And it’s a gutsy name, too. It took some gumption for the Woods family in Newport, Tennessee, to come up with a name like The Grease Rack. But it was a stroke of genius. People have remembered it over the years and have flocked there for platter-sized steaks, despite the restaurant’s off-the-beaten-path location. You take a road that bisects a hillside cemetery to get there.
But the Woods family has never been short on fortitude. Inherited polycystic kidney disease has decimated their ranks, but they cook on. Near the restaurant is the small building where the late Earl Woods, the restaurant’s founder, took his dialysis treatments. A plaque right inside the Grease Rack’s front door honors over 175 organ donors. Oris Cagle, a friend of the Woods family, was the organizer of the Earl Woods Chapter of Organ Donors. Back during the days of pop-a-top Budweiser cans, the family saved aluminum beer tabs to help raise funds for kidney patients.
Kidney disease killed Earl Woods and two of his sons. Earl’s son Buddy, who now runs the restaurant, has been kept alive with a transplanted kidney, donated by his wife.
Our summer 2015 return visit to The Grease Rack was bittersweet. We were pleased to learn that The Grease Rack is staying in the family, under the management of Buddy Woods. But his mother Joyce, who had been known to throw a potato across the kitchen when someone rushed her, is now in assisted living. Her daughter Judy, we learned this summer, passed away several years ago. Interviewing Joyce and Judy was a joy. They held nothing back.
“Earl tried slot machines in here, but that was about the time a new district attorney general came into office and everybody had to get rid of all that stuff,” Joyce once told me. “We sold liquor down through the years. The last time they got us for selling without a license, we decided no more liquor.”
Although Joyce has hung up the tongs, her method of dunking steaks in a soy sauce bath before grilling them continues on at The Grease Rack.
Just like the architecture, the menu has meaning. Bite-sized beef tips, known as “Baby Steak,” were added to the menu when Earl had to reduce his meat consumption. The strip steak covered in fried onions is known as “Harold’s Special,” named for Harold Smith, who worked at the Stokely plant down the hill and often lent his maintenance skills when something needed fixing at the restaurant.
From pumping Texaco gas in the early days to serving up ribeye steaks and New York strips today, community connection has always defined The Grease Rack. And so has perseverance.
“You learned a lot of things from Joyce,” her son Buddy tells us. “One of those things is work.”
The Grease Rack
555 Morrell Springs Road
Fred Sauceman’s latest book is Buttermilk and Bible Burgers: More Stories from the Kitchens of Appalachia.