Dolly Parton, the queen of country music, is much more than a writer of hit singles. She’s an outspoken defender of LGBTQ equality, a champion of literacy—her Imagination Library has provided 125 million books to young readers—and now a funder of COVID-19 vaccine research. She also plays a literal angel in the holiday musical Christmas On The Square, premiering this Sunday, November 22, on Netflix.
But when it comes down to it Dolly is, as she says, just a “simple country girl.” That earnest, down-home quality about her is what makes Dollywood such an excellent theme park. Situated in the town of Pigeon Forge in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee, just a few miles away from the two-room cabin where she grew up, Dollywood, despite the souvenirs and roller coasters, remains a sincere and sweet tribute to its founder’s roots, to the Appalachian world she came from, and to the values she still lives by today.
The place is full of artisans making turn-of-the-century-style wares the old-fashioned way. Bluegrass and country musicians pick on banjos and guitars around every corner. There’s a steam train that takes you on a jaunt through the woods, and the roller coasters take advantage of the geography with tracks that run up and down the hillside. From the top of the Wild Eagle coaster, 210 feet above the ground, you can see for miles into Great Smoky Mountains National Park (that is, if you can manage to keep your eyes open for the upcoming 135 foot drop at 60 miles per hour).
It also has some truly excellent Southern food. The culinary offerings at the park are so good that Dollywood has won Best Food from the Golden Ticket Awards—kind of like the Academy Awards of global theme parks—four times since 2012. (It’s also won Best Shows every year since 2009, Best Christmas Event since 2008, and Friendliest Park since 2012.)
Word of Dollywood’s food has spread beyond eastern Tennessee. In 2017, David Landsel paid a visit for Food & Wine to try to taste everything in the park in one day. “I’d figured I’d pick through everything and then move on to the next meal,” he wrote in that article. “Problem was, the food in front of me right now wasn’t just good—I’d go as far as calling much of it exceptional.”
I’ve been eating my way through Dollywood since I was in elementary school, so when I read Landsel’s piece, I wasn’t surprised one bit. It runs circles around the World Showcase at Epcot, another theme park foodie heaven. Some items have become so famous that copycat recipes regularly circulate through the internet, in particular the Grist Mill Bakery’s cinnamon bread, a buttery and sweet pull-apart loaf that’s served fresh out of the oven and tastes even better with a dollop of the park’s apple butter. Lines typically extend out of the bakery doors and into Craftsman’s Valley (where all those artisans continue making things, despite the powerfully distracting scent of cinnamon in the air).
Dolly Parton’s insistence on quality and authenticity is definitely at play in the food. At the park she’s known as the “Dreamer-in-Chief” because her vision is so thorough and specific about how things should be. But I think more than that, it’s the genuine connection to her family and her life story that makes the food offerings so delicious. This is encapsulated in a sign at the front of Aunt Granny’s all-you-can-eat restaurant that explains its unusual name:
“As a child, I learned to cook at my Mama’s knee, and I never forget how lucky I was to have such a loving mother. Now that I have dozens of nieces and nephews, all of the little ones call me Aunt Granny, a name I have come to love both for the confusion it causes and for just how clearly it defines who I am to them.”
Another sign reads, “We didn’t have money, but we were rich—there was enough love, kindness, joy and faith around our dinner table to last a lifetime.”
At Aunt Granny’s, there are piles and piles of Southern fried chicken, pulled pork, macaroni and cheese, and perfect buttermilk biscuits. Before the pandemic, it was a buffet, but now everything is served up family-style. Because this park doesn’t suffer from the same commitment to inflation as some others, two main courses, four sides, and dessert cost less than $20 per person.
The food is delicious, plentiful, and relatively affordable all over the park: at Granny Ogle’s, a restaurant famous for its huge, perfectly cooked meatloaf that’s become one of the most popular dishes in Dollywood; at Hickory House Barbecue, which serves smoked turkey legs and barbecue pork sandwiches; and the walk-up stands that sell funnel cakes with an endless array of toppings.
Then there are the showstopping apple pies at Spotlight Bakery. The bakery is one of the first places you encounter when you walk into the park, and it was a stop for me on both the way in and the way out on my most recent visit this summer. A whole apple pie weighs 25 pounds and costs $189.99, although when you buy it you also get to take home the enormous cast-iron skillet it’s baked in. If you bring the dish back for a refill—although honestly if you ate that much pie you might die—it’s about $100 less. But since I was flying home, I settled for an $18.99, three-pound slice. I ate it over the next two days and still couldn’t finish it. (I didn’t know it at the time, but Dollywood ships them if you call to order.)
One of the best dishes at Dollywood—and one with the most heartstring-tugging story—isn’t actually in the park at all. It’s in the Song & Hearth restaurant inside the DreamMore Resort, the park’s hotel. There, you can eat Stone Soup, which was what Dolly’s mother Avie Lee Parton would make whenever she thought one of her kids needed a little bit of extra love.
“Mama had a way of sensing which one of us kids needed a little extra attention, which one might be a little down,” Dolly writes in her memoir My Life And Other Unfinished Business. Avie Lee would announce they were having Stone Soup for dinner and send all the kids outside to pick out a pebble for the pot. “Mama would look at each stone and talk about its merits and how well each child had done in discovering it. Then, without fail, she would choose the rock found by the neediest of us. She would scrub it clean and then put it in the old black kettle as it boiled on the stove…. She would explain to her wide-eyed brood of rock collectors that [the soup’s vegetables] just added a little extra flavoring to the natural goodness of the stone.”
It’s the first course for every meal at the restaurant, and it’s a very good vegetable soup—and this is coming from someone who doesn’t love eating turnips or rocks all that much. (There aren’t actually any rocks in this soup: here’s a downloadable recipe.) On the wall in that restaurant is Avie Lee Parton’s recipe for a happy life, which seems like it could be Dolly’s, too: “Half a cup of love, a teaspoon of caring, and a dash of humility topped with compassion.” And, sometimes, a really good bowl of soup.