Jon Finley in Cornersville, Tennessee
Tennessee,  USA

Life in Rural Tennessee – Jon Finley

Cornersville, Tennessee
Jon Finley
Fried Pork Chops

The Place: Cornersville, Tennessee

“Surprisingly not located in a corner of Tennessee, but smack-bang in the middle, Cornersville was what I hoped it would be: a tiny U.S. town that doesn’t see much action outside of it’s own little bubble. Nashville, still a dot on the horizon, now felt a galaxy away, as high-rise buildings, cluttered roads and rock music pouring from bars onto the streets had morphed into pearl-white, wooden churches, meticulously trimmed lawns and the chirps of birdsong.”

Read more about Cornersville

Surprisingly not located in a corner of Tennessee, but smack-bang in the middle, Cornersville was what I hoped it would be: a tiny U.S. town that doesn’t see much action outside of it’s own little bubble. Red, white and blue danced in a gentle breeze overhead, the crunch of my footsteps on gravel seemed almost deafening against the silence that enveloped what I assume was the main road, and I found myself wondering if this was an “off day” or whether it was always like this. Nashville, still a dot on the horizon, now felt a galaxy away, as high-rise buildings, cluttered roads and rock music pouring from bars onto the streets had morphed into pearl-white, wooden churches, meticulously trimmed lawns and the chirps of birdsong. This seemed like the kind of place where everyone knew everyone, where doors remain unlocked and neighbours are bound to one another by a deep sense of community.

As you can probably tell, I didn’t get a great picture of Cornersville itself, but few tourists brave the farms and fields that surround the imposing skylines of American cities, so it’s worth a detour from the nearby highway to satisfy your curiosity and explore rural America. Ok, so there’s not many attractions or activities, but the warmth exuded by those that live there and the food on offer at the Starlight Café made up for that, and it’s welcoming small-town charm made it a pleasure to visit.


Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.

The Person: Jon Finley, 46, Restaurant Owner

I’m a husband and a dad, and we live on a farm. We raise cattle and have sheep, a few horses, a donkey, a llama and dogs and cats.”

See Jon's Full Background

I’m married to Pauline and have 5 children, with 3 still at home. I’m a husband and a dad, and we live on a farm. We raise cattle and have sheep, a few horses, a donkey, a llama and dogs and cats. For our profession we run a restaurant; an American diner style restaurant.

What does ‘home’ mean to you?

“It’s a place where I live. And that’s more than just ‘reside’. Its where I belong, where my being is… Whether it’s where I actually put my head down, or if its where I want to be; whether I’m there in body or spirit.”

See Jon's Full Answer

It’s a place where I live. And that’s more than just ‘reside’. Its where I belong, where my being is. It’s where I live and where my things are, whether it’s my possessions or my family or whatever it is. Home is where I live in all manners of things. Whether it’s where I actually put my head down, or if its where I want to be; whether I’m there in body or spirit. 

What life lessons have you learned from living in Cornersville?

“This is a small town. But being in a small town doesn’t mean that everything is ‘small’… we have people from all walks of life, all socio-economic backgrounds: multimillionaires, billionaires, homeless people, average people, geniuses…”

See Jon's Full Answer

This is a small town. But being in a small town doesn’t mean that everything is ‘small’. Within just a few miles of where I live, we have people from all walks of life, all socio-economic backgrounds: multimillionaires, billionaires, homeless people, average people, geniuses… so people get hung up on: “if you’re from a small town you think small, you act small”. It’s just a place. New York city is not a big place. Area-wise it’s relatively small. And we don’t have as many things here, but in today’s world, I have access to virtually all the information that anyone else has. And so, it’s a small town with big things going on.

Have you ever been outside of the US?

“No. I’ve travelled to a lot of states. When I was younger, we raised and showed cattle. When I was about 18, I was president of the national junior cattle association.”

See Jon's Full Answer

No. I’ve travelled to a lot of states. When I was younger, we raised and showed cattle. When I was about 18, I was president of the national junior cattle association. And so with that, and with the showing, I’ve travelled to a lot of places; a lot of states. I went to college on a 4 year scholarship for livestock judging – I was on the collegiant horse judging team and the collegiant cattle judging team, and we travelled all over the United States with that. I’ve travelled to a lot of places;  not been to every state, but I’ve been to a lot of places.

Can you think of a time you have you been proud of Cornersville?

“Cornersville is a great place. It’s not perfect. I’ve been utterly ashamed of my town, but I’ve also been extremely proud. The state and the country is the same way. Anybody that says differently is not being truthful. There’s no perfect place that’s done everything just right.”

See Jon's Full Answer

I’m proud of where I live. I’m proud of my home. We don’t live in a nice big home. We live in a small, double-wide trailer on a 200 acre farm. We were riding down the road one day, going to Franklin, and my youngest son – we passed a big subdivision of high dollar homes: $500,000-$1,000,000 homes – and he said “Those people must really be rich”. I said, “they may be, but look at how they live. do you see any llamas running around?” He said “No.” I said, “can they go get in the creek and walk up and down the creek like you do?” “No, probably not.” I said, “they don’t have what you have. We’re not wealthy financially. But you’re rich beyond ways that they are.” And so I’m proud of what I have. And Cornersville is a great place. It’s not perfect. I’ve been utterly ashamed of my town, but I’ve also been extremely proud. The state and the country is the same way. Anybody that says differently is not being truthful. There’s no perfect place that’s done everything just right. We take the good with the bad. Do I like everybody here? No, I don’t. Do I agree with everybody here? No, I don’t. But it’s what we got. And so what are you gonna do? Live with it. And change what you can change.

Is there anything you’d change about Cornersville?

I would like to change the hearts of people…We live in a Christian home so we try to be examples to our children, and to people that we meet and talk to. That’s all we can do. You preach more by what you did than however many words you said.”

See Jon's Full Answer

Running a business, I would love to see more growth.  I go to Nashville, and I see what restaurants charge for the same thing that I serve. So I’m jealous of that. So I would like to see more growth. But living here, raising a family and having a farm, I like it small.

I would like to change the hearts of people. But that’s not realistic either. We live in a Christian home so we try to be examples to our children, and to people that we meet and talk to. That’s all we can do. You preach more by what you did than however many words you said. We try to change people by being better ourselves. People only change because they want to, and people only want to change because they see it’s working for somebody. So I’d like to change things, but you have to be careful. What are you willing to give up. It goes to this whole deal that we’re going through in the country now, the gun control, and the rights and the 2nd amendment. Are your rights and your freedoms more important than an individual’s life? Individually, no. I wouldn’t say that I need a gun more than you need to be alive. But collectively, the rights that we all have as individuals, and freedoms – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – far outweighs anyone’s life. That’s not to say that we need to sacrifice anybody. But what are you willing to give up to be safe and happy. Be careful what you sacrifice, and what you’re sacrificing for.

Also, have a reason for doing what you decide to do. Do things on purpose. I don’t think anybody does anything on purpose anymore in the world. People talk about the radicals in religion in different countries, but the radicals are probably the only ones that have a belief system, and live what they believe. Everybody else… we blow with the wind. And whatever is fun this week, whatever is politically correct or kosher – we don’t know what we believe. So I try to do that. I try to actually believe something and live what I believe. I do pretty good some days.

Why should people visit Cornersville?

“…the same reason that I like to travel and see other places: its different. There’s not really another place like it anywhere around… It’s like going to the desert: not much to see there but it’s something that everybody should see.”

See Jon's Full Answer

For the same reason that I like to travel and see other places: its different. There’s not really another place like it anywhere around, the same as there’s not another place like Kansas or Nebraska. Places are unique. I’ve been out West and up North, and it’s a unique area with unique properties. So in order to be a well-rounded person, to understand how other people live and do things, it’s a great place because we have people from everywhere here. This is one of the fastest growing areas of the nation. Murfreesboro, just a few miles from here, was the fastest growing city and county in the nation for years because of the central location. From Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 75% of the population lives within 750 miles.  It’s a good place to visit and see all the different things that come together and make up the world. It’s like going to the desert: not much to see there but it’s something that everybody should see.

What are your thoughts on stereotypes about people from rural America?

“…a stereotype of all rural areas is that you’ve never been anywhere, you don’t know anything, and people view you as less educated and less intelligent simply because of where you live, and it’s just not true.”

See Jon's Full Answer

I think a stereotype of all rural areas is that you’ve never been anywhere, you don’t know anything, and people view you as less educated and less intelligent simply because of where you live, and it’s just not true. Some of the most brilliant people in the world have been from small towns, and vice-versa: some of the dumbest people are from some of the biggest towns. So where you’re from has absolutely nothing to do with your intelligence, nothing. The more travelled a person is, whether in actual travels or in learning, the more intelligent you become simply because you’ve experienced more. And I’m not talking IQ, or book smart, it’s all about what you’ve learned and how you apply what you’ve learned.

In your opinion, what is the best thing ever to come out of Tennessee/the US?

“…the US has been a beacon for adventure, whether its technology or adventurous sports and activities and learning. In nearly every aspect, it’s been viewed as the wild west of the world for all manners of things.”

See Jon's Full Answer

I think the US has been a beacon for adventure, whether its technology or adventurous sports and activities and learning. In nearly every aspect, it’s been viewed as the wild west of the world for all manners of things. This area? I don’t know. The food is unique to this area, and it’s because of the backgrounds of the people that have come into this area. East Tennessee was where a lot of the Scotch-Irish were either sent because of bad behaviour or where they migrated to, so middle-Tennessee area was founded by a lot of people from that area. And so, the whiskey is unique to this area… except its not. It’s Irish whiskey. It’s a knock-off of the old Irish whiskey, which was probably a knock-off of somebody else’s whiskey. And so there’s a lot of things that are unique. I mean, we have Jack Daniels distillery here, which is the home of Tennessee whiskey, and that’s just a few miles over the hill. And so there’s a lot of things that are unique to this area until you start looking into it and then it’s not really unique. It’s like the bible says: “There’s nothing new under the sun”. A lot of people like to think “oh that’s never happened!” But it’s just somebody elses take on an old trick.

Do you have a favourite local dish?

“…there’s no telling how many glasses of tea that we’ve made here. But to know that you can make a million glasses of tea and this one is just as good as the first one; there’s a lot of pride in that.”

See Jon's Full Answer

I love any kind of seafood. I do a lot with steaks. Here at the restaurant, it’s not so much that I have a particular favourite thing, I like using different things and coming up with new ideas. The chocolate pecan fried pie, I didn’t come up with the recipe,  but I’ve never seen it done, and I don’t know anywhere around that’s done it. And so I said “ok, fine we’ll do it.” We worked on it and made it our own, and got our own recipe for it. And the ice cream’s the same way. I worked on my ice cream recipe for about 10 or 12 years before I got it to keep and taste like that and hold for weeks on end. It’s just the adventure of doing new things that’s what I like. But I also like doing the same thing repetitively and doing it well every time. And so there’s no telling how many glasses of tea that we’ve made here. But to know that you can make a million glasses of tea and this one is just as good as the first one; there’s a lot of pride in that.  A lot of people get stale on the idea of “well, y’know, its just another…”, but it’s not. This is the first time you’ve ever been, and so I try to do it as though I’m gonna have people like you come in every day. And you never know when the opportunity is gonna be and who you’re gonna be serving, feeding or taking care of. When we got the call to cater for Kid Rock, we fixed fried chicken. I’ve cooked fried chicken about 4 times a week here, so we do a lot of fried chicken. And we did it for Kid Rock, biggest superstar in the world, arguably, the same way we did it every other time, but we wanted to make sure it was great because it was Kid Rock. And so we do it that way for everybody, because you never know who’s gonna walk in the door. Kid Rock might walk through that door. We get a lot of traffic off the interstate, and so you literally never know.

Is cuisine a big part of American culture?

“…The American dinner-table used to be a place where people sat down and talked about things, but I don’t think it is what it once was.”

See Jon's Full Answer

I think it’s a big part of every culture. I don’t think it’s that way as much anymore. The American dinner-table used to be a place where people sat down and talked about things, but I don’t think it is what it once was.  Its still a place for people to come together; if you can’t agree on anything else, you can always agree on a cheeseburger. You and I may be opposite on the political spectrum, but we can still sit down at the table and eat. I think probably we should do more of that, with everybody. I don’t care who you are, you’ve still gotta eat. You know the old saying “everyone puts their pants on the same way, one leg then two.” Well we eat the same way too. One bite at a time. And you can use food to represent so many different things. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. That’s how you tackle the world. One bite at a time. Food’s something that I love to do. I love to eat food, to taste food, and to fix food, and I love to experiment with stuff. We’ve come up with quite a few things in 19 years here that are new and different, that are solely ours. Some worked and some didn’t, c’est la vis. Some things work rather good, and we did these on a whim (blackberry cider) with some people that we worked with in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Reccomendation:

Before the interview, Jon recommended that we try fried pork chops, which are very popular in the area andsuggested we finished off with some fried chocolate pecan pie, served with homemade ice cream, all “comfort food”, according to him, which the South is renowned for.

Life According to Locals #Cornersville #Tennessee #StarlightCafé #InterviewsWithLocals Click To Tweet

Jon Finley


The Plate: Fried Pork Chops and More at the Starlight Café

“…everything, right down to the ice cream and the cider, is homemade… As someone new to southern comfort food, Jon and his family’s Starlight Café seemed like the best place to be introduced to it. So, if you’re ever in the area, be sure to stop by at the best and only restaurant in Cornersville.”

Read more about the Starlight Café

What weren’t we served at the Starlight Café. After visiting, I felt like I wouldn’t have to eat for a week. What stood out to me about Jon’s restaurant is that everything, right down to the ice cream and the cider, is homemade. To my delight, the fried pork chops came on a plate piled high with *deep breath* fried corn chips, okra, mac and cheese, lima beans, creamed corn, corn bread and cinnamon apples. A challenge? Yes. The highlight was easily the cinnamon apples, which complimented the pork chops and corn bread perfectly, counteracting the salty punch delivered by the chops. They were probably the lightest food on the plate, with the rest basking in rich and heavy flavours, particularly the mac and cheese and creamed corn.

But the main is not all we were treated to under Jon’s watch. Enter blackberry cider. No, Brits, this isn’t what you think it is. It’s a syrup that you add to tea which again, Brits, I’m talking to you, is also not what you think it is. Iced sweet tea is what you’ll get if you ask for “tea” in the south. Delivering a sweet and fruity punch that’s enough to cure even the worst of hangovers, I insisted on a second glass.

Lastly, we experienced the fried chocolate pecan pie, a recipe that Jon isn’t willing to part with. I’m used to chocolate paired with hazelnuts, but the pecans bring a tang into the mix that’s actually pretty unique. Folded over, fried, dusted with powdered sugar on top and served with homemade vanilla ice cream, it’s enough to raise your blood pressure for a month. But damn, was it worth it. As someone new to southern comfort food, Jon and his family’s Starlight Café seemed like the best place to be introduced to it. So, if you’re ever in the area, be sure to stop by the best and only restaurant in Cornersville. 


Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!


Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date with our blog. If you want to see more of the cycle touring side of our adventure, you can also have a gander at our YouTube channel! If you want to see how we’re doing on our journey, check out our Live Updates page.

Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

6 Thoughts on Life in Rural Tennessee – Jon Finley
    Carol Murdock
    4 Jul 2018
    9:19pm

    The starlite does serve good food. I enjoyed the article. I live in Lewisburg just down the road.

      Tieran Freedman
      5 Jul 2018
      9:02am

      Thank you! It does indeed, we wish we could go back there! We drove through Lewisburg as part of our detour and almost stopped there before deciding to go to Jon’s restaurant.

    Hilda
    8 Jul 2018
    9:21am

    Fascinating reading. Brought home the diversity there is in America,

    Tamara
    9 Jul 2018
    3:23pm

    I like that you dug deep into the 3 aspects-small town, man, food. Your blog/videos remind me a little of the PBS show in the US called Two For the Road; I much prefer your approach!

      Tieran Freedman
      10 Jul 2018
      12:53pm

      Thank you! That’s exactly what we were hoping to do. I’ll have to check out that show!

    Dennis
    9 Jul 2018
    4:43pm

    A great start to your epic journey! You,re certainly getting ‘inside’ your P, P & P’s.

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