlier in our Foodways of Appalachia class as an example of a place that preserved and celebrated the honest cooking of the mountains.

Favorite restaurants are indeed like old friends. They become a part of your life. You expect them to be around forever.

I recalled my very first interview with the Collins family and how they told me about Leora Pelletier’s skill with an 18-inch rolling pin, employed every morning to create Clarence’s famous scratch-made biscuits.

I remembered Jerry Collins’ description of how he achieved the right color for his sausage gravy at 5:00 in the morning.

I reflected on the legacy of Teresa Collins’ father, former Unicoi County Sheriff Walter Garland, and how he developed a marinade of garlic, commercial steak sauces, and vinegar for his backyard steaks and how the Collins family used that marinade to season Clarence’s Deluxe Hamburger.

The memory of my conversation with Jerry’s mother, Frances Collins, led me to think about her description of the restaurant’s Frog Egg Salad, a combination of tiny, pellet-shaped pasta, sweetened whipped topping, Mandarin oranges, and pineapples.

I recollected the Collins family’s loyalty to devil’s food for hot fudge cake and their refusal to compromise by using brownies.

During those interviews more than a decade ago, Ann Browder, who had been waiting tables at Clarence’s for 30 years, talked to me about how well the Collins family had treated her over those years. I titled that original article “Biscuits and Gravy in the Valley Beautiful.”

All those memories came flooding back last month. And then on Monday, December 4, my wife and I drove to Unicoi. We passed the burned-out building and the melted sign that had once announced “Cappuccino, God Bless America” and “Biscuits and Gravy All Day.”

Just a short piece down Unicoi Drive, the parking lot surrounding the former La Meza restaurant was full that day. The words “Clarence’s Drive-In” were already printed on the windows. Less than three weeks after the fire, the restaurant had been wondrously resurrected.

I often write and speak about how restaurants build community. That has always been true of Clarence’s. But in this case, the tables literally turned. A community built a restaurant. The owners of the temporary quarters of Clarence’s put their plans for the building on hold so that biscuits and gravy could return to the Valley Beautiful. Vendors donated food and supplies. County officials expedited approvals. Customers provided labor.

Jerry Collins stopped by our table on that sunny Monday. During the first few minutes of our conversation, he didn’t speak of food. He talked about the people in that nearly 50-year-old restaurant who have prepared it and served it. His employees had been put out of their jobs just a few days before Thanksgiving. By the first weekend in December, Jerry and Teresa had hired back every one of them, they told us, including Ann Browder, who, by this time, had logged a tenure of over 40 years at Clarence’s.

In about a year, Jerry and Teresa expect to be frying chicken and grilling mushrooms on their original site. They promise a walk-up window for ice cream and milkshakes like the old days and a counter to seat story-sharing breakfast diners in search of fried bologna and bottomless cups of coffee.

I had been searching for a Christmas story to share with readers. Right inside the front door of the resurrected Clarence’s was a Christmas tree. I positioned Teresa and Jerry beside that tree and took a photograph.

I found my Christmas story of hope and rebirth in their smiling faces.

Fred Sauceman’s latest book is “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”

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