Knoxville Cuisine's Identity Crisis

Last week at the History Center, a roomful of food critics witnessed a live demonstration of a Union soldier's cast-iron crank-operated beaten-biscuit machine, as author John Egerton supervised. They sampled its results with some interest.

The group, afoot downtown for about three days, included some of the South's best-known food critics, from New Orleans to Chapel Hill, attending Knoxville's first-ever Southern Food Writing Conference. Several attendees have written popular books about Southern food; a few admitted that, until last week, they'd never even been to Knoxville.

The conference, part of the third International Biscuit Festival, which has earned national attention on its own, happened to coincide with the closure of Harry's Deli, after an apparently frustrating year as one of our most unusual restaurants. A rare foray into the farm-to-table movement, Harry's sold the most expensive deli sandwiches in Knoxville history, but connoisseurs of specialty beef believe they were also the best. No restaurant in town took more care with its food, most of it prepared there in the building.

All of this news stirs an old question: Can Knoxville ever be a city known for its cuisine?

Knoxville's generally proud of its restaurants, but they rarely get much attention outside the metro area. Well-traveled newcomers I've met are often disdainful, claiming they find only one or two that are passably interesting. I should say here, and quickly, that most local restaurants are fine with me. In any given year, I patronize 40 or 50 different Knoxville restaurants, and I rarely find much to complain about. Some are special favorites of mine. A few I think are comparable to restaurants in their genre in big cities.

But I rarely say, to first-time visitors, "You're not gonna believe this place!" Knoxville's restaurants, top to bottom, are all pretty believable. Give or take King Tut's.

In national and even Southern-regional culinary lit, Knoxville's hardly even an also-ran. In Southern-food guru John T. Edge's 2000 survey of the South's most interesting restaurants, Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South, for example, Knoxville makes only one brief appearance: as a source of lard for a restaurant in Greeneville.

It's often assumed that Knoxvillians are too cheap—or, more charitably, too poor—to support anything really special. I'm not sure that's it. Knoxvillians spend a whole lot of money on crap, anyway. From cable TV to designer vodka to our relatively high rate of gasoline consumption, we waste so much money it's obvious that, if motivated, Knoxvillians could keep a Michelin or Zagat's-quality restaurant in business.

It doesn't even have to be expensive. I've been to some really cheap places in other cities, local institutions that do things that distinguish them from all other restaurants. The Varsity in Atlanta and Ben's Chili Bowl in D.C. are both famous and cheaper than most of what I can find for lunch in downtown Knoxville. What Knoxville could use is a real institution, a restaurant unlike any other in the world—and one that didn't make you feel guilty for spending your children's money.

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Located in the center of a fertile valley with an unusual botanical diversity, and a whole lot of people living in it, Knoxville was long the market center of a major food region. For a century farmers would drive into Knoxville from rural Tennessee and at least five states to sell at Market Square, which subsequently had a reputation as a place where you could find Anything. And the people who worked on Market Square included German bakers, Swiss sausagemakers, kosher fishmongers, Irish saloonkeepers, and creative Greek cooks who competed to please their Mediterranean customers. Amongst them all were farmers from the hills, bringing their own traditions concerning ramps and ginseng and corn whiskey and hog parts.

If Knoxville still has no culinary tradition, after 220 years, it's a mystery almost so confounding it might seem to suggest a cover-up.

Today, on the rare occasions that people talk about "Knoxville Food," it's usually just a reference to humble American country food like cornbread and pinto beans and various battered-fried objects—stuff that hits the spot on occasion, but that's common from here to East Texas. It will never sing "Knoxville."

Granted, there are a few unusual odds and ends on the menus of old restaurants, most of them defunct. The pigburger, a pork and beef combination of which Dixson's Barbecue is a worthy surviving practitioner. A meal of mettwurst and white beans, once a staple in any number of restaurants, is practiced by the Goal Post Tavern (formerly Old College Inn). Knoxville's tamale tradition, which dates back to black pushcart vendors in the 1880s, resulted in the "full house." Knoxville's not the only city to ever dunk a tamale in a bowl of chili, but may be the only city to call it that. Happy Holler's Original Freeze-O and the Time Warp Tea Room still serve the full house, during the chilly months.

In his magisterial history, Southern Food, author Egerton traced the origin of the thick white sausagey goo known as sawmill gravy to Sevier County. Considered a regional oddity for decades, it has gone national.

But what do you do with all that? If you try to make a meal with a pigburger, a full house, a mettwurst, all smothered in sawmill gravy, you may just die right there at your plate. But you might not care much.

Maybe it's turning around, with the national buzz about Mr. Benton's Bacon and Mr. Cruze's Dairy and the popular biscuit festival itself. And last week, Blackberry Farm got a surprise listing in Huffington Post as one of America's Top 100 restaurants, the only Tennessee eatery to make the cut. If it's not exactly Knoxville, it's partly run by Knoxvillians, and closer than anything else we can claim, and a loyal purveyor of what we grow in the region.

And old Market Square, as a stage for the ever-livelier farmers' market, and as a setting for an ever-changing variety of restaurants—15, now—is more gastonomically interesting than it's been in several decades.