Back Around: On a Saturday Afternoon, a Symphony of Old Resonances

On Market Square, during the farmers’ market, I encountered a young woman playing the ukulele and singing old-time love songs. I thought about how heartened my grandmother would have been to know that hip kids are playing the ukulele again. It was all the rage when she was that age. Grandmother kept up with pop culture, over the years. She knew the Beatles when they came on the radio and thought they were cute for kids to listen to. But her tastes constantly gravitated toward the ’20s, the jazz and that first Hawaiian music craze. Now, don’t you really like that better, she used to ask.

If my grandmother were still alive, she’d be one of the oldest people in the world. As an influence, her generation is completely gone now. And now is exactly when their music is coming back around.

If my grandmother and her flapper peers were still here to approve of a cultural development because they remembered it fondly, maybe this hip-looking young woman wouldn’t have been playing ukulele on Market Square. Nobody who’s creative wants to perform just to gratify the ancientry. To her generation, it’s newer than grunge or hip-hop or emo, the music maybe they grew up on.

Not that they don’t know it’s old. A few minutes later, I encountered my friend Kukuly, playing gypsy guitar at the French Market’s sidewalk cafe. Originally from Peru, Kukuly is very young, but she’s an authority on the technique of gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Reinhardt died in 1953, so long ago that most people over 40 have never heard of him. It’s mainly the kids who know his work best.

Everything that’s worthwhile comes back around. But maybe it’s easier for things to become cool again when everybody who remembers the first version of it is dead.

It gave me plenty to think about as I waited in line at the Cruze Dairy Farm truck. Those local heroes of quality dairy products have been selling homegrown milk and ice cream for years.

This summer, they’re selling milk and ice cream plus some old-time street food, pork hot dogs on local buns with homemade chow-chow, which of course is the South’s time-honored version of kimchi. Who knows where it came from, how it evolved. The world isn’t as big as we like to think it is. But chow-chow was considered old-fashioned when I was a kid. My dad loved chow-chow, and he was about the only one I ever heard mention it. When I was an adolescent, I’d cringe when he asked for it in a restaurant. “Do you have any chow-chow?” Sometimes the waitress didn’t know what he was talking about. And I’d think, to myself, Can’t you just say relish, Dad?

I’ve seen more chow-chow this summer than I saw in the 1980s and ’90s put together.

Cruze’s homemade chow-chow’s good. But what I tried at the Cruze truck Saturday was a Delhi Dog, which is basically a spicy-hot Indian cucumber salad on top of a hot dog. It was pretty delicious.

Hot dogs go way back in Knoxville, popular on Market Square by the late 1800s. Knoxville has a purchase on the origin of hot dogs—if not the sandwich itself, the term “hot dog,” which noted New York etymologist Barry Popik determined was first seen in an offhand reference in the Knoxville Daily Journal in 1893, to the snack previously been known here as “wienerwurst.”

I once thought I’d given up on hot dogs. There was a spell when they were considered unhealthy and déclassé. But in the four years since I first learned that my home town has a place in the history of hot dogs, I have almost become a connoisseur. Knoxville has every right to make them a local specialty. Cruze’s offers a worthy homage.

Nearby, along Union Avenue, was Dale’s Fried Pies. Saturday, Dale offered one with statewide resonance, the Elvis, with peanut butter, bananas, and Benton’s bacon. And of course, Elvis Presley first got RCA’s attention by virtue of the fact that, in the summer of 1954, 60 years ago this month, his first record was selling so fast, by the thousands, in one particular Market Square record store that it qualified as a phenomenon. The store was Sam Morrison’s place. It was about where Rita’s Italian Ice place is now. The record was “That’s All Right, Mama,” which I’ve always suspected was really Elvis’s commentary on his mother’s specialty peanut butter and banana sandwich. Like that surprising Sun Records disc, 60 years ago, Dale’s version of the Elvis sold out early.

And one of the most surprising and welcome cultural returns to downtown Knoxville—along with live-audience radio, sidewalk ukulele music, and men’s hats—is the tamale cart. Back as early as the 1880s, enterprising entrepreneurs sold tamales on downtown Knoxville streets out of a cart. I don’t know where they came from, and the fact that tamales showed up here about 80 years before Knoxville’s first Mexican restaurant is probably not as mysterious as we like to think it is. It was one of those things I used to talk about to amaze luncheon groups. Guys sold homemade tamales, right out of carts, right here in downtown Knoxville.

It’s no longer as easy to amaze people with that fact, because here they are again. The Good Golly Tamale cart offers six varieties, from Thai chicken to beef sausage (the one closest to what folks expected during the saloon era) to what they call vegan, which is really a soul-food tamale of black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, and kale. Saturday they sold out of at least five of them.

So whether it’s food, music, or fashion, everything worthwhile comes back around. The secret of hip is to take something tried and true in the past, wait until everybody who remembers it is dead, give it a modern twist or two, and try it again. It works for music and food alike. If you wait long enough, it will seem new, and it will be as appreciated as gratefully as it was the first time.