Thin rays of sunlight stir me to the stupor between asleep and awake. The dry, bitter taste in my mouth reminds me that my teeth have not seen a brush since yesterday around 4:00 pm. I rub some crust away from my left eyelid as I gaze aimlessly out the picture window toward the visual drone of scrubby trees and dashed lines.
My bus nears Knoxville, where I will lay over for six hours before making the final leg home. With my eyes closed again, I sense our reduced rate of travel, and I feel the motorcoach lean and bow as it navigates sinewy overpasses into the city center. The comfort of the bus is an overnight friend, a one-night-stand of quiet and rest in the hollow of America. But as soon as that rear door is released, she is tossed aside and left by the curb.
I walk as if I know where I am going, with purpose and stride, in search of nothing in particular beyond a cup of hot caffeine and a bite of breakfast. But this is Knoxville, a third-tier southern city, and the sun has only shown for a handful of minutes. I amble past a cafe and a diner, both closed. A restaurant across the street opens in an hour, but I am hungry now. This is not looking good.
But alas there is an open door up the road with a handful of painted metal tables scattered under an awning. The establishment is called Just Ripe, a co-op market focused on connecting nearby farmers with local eaters. Knoxville proper shows a surprising trend of embracing local produce and the vegetarian lifestyle, evident in the menu offerings of many downtown eateries.
As a certified omnivore, my eyes scroll crestfallen over the breakfast offerings on the whiteboard. Tofu Magnifico, Bean Sprouts A La Serendipity, Artesian Water Crackers with Certified Vegan Brie. What is a hungry traveller to do?
At last I spot it, a lone menu item that contains meat — the Dixie Biscuit, a buttermilk-based concoction with housemade pimento cheese, thick bacon, and sweet pepper jelly. It arrives on my red metal table several minutes later, looking plump and poetic next to my stout cup of certified organic black breakfast tea. The Dixie is about the size and weight of a hand grenade, and I imagine it will have a similar effect on my inner tracts.
And we’re in. The biscuit burns my fingers as crumbles of tangy pimento cheese mingle in my cheeks with sweet, zippy flecks of jam. The girthy bacon would make any lumberjack weak in the knees with its perfect compromise of crisp and chew. And the whole assembly comes together in a divinely sweet, salty, spicy, tickle-every-tastebud-in-your-tongue sort of way.
The ordeal does not last two minutes, and aside from a few buttermilk crumbs, I am left with a sorry runner-up: the vegan tea. This clear, sunny morning is just the type for pretending to enjoy a cup of tea, so I sit for twenty minutes and do exactly that, all the while scheming up another trip through Knoxville so I can down another Dixie.