Now and then, you stumble upon a local restaurant that feels like home — a place where strangers are instant friends, and the food is unforgettable. That’s what it’s like to sit down for a meal at Pinewood Kitchen & Mercantile in Nunnelly, TN, where everyone is welcome, bodies are fed, and souls are nourished. The loving atmosphere and delicious food can both be attributed to owner Mee McCormick, whose story of childhood poverty, autoimmune disease and picking herself up by the bootstraps is beyond inspiring.
Born in the Northern Appalachian Mountains to a single mom who suffered from an autoimmune disease, Mee learned early on that she shouldn’t take health for granted. “My mother was very sick most of my childhood,” she says. “We were very hungry and very poor — no silver spoon. But there was a lot of funny in my house and a lot of gumption. There was a lot of determination and a lot of kindness.” At 17, Mee found herself on her own after her mother was killed in a car accident, and she set out with $20 in her pocket and an adventurous spirit. Many years later, following a path that included a brief stint in a convent (she left before becoming a nun) and some work in Hollywood as a writer for hire, she made a career change that helped put a small Tennessee town on the map.
Now, through her restaurant, mercantile, cattle farm, event space (slated to open this fall), newly released cookbook (her second), and upcoming bakery, the multi-talented dynamo is pushing people’s perception of “clean” food and how it influences self-care. But jumping ahead to all of Mee’s current success would be an injustice to the emotional and physical journey that led her to it. It all started when she found herself battling Celiac disease and dairy allergies that made her even sicker than her mother had been. “I did everything not to have my mother’s life,” she says. “My mother got married at 18; I got married at 28. My mother struggled as a single mother and couldn’t make ends meet, and that grind is in me, but I avoided it. My mother didn’t go to school; I went to school. My mother didn’t travel; I traveled. I’ve had an incredible journey, and I did everything she didn’t do, but I didn’t change the fate of my health.”
She recounts a harrowing story of being on the floor in extreme pain, desperately needing to be rushed to the hospital, with her daughter looking on helplessly. “My daughter, who was 6 years old at the time, was home alone with me,” she explains, “and she said, ‘Mommy, what do we do? What do we do?’ and I saw myself [in her]. That same fear I had as a child, watching my mother suffer, is now in my children. I had to change that.” Mee started asking herself hard questions about her future, and divine intervention instructed her to start cooking and alter what was going into her body by changing what was on her plate.
Mee is quick to mention that the decision to pursue a culinary career didn’t come easily; she didn’t start with a passion for being in the kitchen. “I hated to cook. I was kitchen intimidated,” she offers, “but here I was, living in Malibu, CA, and I could buy any food I wanted at Whole Foods — which is a big deal when you’re coming from fish sticks and food stamps — and nothing could save me. I couldn’t eat anything.” Mee’s Celiac disease is so severe that if someone touches a hamburger bun before touching her food, it’s debilitating. “People don’t realize we’re that sensitive,” she says of people who struggle with Celiac disease. “We may not have anaphylaxis, where we’re going to die in the room, but we’re going to lay on the floor for three or four days wishing we were dead.” So, despite access to the beautiful produce and high-end grocery stores in Malibu, she dwindled to 89 pounds. “I prayed about it, and I heard a voice that asked, ‘What’s in it? What’s in the food?'” she shares. “And I was like, ‘Ugh, I have to cook.'” At the time, she resorted to every excuse in the book to avoid it: I can’t, it’s hard, I don’t have time, you don’t understand, I work, my kids have 50 activities, I don’t have any money. “That spiel was like the outfit I wore every day for why I couldn’t cook for my family or me,” she admits, “but I didn’t want to die.”
Mee did what she has always done and faced the challenge head-on. She began cooking alongside a macrobiotic chef, which ultimately led to her decision to attend culinary school. Unlike most culinary students, however, she went home each day to adjust the recipes in ways that allowed her body to handle them, thinking outside the typical bounds of how food “should” be prepared. “In culinary school, you’re taught this is the way we cook and how it should be made. There are no substitutes,” Mee laments.
Realizing that the number of people with food sensitivities, autoimmune deficiencies and digestive diseases is increasing, the powerhouse continued working toward a way to not only heal herself but to heal others. Once she got well, she wrote her first book, My Kitchen Cure, for those enduring similar struggles. “When I was so sick, I prayed and said, ‘If you show me a way to get well, I will be of service. I will serve,'” she says. “When I said that, I didn’t know I was actually going to have to serve. I was talking a big game!”
So, how did she wind up with a restaurant in Nunnelly? The Pinewood farm has been in the McCormick family for nearly 40 years. Several thousand acres, it used to be the original Pinewood plantation, which was founded and settled in the 1830s by Samuel Graham. “He didn’t believe in slavery. He even had his own money, called Pinewood dollars, so that he could pay everybody equally,” she proudly tells us of the former plantation owner. “So, Pinewood has always been a place of freedom.”
After Mee and her husband, rancher and farmer Lee McCormick, settled into the farm, complete with grass-fed cattle, pasture-wood-raised pork and 10 acres of organic, biodynamic produce, they continued buying up the town — including the mercantile, gas station and eventually the restaurant. It’s Lee who convinced Mee to open Pinewood Kitchen when he purchased the old general store that had been on the plantation since the 1920s. “I never wanted a restaurant; I’m a reluctant restaurateur,” she laughs. “When my husband bought this place, I was so mad at him! I was like, ‘What am I going to do with a restaurant? And there’s no foot traffic!'” But the quality of Mee’s food solved that problem in no time, bringing patrons out in droves for her organic, farm-to-table, down-home country cooking made with kindness.
“My goal in running Pinewood was to ask, ‘How do I create classic Southern foods — comfort foods people want to eat — and make them better, with no preservatives, no additives, nothing?'” Mee explains. There’s no doubt she’s onto something, and her food is so special that it’s not uncommon for someone to travel 80 miles to take a seat at the Pinewood table. Mee makes sure every patron is fed, no matter what. “I feed everybody, whether they have money or not,” she says. “We don’t take people’s dignity.” Watching her talk to customers, it’s clear that bringing the community together is Mee’s favorite part of the job. “I love seeing myself in someone else,” she says. “It shifts me and makes me better. I love cooking for people and taking care of them, and I love the realness of who I get to be here.”
Mee continues to nurture Pinewood’s longstanding message of equality. “I feel that we are changing our society,” she tells us. “We want to be a part of something good and better, and there are very few places to go and be a part of something good and better. We want to spend our money where it matters, and we want to spend our time where it’s valued.” She hopes to transform people, which is apparent in every detail of her work, from her carefully prepared dishes to the way she runs her kitchen. “I’m creating kind food for your body,” she explains. “So if it doesn’t start with kindness, it can’t serve kindness.”
As if Mee doesn’t already have enough on her plate, there’s an event center and a much-anticipated teaching kitchen in the works for Pinewood. “When people are in a place of transformation, it’s an incredible opportunity to change it all — to reset,” she says of being able to offer instruction. “If you’re going to reset your emotional and spiritual self, you need to reset your body with food, too. The two need to go together.”
That concept of transformation is the impetus behind Mee’s new book, My Pinewood Kitchen: A Southern Culinary Cure, which she released on April 14 of this year amid coronavirus turmoil and continued social strife. She wrote it to get Pinewood’s message out into the world. “We’re more divided than we’ve ever been,” she says. “People have an opinion of the South, and I want to change it. I want to show everyone that people in the South care about what they eat and that there are inclusive kitchens and inclusive tables.”
“Nashville is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Mee says of her life in the Nashville-adjacent town of Nunnelly. Little does she know, she’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to Nashville, too.
Thank you, Mee, for inspiring us with your story, and thank you to Leila Grossman for the photography.
Pinewood is currently open for indoor and outdoor dining as well as takeout, and they are presently delivering farm boxes to Nashville, Bellevue, Franklin, Brentwood, Fairview and Dickson. Located at 4951 Hwy 48 North, Nunnelly, TN 37137, Pinewood Kitchen is open on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. For reservations, call (931) 729-4562.
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