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Dipping deeply into blue cheese near Bluff City

Fred Sauceman • Sep 19, 2018 at 10:30 AM

It doesn’t come to the table in a cruet. It doesn’t come “on the side” in a small plastic cup. It doesn’t come in a squeeze bottle. Blue cheese dressing at Ridgewood Barbecue near Bluff City is served in a bowl, lipping full. The sizes are small and large, although large and extra large would be more accurate.

You don’t delicately and slowly pour this blue cheese dressing over a salad. In fact, there is usually no salad. When you order blue cheese dressing at The Ridgewood, the dressing is the focus, not the accoutrement. It’s not intended to be poured over anything.

Surrounding that bowl of creamy, sharp dressing is a corona of saltine crackers, known to many people in the mountains as “soda crackers.” Those crackers are your shovels, your tools. You dunk them deeply into that bowl of blue cheese dressing, getting as much of the product on there as you can.

In seeking out a good food story, I like to find unusual, quirky products. Ridgewood’s take on blue cheese dressing and that unorthodox serving method certainly qualify.

“My father had a great push to create something new,” says second-generation owner Larry Proffitt. Jim Proffitt came up with Ridgewood’s incomparable barbecue sauce, and his design for the barbecue pits is still in use today. It was Jim who also created the blue cheese dressing. Its reputation has grown so over the years that it almost rivals barbecue as a Ridgewood calling card. Before it became an item all its own, it was listed on the menu as Roquefort dressing for “Head Lettuce Salad” and relegated to secondary status in parentheses. Eventually it shed the parentheses, the French name, and the salad greens.

“This blue cheese starts out as a big wheel,” Larry says. “A seven-pound wheel. When you tear that wrapper off of it and cut into it, it’s got a powerful smell. We take a big hoop of blue cheese and cut it into hunks with a butcher knife. And then the kitchen staff will take an old-timey grater and grate that stuff. Boy, that is good,” exclaims Larry as he scoops up a cracker full of his father’s invention.

NASCAR legend Junior Johnson agrees: “Well, the blue cheese dressing, this is the first time I’ve really had it, and I’ll tell you one thing, I could set here and eat that right there with crackers by itself,” Junior told us several years ago as we were interviewing him about his Ridgewood experiences.

It’s not unusual for the Ridgewood staff to make six tubs of blue cheese dressing and have to make more the very next day. Larry’s daughter, third generation owner Lisa Proffitt Peters, says some diners order barbecue sandwiches and large bowls of blue cheese dressing and pour the entire contents of the bowls on top of the sandwiches.

As for the recipe, it’s a secret, just like the barbecue sauce. Ridgewood manager Ray Harrington, the man who works the cash register up front, reports that one customer drives all the way from Knoxville for blue cheese dressing. “And she tried every way in the world to get the recipe,” Ray tells us. “And one day she came in and tried to propose to me to get the recipe.”

“In all seriousness?” I ask. “Yes,” Ray answers. “I told her I was happily married.”

The rejection didn’t put an end to her 2 ½-hour trips to The Ridgewood.

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

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