The People’s Places: Cal’s Country Kitchen

The People's Places: Cal’s Country KitchenCal’s Country KitchenPhoto: Eric England

With her new series “The People’s Places,” contributor Jennifer Justus will provide short takes on longtime local restaurants, markets and bars that deserve another look.

Cal’s Country Kitchen doesn’t open on Fridays, but sometimes owner Carolyn Buggs will go in anyway. Before a line of weekend customers winds like a plume of steam out the front door, she’ll spend time in the quiet sanctuary of the place washing turnip greens, picking out the stems, or maybe getting ahead on some baking.

“I stand in there and thank the Lord for what he’s done,” Buggs says. “It’s a lot of work, but I love what I do.”  

Cal’s Country Kitchen has been serving plate lunches in Madison for 23 years. Turn on the side street between the Firestone and Fonda el Cubilete Mexican Restaurant on Gallatin Pike and you’ll find Cal’s inside a white house with red awning. 

“I have two different sets of customers who said they lived here,” Buggs says. “When I purchased the building it had been a pediatrician’s office, so I have people who tell me they got many a shots in this building too.” 

Now Cal’s is filled with the scents of fried chicken and long-simmered greens. Lately, the tables and chairs have been stacked on one side of the room to allow for social distancing. Masking-tape X’s mark spots where customers are to stand as they wait to place their orders at the steam table. Later they walk out with foam containers — full of meatloaf, cabbage, mac-and-cheese — as heavy as cantaloupes. 

“It’s been going OK,” Buggs says. She opted to move to takeout only during the pandemic, due in part to staffing concerns. “We’re playing it by ear.” 

At 65, she’s thought about retiring, but this work has been part of her life for half a century. Raised in Bolivar, Tenn., Buggs learned to cook at age 11 for her family, which including her six brothers and sisters. “We were raised on the farm and worked it,” she says. “My mom never measured anything but a cake. Everything was a shake here and shake there.” 

Buggs came to Nashville to attend Tennessee State University and began work at Vought Industries. Her co-workers took note of the lunches she brought from home and proposed a deal: “If you bring me a plate, I’ll pay you,” she recalls them saying. A business sprang up from her kitchen and sustained her after a layoff. Then she and her husband Leon found space for the restaurant (the name Cal’s is short for “Carolyn and Leon’s”). 

“They called me back to work while we were renovating,” she says of her old job, “and I told them I wouldn’t be back.” 

The Buggs’ son Marcus helped out at the restaurant as a teenager. Then after a football career at Vanderbilt University and some time in the NFL before a knee injury, he opened his own place too. His Dickerson Road shop, Coneheads, specializes in fried chicken in waffle cones. But at Cal’s, it’s chicken and dressing. Buggs used to offer the dish a few times a week, but customer demand landed it on the menu daily. 

“I got people who will come in three or four times a week for it,” she says. “And I used to have a guy who ate meatloaf five days a week.” 

Seasoning like her mother, she’s got her shakes down for 80 pounds of meatloaf at a time. Lacquered in a ketchup-based glaze, the meatloaf has a deep-brown caramelized layer on top that holds in a moist center. Lap up the thin, tangy sauce with pieces of cornbread, which is griddled into flat discs the size of saucers. It’s the same bread Buggs uses for the chicken and dressing. 

“Buttermilk and eggs and a little sugar,” she says, noting that she’s a Martha White devotee with the cornmeal. Seasonings like sage and black pepper, along with flavor from the fat in the chicken, bring it on home. “You need good juice and good bread,” she says. 

Sure, you’ll find some other nostalgic tastes at Cal’s too — Velveeta holding together the mac-and-cheese and Cool Whip in the banana pudding, vanilla wafers layered like lady fingers and softened between sweet pudding and coins of banana. But Buggs is still taking the long way, peeling every sweet potato and drawing on the scratch cooking of her upbringing. “It’s a more time-consuming way to do it, but that’s how I was raised. We raised our potatoes!” 

On a recent Sunday at Cal’s, some folks waited in sweatpants, others in sharp church suits, as the Buggs’ daughter Leslie worked the steam table. It’s a family affair still.

“I have more customers — young guys, white guys, Black guys, girls,” Carolyn says. “They call me Mama. Some of them I don’t even know their names.”

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