Mary Haymaker comes by her passion for food—delicious, well-made food—honestly. Her grandmother rolled perfectly proportionate cookie dough balls and wouldn’t hear of having a microwave in the kitchen.
Haymaker’s blog, Chattavore, features locally owned restaurants and tales from her adventures in the kitchen with an eye to generate just as much interest in the Scenic City’s cafes, bistros, grills, greasy spoons, hideaways and watering holes within the local food movement as the proliferating farmers markets.
Chattavore launched in the spring of 2011 and has covered familiar spots such as Rib and Loin and Tony’s Pasta Shop & Trattoria, newer names on the scene like Good Dog and TerraMae Appalachian Bistro, and the hidden gems such as Nana’s Frozen Custard and Typhoon of Tokyo.
Her recipes for batter bread and blackberry-buttermilk clafoutis have also appeared on Honest Cooking, an international online magazine.
The blog offers a charming account of Chattanooga, as Haymaker says, one bite at a time.
Though not a professional writer or a trained culinary expert, she represents the perfect voice to comment on the ever-evolving restaurant scene: someone who loves food, specifically Chattanooga-grown, cooked and plated food.
A seat at the table
An exceptional education preschool teacher at Brown Academy, Haymaker first tried her hand at a few non-food blogs, but lost her inspiration after few posts. Instead, she saw the need for more attention for and conversation about local restaurants.
“The local food scene is really growing here in Chattanooga,” Haymaker said. “At the same time, I think especially with where I live in Hixson, people still tend to go to chains. What I wanted to do was promote local restaurants.”
She let the idea percolate for a couple of months. A trip to the Blue Ribbon Cafe in Soddy Daisy, which Haymaker calls her hometown restaurant, in April 2011 provided the spark of inspiration, and she has been chronically her lunches, brunches and dinners out ever since.
Chattavore reads like a friend telling another friend a story, with delicious details about every item ordered and all the need-to-know information about the feel of place. The food blogger keeps a running list of new and established restaurants organized by section of the city.
When picking a subject for the next post, Haymaker and her husband and perennial sidekick, Phil, consider what is on the list, what food they are in the mood for and how much money they would like to spend.
The content of each post sidesteps the trap of trying to cover every facet of the restaurant, the menu, the backstory and everything else that goes into a bustling eatery. Instead, Haymaker focuses on what she and Phil order, briefly hits the highlights of the menu and spends time talking about the atmosphere and service.
“When I’m looking at a menu, what stands out to me is when a menu doesn’t seem like they’ve tried to cram a million different items on there, when it’s well thought out and you do a few things very well as opposed to doing lots of things and doing them OK but not great,” Haymaker said. “The best places to me are the ones that are not only locally owned but are also promoting other local business, like farms and bakeries and breweries.”
A woman of many talents, she does all of her own photography, usually with her iPhone, but also with her Nikon camera. After the meal, Haymaker introduces herself to her server and explains the blog. Typically, a manager soon stops by the table and is excited to hear about the upcoming publicity. She has even had a few people recognize the blog.
Haymaker also noted that she has no intentions of discouraging fellow Chattanooga diners from patronizing a local restaurant. If she has a bad experience, she simply doesn’t write a post. She may include a bit of gentle advice for areas to improve, but for her, Chattavore is an avenue by which to celebrate the food scene, not pinpoint its flaws.
From her grandmother’s kitchen
Another facet of the blog is using local foods and products in Haymaker’s own kitchen. The "cooks" tab consists of play-by-plays of recipes taken from one of her 30 cookbooks or the many food blogs and Pinterest boards she follows.
It’s a way to show readers that cooking is not a scary challenge, as well as a way to continue a family tradition she saw her mother and grandmother perform during her childhood.
Most days after school, Haymaker and her siblings would stay with their grandparents before being picked up by their mother, which meant frequently eating dinner there. She saw her grandmother make every part of every meal from scratch—meat, potatoes, vegetables and bread.
A meticulous cook, Haymaker’s grandmother would press hamburger meat into perfectly round patties and store them between individual sheets of wax paper. The blogger can still remember the scents from that kitchen and the warm memories that accompany them and her passion for food.
Chattavore provides a constant source of new ways to experience the flavors of Chattanooga, to reinvest in the community and economy, and to make a personal connection with local food.
“Often, I get to chat with the owner of a restaurant. I’m on a first-name basis with the people who sell me milk and coffee at the farmers market,” Haymaker said. “In the suburbs, our lives tend to revolve around chain grocery stores. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t shop at those places because I do. But the intent of my blog is to help people see that they have other options and that if you are willing to look a little harder, you will be amazed at the quality of the food that you find.”