secret_history (2006-12)

True Grits

One last column about our elusive associations with a Southern culinary cliché

by Jack Neely

Here’s one way to find out how many people are reading. Write something about any sort of food. Especially food in the past. Especially grits.

In the last couple of years, I’ve written about a lot of things besides grits. I’ve turned up what I thought were some pretty startling revelations about Irish revolutionaries hiding out here, Vietnamese presidents staying in Gay Street hotel suites with the generals who later overthrew them, that the admiral accused of being unprepared for the Pearl Harbor attack spent much of his postwar career living in Knoxville, working on drainage issues. A while back I wrote about what I’d learned about the Knoxville Metaphysical Library, which existed corporeally downtown in the 1940s and early ’50s.

Based on reader response, I’m finding out that people don’t care so much about that stuff. What people like to talk about is food.

I’m thinking about turning this into a food column.

A couple of weeks ago, in response to a reader’s remark that his youth in Knoxville never included the peculiar corn-based dish known as grits, and my own memory of learning about grits first from The Beverly Hillbillies , I posited that maybe grits was a late entry into Knoxville cuisine.

And I went a little past that, with a further postulate: that grits might have gained entry to the Knoxville foodstream by way of restaurateurs who were actually catering to Yankee tourists who demanded a taste of the South they’d heard about.

It makes sort of a weird sense. When I’m in Pennsylvania, I always ask for some scrapple, which embarrasses my Pennsylvanian friends. That fried pork-fragment dish isn’t known much outside of the Keystone State, and isn’t necessarily highly regarded there. I don’t like it much—but where else are you going to get the chance?

Anyway, I need to at least recalibrate my grits theory; several readers do remember Knoxville restaurants that served grits before 1962, when The Beverly Hillbillies first aired.

One of them, surprisingly, was Regas. Knoxville’s oldest restaurant eventually became the standard for dark-room, coat-and-tie dining, but was a more modest establishment in 1948, when Wanda Huttner was a cashier there. “Believe me, they served grits,” she says. But she admits she doesn’t care for them personally.

Some think the Andrew Johnson Hotel’s restaurant served grits.

The earliest memory I got secondhand via a young woman, Christian Rue-Mason, who was inspired to do some research into the subject. She says some in her family never ate grits at all, but others did.

She says her grandmother, from Benton, Tenn., near Chattanooga, “didn’t know how to serve breakfast without them,” and served grits when she ran the KBC Cafe on Knoxville’s Church Avenue in the ’50s. She says her grandfather, Jack Williams, Sr., is certain the H&H Service Center, a roadside attraction in Dixie Lee Junction in which he was involved, served grits as early as 1943. “Though they didn’t eat them at home,” she says, “they served them to many a traveler.”

That’s the earliest Knox County restaurant grits sighting I have heard about. I’m not saying it’s the oldest. And it’s certainly possible that grits were here all along. Joe Rector, whose mother grew up in prewar Newport and later lived in rural Knox County, was a lifelong grits aficionado, both in as an essential breakfast side dish and the main ingredient for a dinner casserole.

Others readers agreed, though, that grits was never part of their diet in mid-20th-century Knoxville. I still suspect that that grits is more common in Knoxville restaurants today than it was 40 or 50 years ago. But it’s hard to make blanket statements, especially when you’re trying to prove a negative. Knoxvillians have always been from all over; many of them are from other parts of the rural South. If Knoxville were ever a grits-free zone, it couldn’t have stayed that way for long.

One thing is interesting, especially in light of Mr. Williams’ memories of serving grits to travelers, but not actually eating them. All the restaurants mentioned as serving grits long ago were roughly along the old Dixie Lee Highway, one of the main routes from the Upper Midwest to Florida, which made a backwards-L-shaped loop through central Knoxville. All of them probably had a significant trade with Northern tourists.

In other food news, I have written before that tamales have a long and distinguished career in Knoxville cuisine—about the two tamale factories that competed in East Knoxville before World War I—and of the allegedly Knoxvillian dish of chili and tamales, the Full House.

I was proud to see that my friend Clara, this past weekend—that’s the Clara of Mary’s Tamales on Magnolia—had provided a trunkload of vegetarian tamales for the Great American Meat Out on Market Square. There I had my first vegetarian Full House.

Honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference. I think Clara’s up to something.

And I understand that Big Fatty’s, the relatively new bistro in Bearden, serves some Knoxville specialties, including metts and beans. Some people are calling that place the spiritual successor to Harold’s. These are people who used to be diehard downtowners. I’m told the Saturday-morning breakfast there attracts customers who, five years ago, were used to being the only people downtown on a Saturday morning. Maybe they like it that way. Maybe downtown’s getting too crowded these days.