secret_history (2006-10)

Metts & Grits

More observations about Knoxville’s elusive cuisine

by Jack Neely

My frustrations with newcomers’ simplistic assumptions about local cuisine elicited a lot of response, some from Knoxvillians who believe the newcomers are right. Some called or wrote with suggestions of where I could find “chicken-fried steak,” like the California pair were seeking, or a good “meat-and-three.” I got recommendations for restaurants ranging from Wright’s, on the west side, to Chandler’s, on the east side, both of which I know well.

To many, “Knoxville cuisine,” insofar as it exists, is essentially simple in character, consisting of old country-style food: cornbread, pintos,   greens and various breaded-and-fried objects. I’ve got nothing against all that. In my cupboard at home right now, I’ve got several cans of pinto beans and a box of corn meal, and some fresh collards in the refrigerator. If I find myself home alone this evening and I’ve got some leftover cornbread and a can of pintos and a chunk of onion and some hot sauce, I’ve got supper.

But I don’t see how those foods could ever be definitively Knoxvillian. It’s not the simplicity of those allegedly Knoxville dishes that leaves them lacking as a “local” dish, but their near-universality, not only throughout the South, but in parts of the rural North. That cuisine is pretty common among unpretentious people in about 1,000 other cities and towns between Norfolk and El Paso. If that’s “Knoxville food,” Knoxville itself is redundant.

In fact, old-style country cooking is often easier to find in some bigger cities like Memphis and Atlanta than it is here. I’m curious about the dishes that are distinctly Knoxvillian, that aren’t as easy to find elsewhere. Granted, there aren’t many, and what there is may have more to do with terminology than with actual recipes.

Google affords us an opportunity to gauge what phrases are associated with Knoxville on the Internet. Most worldwide references to the “Full House” as a tamale in chili, for example, have Knoxville connections. The exquisite Pigburger, after you cull out the websites that don’t refer to an actual entree, is strongly connected to Knoxville. You can buy a chicken-and-cheese sandwich on a bun with lettuce almost anywhere—but when you call it a “Rooster,” the Internet suggests, chances are you’re within an hour of Knoxville. Sawmill gravy is another dish that plausibly had Knoxville-area origins, but it’s become so popular elsewhere, it’s hard to prove its East Tennessee provenance on the Internet.

The most dramatically Knoxvillian dish of all is unchallenged: it is, of course, the venerable “metts and beans.” Of the 44 references to it worldwide that were listed on Google this past weekend, 41 are connected to the word Knoxville. Of course, some of them I wrote myself. But still.

It’s been around as long as anybody can remember. My guess is that mettwurst was introduced by the popular German butchers on Market Square about 120 years ago.

On that score, there’s some good news. A few metts and beans joints have closed in recent years, most lamentably the Glenwood Sandwich Shop, sacrificed to the interstate expansion. Mettwurst supplier Lay’s was rumored to have stopped carrying that sausage, causing another venerable metts and beans purveyor to cross it off their menu. However, the report from the front is that the mettwurst supply lines have reopened; Lay’s has mettwurst again, and Pete’s Coffee Shop downtown, which temporarily discontinued its Thursday special due to lack of supply, now has metts and beans on the menu again.

When I was in there the other day, Pete mentioned that he also serves a chicken-fried steak. Pete covers the bases.

The most provocative observation came from Ron Allen, antiquarian and culinary observer who has helped me on several stories over the years. Today, nearly every local breakfast diner worth its salt and pepper serves grits, usually as an option to hash browns. Some serve grits without your even asking for it.

However, here’s something odd. Allen says grits were wholly absent from his mid-century youth in Knoxville, and were not available in any restaurants he knew of. He thinks grits are a relatively recent import.

It seemed hard to believe. Grits with an egg over easy and some pepper and hot sauce has been my breakfast of choice for years. But Allen’s observation dislodged a suppressed memory.

I remember the first time I ever heard about grits. It was in Knoxville, sure enough. It was about 1965. I was in the family den. I was watching The Beverly Hillbillies .

As a kid, I felt an eerie kinship for the characters in the show, especially Jethro. He was the kind of adult I could relate to, the sort of adult I aspired to be. I wanted to believe that they were from around here. Jethro loved grits, which were always presented as iconically Southern. I thought of myself as iconically Southern, too, and asked my Mom for some.

Maybe she wasn’t able to find them right away, because I remember talking up grits with adults and friends, never having any idea what they were. And then, on a trip to Atlanta, trying them.

I had assumed there was more to the experience. It’s hard to be proud of a puddle of soggy corn parts.

Later Mom found a magazine recipe for grits casserole with garlic and cheese, and in that form grits became a personal favorite. I think what I mainly liked was the cheese and garlic.

My mother does think the old Highlands Grill on the town side of Bearden may have served grits, ca. 1950. That popular restaurant did a lot of business in the old Dixie Highway tourist trade.

You begin to wonder if Knoxville restaurants started carrying grits in part to satisfy the preconceptions of newcomers from up North—who, having gotten out of the car in Tennessee for the first time, want to try something Southern. Tourists innocently assume that Knoxville’s in the South, and being here, they want to try grits, which they’d heard about from Foghorn Leghorn or The Beverly Hillbillies . And they ask for grits so much, that some restaurants began to carry grits. And then we all got used to them. That’s my theory this week.

For the record, Pete’s serves grits, too. As well as biscuits and sawmill gravy. As I said, Pete covers the bases.