Knoxville's Place in Hot-Dog History; The Apparent Origin of the Knoxville Tamale

You know it's springtime when you see Dave the hot-dog vendor on Market Square. Hot dogs are outdoor food, at least the way Dave makes them, and there's not much market for outdoor food when the weather's not on speaking terms with perfect. He and Jimmy, his faithful companion who handles the cash, stay busy until they run out. They've usually got a line.

I knew hot dogs went way back in my home town, but a surprise encountered by reader Michael Cartwright suggests Knoxville may play a role in early hot-dog history. According to one well-known source, the first documented reference to a "hot dog," by that particular phrase, anyway, was in Knoxville.

Okay, that source is Wikipedia, that unholy amalgamation of rumor, braggadocio, solid research, bitter revenge, and planted inside jokes by clever scholarly pranksters. Some of its entries on historical subjects, especially the more obscure ones, are pretty bizarre. Wikipedia is not a source in itself, but I have learned to rely on it as a source for sources.

The origin of hot dogs is variously ascribed to Coney Island, New York's Polo Grounds, and to at least two world's fairs, the one in Chicago in 1893 and the one in St. Louis in 1904. But Wikipedia cites a 2004 monograph by New York pop etymologist Barry Popik, who has never found a clear reference to a sausage as a "hot dog" before a line in the Knoxville Daily Journal in 1893. Small sausages had sometimes been called "dogs" for a few years before that, but never "hot dogs."

No harbinger of spring a century or more ago, hot dogs seem to have signalled approaching winter, probably because, being hot, they were considered an antidote to the cold. The key line appears in a tiny two-sentence squib on page five of a Thursday paper in late September. Headed "The[y] Wore Overcoats," it was just filler—so to speak. But it goes "It was so cool last night that the appearance of overcoats was common, and stoves and grates were again brought into comfortable use. Even the wienerwurst men began preparing to get the ‘hot dogs' ready for sale Saturday night."

There were quite a few sausagemakers—"wienerwurst men"—in this town with a large German-immigrant population. Most of them were concentrated in the vicinity of Market Square.

That's some more relish for Knoxville's cultural bun.

Meanwhile, as some may recall, I've long been trying to nail down the origin of another oblong fast food, the Knoxville tamale. I puzzled about it even as a kid, that in this part of the country where everything's supposed to be Scots-Irish homespun, tamales have been as well known as biscuits and gravy, a staple in some families, and a fond memory of East Tennessee childhoods long before mine. In the '90s, an elderly farmer on Market Square still sold his unusual tamales. He told me that his aunt made them, and she had learned how when she was a little girl.

I found stray tamales in old photographs: the Conservation Exposition of 1913 featured a tamale concession. The Knoxville City Directory lists "tamale manufacturers" by 1909, and in a crime story I ran across one incidental reference to late-night tamale vendors in the streets in 1903. But I never figured out where they came from, or who introduced them. I've asked our leading tamale purveyors, like Clara, of Mary's Tamales on Magnolia, where I enjoyed a fine luncheon last month. Tamale cooks are better at providing fine tamales than local tamale history.

Bob Davis may have stumbled across my holy grail. A pilot who's best known as an aviation historian, he found it in a 1917 obituary of an influential man who died at his East Knoxville home, of a stroke at age 55.

The revelation comes in an issue of the Knoxville Journal & Tribune, under the heading, "Harry Royston, Hot Tamale Vender, Dies / Well Known Negro, Introduced Mexican Dish in Knoxville Thirty Years Ago."

It tells the story of a very popular guy. "The death of Royston removes one of the most conspicuous negro [sic] characters in Knoxville. Thirty years ago he came to Knoxville and introduced ‘hot tamales,' the famous Mexican dish, composed of mashed maize and minced meats, and in connection with this exclusively novel business he also sold ‘wienerwursts,' toy balloons and other novelties. He also introduced ‘hokey pokey ice cream.' He was popular with the little folks and on every parade day Harry would supply the toy balloons to the juveniles.

"For many years he conducted the ‘tamale' business and spent much of his earnings giving his children educational advantages.... Harry had numbers of men employed to visit all parts of Knoxville every night selling his famous ‘tamales' and the loud voice of the vendor always announced that ‘they're hot, red hot, they're Harry's.' This announcement has pealed out in the later hours of night for the past 30 years."

So the Knoxville tamale appeared in or about 1887. It's still a mystery where Royston came up with his inspiration. He was said to be from Greeneville. He started with a cart, and is listed as a "peddler" for several years. But from about 1907 until his death, he ran a proper tamale restaurant at the corner of Willow and Patton. Today, it's a corner of concrete rubble, a couple of blocks east of the Old City, a part of town we've abandoned to highway blight. He lived just around the corner on New Street, where he died.

Back to our first subject, the Knoxville hot dog vendors of 1893, it may be important to note that the German butchers of Market Square weren't the only "wienerwurst men." Royston sold wienerwurst, too, as his obituary makes clear, and his characteristic chant proves he was fond of the adjective "hot." Could the original American hot dog have come from Royston's already historic tamale cart?