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Tennessee town celebrates yellow slaw

Fred Sauceman • Jan 17, 2018 at 10:49 AM

“You need to go over to Fayetteville and have a slawburger at that pool hall.” Lynne Tolley said those words to me about a decade ago. Lynne is the great-grandniece of the late whiskey maker Jack Daniel, and she’s one of Middle Tennessee’s proudest ambassadors. With a home economics degree from the University of Georgia, she knows food.

Fayetteville, in lower Middle Tennessee, is not on our usual cross-state trek. It’s about 90 miles below Nashville and about 30 miles north of Huntsville, Alabama. It’s a courthouse square town, one of several in Middle Tennessee. Fayetteville citizens take special pride in the fact that traffic around that busy square is two-way.

They’re also proud of something else on that square: slawburgers. Lynn Tolley’s advice had intrigued me, and some ten years after that conversation, we found a reason to visit Fayetteville, a town of about 7,000 people.

On the south side of the courthouse square sits Honey’s Restaurant, which has been operating on the same spot and in the hands of the same family since 1923. For most of Honey’s history, food took a backseat to pool, but in the 1930s, restaurant founder Weston James Stubblefield created a condiment that would ultimately allow burgers to overtake billiards.

Talk to home cooks around Lincoln County and you’ll find that mayonnaise-based slaw is the norm at church suppers and family picnics. But Stubblefield’s slaw took a radical departure. He started making it with mustard and serving it on hamburgers.

“It was a home run from day one,” says Stubblefield’s greatgrandson, Lee McAlister, who runs Honey’s today. McAlister takes us back to his office, past where the pool tables used to be, and shows us a safe. Locked inside is the original mustard slaw recipe, which only two people know—McAlister and restaurant manager Bonnie Johnson.

It’s made every Monday at the restaurant, in quantities of about 400 pounds. Johnson shows us the industrial-size grinder used to grate the cabbage finely, almost into a purée. The slaw dresses four-ounce hamburger patties, cooked on a flat grill. Johnson says the result is a “powerful taste.”

“We were doing sweet and sour before sweet and sour were popular,” says McAlister, who adds that the slawburger experience is not complete without dill pickles.

Working at Honey’s was McAlister’s first job in high school, and he has never left. He proudly says that employment at Honey’s is often a stepping stone for students at nearby Motlow State Community College.

As the fourth-generation owner of Honey’s, McAlister is fascinated by the evolution of the business.

“Pool, during the early days, was a big-time revenue source,” he tells us. “Women didn’t come in. Even as late as the 1970s, women didn’t come in. They would eat their food in the car. From about 1970 on, there was no money in pool. We had five tables and got rid of them one at a time. The last one went out in 2006. Now we have more women customers than men.”

One of those customers is Gwen Shelton, the first and, so far, the only woman mayor of Fayetteville, who currently holds the position of vice mayor. Shelton says she eats at Honey’s, on average, about seven times a month, and she always orders extra slaw.

“The slawburger has become an identity for Fayetteville,” says Shelton. She points us to two other slawburger establishments, Bill’s, right next door to Honey’s, where you can still play pool, and Ken’s, three blocks off the square. Shelton says each restaurant has its own take on that bright yellow slaw. Gerald’s Foodland, a locally-owned grocery not far from the square, stocks plastic containers of slaw made by Honey’s.

Lincoln County’s love of this fluorescent yellow slaw is highlighted on the second Saturday in April, when Fayetteville hosts the annual Slawburger Festival.

For nearly 90 years, this secret blend of cabbage, mustard, sugar, vinegar, and salt, the “original poolroom slaw,” has been a source of pride and pleasure for generations of Lincoln Countians.

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

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