secret_history (2006-08)

Local Flavor

Who gets to decide what’s Knoxvillian?

by Jack Neely

At the Preservation Pub a few weeks ago I met a couple of young book merchants from San Francisco, here on business. They were looking for a good local place to eat dinner. I said there were lots of good local places right nearby. I mentioned a pizza place and a sushi place just around the corner and a couple of good Mexican places that weren’t too far.

No, they said, they wanted someplace local . They said it with emphasis. Those places are local, I said. They ain’t chains. No, no, the guys said, they wanted something local, “like chicken-fried steak.”

That one stumped me. I haven’t been around a chicken-fried steak in years. I’m not sure I’ve even seen one since the Carter administration, in some cafeteria, and it was probably an S&S.

But to these West Coast pilgrims, the chicken-fried steak was the very essence of Knoxville dining, and they didn’t want to leave town without trying it.

I don’t doubt there are some fine chicken-fried steak cooks in Knoxville. Not long after I saw those fellows I noticed chicken-fried steak as a lunch special at Macleod’s. But I’d always thought of it as mainly a Western, cattle-country dish. The concept of chicken-fried steak haunted me. Was it really Knoxvillian, and I didn’t know about it?

These days, there’s a crypto-scientific way to check for associations of a particular food with a particular place. I Googled it. I wasn’t too surprised that when you Google chicken-fried steak, the word Texas comes up attached to many of the references to it. I added the word Knoxville to the search phrase, though, and the references took a nosedive.  Less than one-half of one percent of Google’s references to chicken-fried steak have any even the most tangential connection to Knoxville. By contrast, Austin, Tex., has more than 30 times as many.

But I also learned that chicken-fried steak isn’t exactly an exotic here. It is indeed one of “Ed’s Favorites” at the Country Pride Restaurant on Lovell Road. The Knoxville Convention Center serves it as part of their “Southern Comfort” entree (only $26.45). And, most surprising of all, chicken-fried steak is sometimes the Wednesday special at Regas, Knoxville’s oldest restaurant. I hope those fellows found it.

But there’s no particular pattern of chicken-fried steak being more prevalent here than anywhere else. Compare that to metts and beans; of all the Google-listed references to “metts and beans” in the whole world, most are associated with Knoxville. Sadly so, because that mid-20th-century Knoxville favorite, which is becoming rarer by the month, recently dropped from some local diners’ menus because mettwurst suppliers are said to be getting scarce.

I’m not sure those Californians would have been content to go back to the West Coast with tales of metts and beans, anyway. I had the sneaking suspicion these adventurers didn’t want supper so much as something to jeer at, a story to tell about their week in the artery-clogging South. But what impressed me was their confidence that they knew what was “Knoxville” and even after 45 years here, I didn’t.

It might have seemed an anomalous goof, but the fact is something very similar had just happened. A friend of mine who writes for a big-city newspaper up north got clearance to do some color stories about Knoxville. She asked me to recommend a good, distinctively Knoxvillian restaurant that might also make for a good story. I mentioned Harold’s Kosher Deli, which was still in business at the time, and of course the Tomato Head.

There are a lot of good places to eat in town, but I figured Tomato Head was unusual enough to turn a reporter’s head. To me, it’s distinctively local. The Tomato Head is 16 years old—for a restaurant in this fickle city, that’s pretty long in the tooth. Some regulars don’t remember a Knoxville without a Tomato Head. It’s distinctive, with a menu and ambience unlike any other place I’ve been anywhere. And it’s on Market Square, Knoxville’s historic center of commerce and culture, now more than 150 years old. 

They don’t serve chicken-fried steak or metts and beans at Tomato Head, and the waitresses don’t always call you “honey,” but its basic story—a newcomer from abroad who has her own distinctive take on Italian or Mexican cuisine and makes of it a Knoxville institution—is a time-honored pattern here, going back at least a century, when the Greeks introduced us to Italian and Mexican cuisine.

By the way, some may remember that when it was opened, it was called The Flying Tomato, but the proprietor learned there was some hazard of legal action from a restaurant of the same name in another state. In all this poking around on the web, I found out there’s a pizza place in Chicago, a small chain founded in 1998, called the Tomato Head. They serve pizza, sandwiches, salads, and pasta, and have a very similar logo, with tomatoes for O’s. The real Tomato Head has quite a few lawyer friends; they may be interested in that information.

Anyway. To her credit, the local-color reporter seemed very interested in doing a piece about our real, original Tomato Head, and took the idea back to her editors.

They said no. They nixed Harold’s, too. They didn’t fit their image of what Knoxville was. They problem was, the editors up north had heard the phrase “meat and three” somewhere, and were pretty sure that must be the main thing going on in Knoxville. It was, in any case, what they decided Northeasterners wanted to hear about. (I don’t doubt the “meat” they had in mind was maybe chicken-fried steak.)

They insisted that she look harder, and find a meat-and-three lunch counter with a countrified menu. Sure enough, there are a few good meat-and-three places around here, and I think my friend ended up writing about one of them.

It’s a dilemma, isn’t it. If you don’t define yourself, somebody else is going to do it for you. In finding an elusive Knoxville identity to show the world, how important is it to suit outsiders’ stereotypes of what a “Southern” or “Appalachian” town is?

I don’t know. After all these years, I’m still not sure I know this place. But the next time I go to San Francisco, I’m not going to rest until I find me a big plate of Rice-a-Roni.