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VOL. 39 | NO. 21 | Friday, May 22, 2015

Daisy King still serving tearoom favorites

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Like a proper Southern hostess, Daisy King of Miss Daisy’s Tearoom had trouble turning on the “closed” sign. If guests wanted to snag a table after hours, she couldn’t help but oblige.

“I’d go back to the kitchen and find them something to eat,” she says.

And on one such occasion at her Franklin tearoom, a small, but hungry group came in when all she could offer them was homemade tomato soup and grilled Kraft cheese sandwiches.

She later learned it was Minnie Pearl (Sarah Cannon) and executives from Kraft, the first company to sponsor the Country Music Association awards. It turns out cheese sandwiches were just the perfect thing.

While Nashville has become more and more of a hospitality town, tearooms in the Southern tradition make up a part of our dining history and have always felt a little bit like home anyway, bridging the gap between a restaurant dining room and a family table.

Civilized like their English counterparts, they’ve also been warm and welcoming with Southern manners and comfortable food prepared with careful dignity. And while King didn’t open the first tearoom in the Nashville area, she operated one of the most beloved.

King’s original tearoom moved from Franklin to Green Hills before closing in 1991, but she has stayed active in the food business for more than 40 years.

Working out of a corner of Grassland Foodland Market (2176 Hillsboro Road) in Franklin, in a space called Miss Daisy’s Kitchen, she still draws customers from across the city for her tearoom food to-go – chicken divan, green bean casserole, tubs of broccoli salad, trays of yeast rolls and homemade fudge pies.

Originally located in a Victorian home in Franklin, King welcomed her first guest at age 27 with the goal to someday serve 100 people. She hit that mark by the first weekend.

She opened and soon hosted more than 250 for bridesmaids’ luncheons and rehearsal dinners – those happening simultaneously as tour buses rolled in to sample the taste of the South.

“Every day there was a story,” she recalls.

On King’s restaurant tables, you might have spotted dainty cucumber sandwiches and quiche (“You have to have quiche in a tearoom,” she says), as well as more meat-and-three type fair such as hearty beef casserole and cornbread blanketed with creamed chicken, a recipe given to Daisy in 1973 by Helen Corbitt, another tearoom maven in Texas at Neiman Marcus’ Zodiac Room.

But even as her original restaurant grew busier, she says the tearoom culture meant focusing on pure, quality ingredients.

“Back in the seventies, we were growing our own vegetables. We were doing farm-to-table before it was the cool thing to do,” she explains. “We grew our own flowers to put on tables.

“We had fresh eggs, and for our meats we would try to get it from the butchers. We used real butter and cream. Tearooms had that attitude that they wanted pure quality food served.”

King took an interest in food early by collecting recipes and taking trips to restaurants whether it was meat and three cafeterias or tearooms like the Swan Coach House in Atlanta in the 1950s.

The Georgia native came to Nashville in late 1960s for college and began teaching home economics at St. Bernard Academy in 1969. “I would take my girls to Cain-Sloan (a Nashville department store with a tearoom), and we would do the gloves and have a ladies lunch.”

Then while in a home economics club, a friend suggested to her that she talk to Calvin and Marilyn Lehew, owners of property in Franklin, about opening a tearoom.

During their initial meeting, Calvin had questions: Did you major in business? No. Are you a chef? No. Have you worked in a restaurant? Cashiered? Waited tables? No. No. No.

But she did have a food and nutrition degree from Belmont University. She knew how to entertain, and perhaps most importantly, how to treat people. He gave her the job.

Talk tearooms with King for long, and she’ll bring up others who helped form the tearoom culture in this area, such as Satsuma Tearoom. Open in 1912, it served a mixed downtown crowd with a meat and three menu, casseroles and homemade rolls for 87 years before closing in 2005.

Only a few restaurants in a similar tearoom vein remain, including The Picnic Cafe off West End with its pimento cheese and chicken salad sandwiches, quiche, casseroles and tea punch.

“I think tearoom says to me, it has to be homemade, it has to be filled with love from your hands and your heart, and you have to have something sweet,” King says.

After closing her tearoom in the 1990s, she has gone on to write 14 cookbooks and worked as a consultant to major grocery stores and as media spokesperson for companies like Pillsbury and Bisquick.

She served as one of the original partners in F. Scott’s before bringing her tearoom fare back at Miss Daisy’s Kitchen in the Grassland community.

These days, when a regular comes in looking for a specific dish, it still sends her rustling around in the kitchen to find that last package of yeast rolls or the pecan pie that’s still cooling from the oven.

The dedication to taking care of others is maybe why in 1977, when her water broke with her second child at 5:30 a.m., she didn’t go to the hospital. She drove first to the restaurant.

“It was a Friday, and I knew I had to get payroll out. I didn’t even tell my husband. And we were having a tour for lunch.”

Partly due to that incident, she calls her son Patrick “the tearoom baby.” By the time he turned 6 months old, she fed him pureed turkey divan and chicken pot pies with their vegetables.

“I started giving him my food,” she adds. “That’s why he eats so well to this day.”

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