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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

An Unbalanced Force in the Foothills

February 8, 2023

BLACKBERRY FARM— A portion of Newton’s Law of Motion states, “An object in motion remains in motion at a constant speed, and in a straight line, unless acted on by an unbalanced force.” I am not sure if Blackberry Farm has ever been described as an unbalanced force, but for the past 25 years, that is what it has been for me.

I am the motion in that scenario. I have never been able to sit still for any significant length of time. I was in constant motion as a child, nothing has changed in my adult years, and that is pretty much the story of my day-to-day work life as well. Even my vacation time is typically non-stop.

I don’t “vacation” well. Or at least by the standards most people vacation. Any time off I have taken over the past 35+ years has revolved around restaurants. Whether it be a trip to New York, a journey overseas, or time away from work at the beach, everything revolves around restaurants and food wherever I am. I guess there may have been a time in my life when I could lie on a sandy beach under the sun, but I don’t ever remember doing it. I mostly walked along the shore or hung out in the water. Motion.

I’m not complaining. I love living life as I do. I welcome constant input and enjoy having too many irons in the fire. It’s who I am. The only places I can tune the world out are in a movie theatre, during a massage, or— on a larger scale— at Blackberry Farm. This place has something that no other place I have visited anywhere in the world has— the ability to make me slow down and rest. No motion.

We first came here sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s. It must have been before I started writing this weekly column because I have no record of the visit in any journals. The grounds and facilities were smaller then and it was quaint and quiet country inn with few cottages and amazing food helmed by Chef John Fleer.

The first time I wrote about this place was during a stayover during the promotional tour of my first book in February of 2003. In those days Kreis and Sandy Beall were running the farm. On subsequent visits their son Sam had taken over and had expanded the property across the road by adding a farmstead operation, a legit gardener, and the finest barn in which you’ll ever eat. Sam died tragically and unexpectedly several years ago. His wife, Mary Celeste, took the reins and hasn’t looked back. Actually, she’s led the largest growth this company has seen by building the sister resort Blackberry Mountain, 10 miles down the road.

Nestled in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, about 40 miles south of Knoxville, Blackberry Farm is the most refined country inn I’ve ever known. The property is just over the mountain range from Pigeon Forge, yet it’s a world away. There is no golf course on the property, nor any of the typical things one would find at an archetypical American resort. At its core, Blackberry Farm is about food. That is why I connected to this place so many years ago.

There are five-star hotels in major metropolitan capitals that “wow” people. Europe’s Michelin-starred restaurants are very impressive. The service at those establishments is notable. Though I have yet to encounter a place — in America or Europe — that “feels” as good as Blackberry Farm. This place combines all those elements in a serene, pastoral setting with world-class views. It’s 100 percent of what I love in a three-day getaway.

The property runs on the American plan and all meals and lodging are included in the price of the stay. Breakfast is served in the main house (the original inn). Lunch is served there, too, but can also be packed as a picnic and delivered at any place on the property. Dinner is also served in the main house, but several years ago, Sam realized a lifelong vision and built a culinary cathedral that celebrates Southern dining in a unique and refined way in an impressive building called The Barn.

Beall’s barn is unlike any barn on the planet, with a cellar that houses one of the largest private wine collections in the country. Blackberry’s culinary reputation was birthed by Fleer, though it was Sam who took it to world-class heights at The Barn.

When the barn was built, Beall brought on master gardener John Coykendall to grow vegetables. Coykedall’s knowledge of heirloom seeds and vegetables is extensive. The first time I met him, he asked me where I lived. After I told him, he walked to the back of his gardening shed and started digging around in a few small seed-bin drawers and pulled out some heirloom purple-hull pea seeds from a long-forgotten variety that were grown in Lawrence County, Mississippi, 45-miles west of my hometown. I once read an article about Coykendall’s discovery of a Pearl River County peanut that had been grown down there by a family since the 1850s. I plan to stop by the gardeners shed to see if I can talk him out of a few of those, too.

We typically visit here in February on the date of our wedding anniversary. In the early 2000s we started coming in the summer months after dropping our two children off at summer camp. As beautiful as this place is during the full, green foliage months of the summer, I prefer it during the bare-tree days of winter. There are less people here. The fireplaces serve a practical purpose, and the winter woods are bare and beautiful.

There are few places on the planet where I can truly relax, stop, turn my brain off, and do nothing. Here I sit. I am not a napper, at least not an intentional one. I inadvertently fall asleep at my desk in the middle of the afternoon on occasion but have never been one to plan a nap. I took two naps yesterday.

We celebrated our 30th anniversary this visit. We celebrated our 10th, 20th, and 25th here, too. I’ll go to Blackberry Mountain, soon, kicking off a new tradition and this man in motion will meet entirely new unbalanced force.

Onward.

This week’s recipe: Blackberry Farm Raspberry Almond Crumb Cake

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