The Elusive Specialty: Of Hot Dogs, Grilled Cheese, and Biscuits

Market Square has been short one attraction this spring. Dave, the amiable, portly hot-dog man who's been a fixture every fine spring day for years, is gone. When I went to Dave's cart, I got two hot dogs with onions, mustard, and chili, and a Coke, and sometimes Dave would throw in a bag of chips or a pickle for good luck.

According to one dark rumor, he had been shut out of the Square by whatever powers be. He did get some flak there, a few years ago, when some restaurateurs thought he was stealing business.

When you work for a free weekly, there are going to be lots of days when you've got 15 minutes to kill for lunch, and three or four dollars in your pocket. I can only hope any restaurants that considered Dave a threat have found a way to accommodate us now.

But Dave wasn't forced out. He and his wife have opened a permanent location, out on Middlebrook, near Shannondale, and he's concentrating on that. He'd been keeping the Market Square stand going. "Business was good," he says. Customers know he was usually sold out before 1:30. But as the neighborhood changed, he was having more and more trouble parking and unloading, and he found himself trying to set up his stand and umbrella in the midst of some special event he hadn't heard about. And then his right-hand man, Jimmy Gist, the fellow in the wheelchair who handled the money for him, had a heart attack. He's in rehab.

"It was just time to change gears," Dave says.

There's a demand. A recent study of per-capita hot-dog consumption, remarked upon a couple of weeks ago by the Chicago Business Journal, caught my attention. Chicago's very proud of its hot dogs, and at least one columnist assumed the City of the Big Shoulders (not to mention other body parts), deserved to be at the top of any hot-dog consumption list. To give them credit, Chicago ranked very high, #8 in America. Most cities aspiring to hot-dog distinction would be happy with that. For some Chicagoans, it was a slap in the face.

At the top spot was the small city of Bloomington, Ill., followed by Toledo and St. Louis. Champaigne was #5, making Illinois the hot-doggiest state in America, with three top entries. Six of America's top 10 hot-dog cities are in the Midwest.

On that same hot-dog roster, Knoxville is #4. Is that surprising?

The hot dog wasn't invented in Knoxville, but as I reported in this space a few years ago, the phrase "hot dog" might have been. According to a New York-based study, the phrase "hot dog" in reference to a sausage in a roll first appeared in the Knoxville Daily Journal in 1893. They were prepared by "wienerwurst men," street vendors who sold them on chilly evenings.

We didn't trademark it.

There's still at least one hot-dog place downtown. In Plaza Tower's food court, the Primetime New York Style Hot Dog Connection—the name's longer than the dogs—is a noble representative. Their chili's remarkable, with something beyond the usual spices, something I can't identify. The friendly fellow who runs it is cheerfully mum about the ingredients. He says a hot dog with chili, onions, and mustard is known in his business as "Tennessee style." He's been around and has never seen that combination favored more than here.

But all this news reminds me of something my home town lacks. A specialty, something the city's known for, something you wait in line for, and get it wrapped only in wax paper or aluminum foil or maybe last week's Metro Pulse.

I was in a cafe the other day when a newcomer came in and asked, "Do you have any sandwich that's especially good?"

"No, everything's pretty good," the waitress replied, accurately. It's a standard Knoxville restaurant motto.

Shouldn't we have just one thing that's really great?

It can be something simple, even humble. CBS aired a story about the national grilled-cheese craze. Los Angeles, New York, other cities have restaurants specializing in a sandwich we've served for a century, but never cherished. Now big-city restaurants are making them with fancy cheeses, fancy breads, and a variety of other options: arugula, mushrooms, pastrami. In L.A., people stand in line for a really astonishing grilled cheese.

In Knoxville, we think it's more important to be greeted at the door, preferably by someone pretty, then seated as another cheerful attendant offers drinks and a menu and waits on us. Every time I run out for a quick lunch downtown, I feel as if I'm taking myself on a date and trying very hard to impress me.

After all that pageantry, the food's often pretty good. It goes down easy, and usually stays down. But do we serve anything worth waiting in line for? Something that we'd say, "When you're in Knoxville, you just have to try a ___"?

There's the biscuit, of course, a poignant subject. Most Knoxvillians grew up with grandmother-made biscuits. We were for 130 years the home of the nation's finest biscuit-flour manufacturer, White Lily. We're next to Sevier County, the home of sawmill gravy, which has gained national popularity, mainly as a biscuit option. And now we're home of the International Biscuit Festival, since 2010 one of Knoxville's most popular festivals.

But how many local restaurants specialize in biscuits? I can't think of more than a couple. Hardee's, the fast-food chain, claims they make them every day from scratch. Does your favorite local restaurant?

I gather there's an assumption that Knoxville customers don't want good biscuits, they want cheap ones, cheap enough to add to a breakfast plate without extra charge, valued mainly as a gravy-delivery system. And maybe that's accurate.

But I like a good biscuit. They're not that hard to make. The recipe's on the White Lily bag.