secret_history (2006-19)

Spring Cleaning

Random notes on politics, scary languages, daring nomenclature, and youth

by Jack Neely

After over two centuries without one, it’s fun to think we might have another Judge Andrew Jackson in Knox County. The last one was never a permanent resident, but Knoxville was on Young Hickory’s judicial circuit, and he did time presiding at the Knox County bench. Only later known as General Jackson, Senator Jackson, and President Jackson, he was just Judge Jackson the day in downtown Knoxville in 1803 that he challenged former Gov. John Sevier to a duel over that confounded adultery charge.

Democrats still celebrate Jackson Day like Republicans celebrate Lincoln Day. And for decades, the Tennessee delegation at the Democratic National Convention has offered its votes “From the great state of Tennessee, home of the founder of the Democratic Party, Andrew Jackson....”

And here in this strange century, Andrew Jackson is reincarnated by his namesake, Andrew Jackson VI, as a Republican. It may kick up some national news.

Some erstwhile supporters of the old, progressive Lamar Alexander, are finding it a sad thing to see him get sucked up into the solemn fuss about people singing the “Star Spangled Banner” in the wrong language.

Saturday I saw a Spanish translation crossed out on, of all things, a recycling bin.

I know of no time in Tennessee history when there was so much hostility toward a language—unless it was German, but then only briefly, during World War I, when some Knoxvillians changed their names to make them sound less Deutsch. Still, even then I don’t think there were any U.S. senators fretting that the Huns might be singing our national anthem in German.

People talk about it on the radio like it’s a scary new thing. But in 19th century Knoxville, many immigrants from non-Anglo countries lived here and contributed to society in important ways. Some learned to speak English pretty quickly; some never quite got the hang of it. Having tried, and failed, to achieve some degree of fluency in other languages, I suspect it’s a matter of youth and talent.

Anyway, if you had friends, you could get away without English then, even in Knoxville. It wasn’t easy, but there were lots of bilingual shopkeepers, and Lutheran and Swiss-protestant churches conducted all-German and all-French services for decades, catering to Knoxvillians who preferred their native language to English.

Some of these English-challenged foreigners turned out to be influential. Jorge Antonio Farragut, the Spaniard who left his family name on a community, served under the stars and stripes but spoke little English. Albert Milani, probably the most successful sculptor who ever lived in Knoxville, spoke English, but members of his Knoxville family spoke only Italian. Family members of prominent retailer Morris Bart spoke only Russian.

So settle down, I say. I’d be willing to bet that there are proportionally fewer non-English-speaking Knoxvillians today than there were a century ago. And we have more important things to fret about.

The Fire Street Lofts recently opened on Jackson Avenue between the Old City and Gay Street has my vote for boldest name for a high-end condo project. The name for the apartment building, converted from a century-old industrial building, came from the fact that the alley that runs alongside the building is identified as Fire Street in some very old maps. Using the name was the idea of architect Buzz Goss and developer David Dewhirst. Another developer might have called it Huffington Pointe and sold it to retirees and parents worried their daughter might have to spend her college career in a dorm. But they called it Fire Street Lofts, and may be drawing a different, maybe gutsier clientele. They raised the ante for chutzpah (a non-English word probably heard a lot in that neighborhood, a century ago) by repeating a flame logo in design features throughout the building.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a housewarming at the Fire Street Lofts—even the word housewarming might seem daring there—and learned the place is already booked up.

If you were listening to the cultish Boston-based automotive show “Car Talk” on public radio a couple of Saturdays ago, you might have been startled by a segue tune which opened with the line, “Headed outta Knoxville Sunday in a brand new car....” It’s about an aspiring country singer. She’s from Knoxville, she tried to make it in Nashville, but in the meantime she’s living in Coupe DeVille. Get it?

It’s new to me.

My teenage daughter is a big fan of Sundown in the City. Sometimes she likes the music all right, but what draws her is the same thing that keeps some grownups away: the crowd. It has become something like the high schooler’s equivalent of a weekly New Years’ Eve on Times Square. I don’t suffer any delusions that everything teenagers do there is entirely wholesome, but Sundown does give my daughter and her friends an otherwise rare chance to stay in touch with friends who attend other schools. In the city I grew up in, intermural mixing was discouraged, if not prohibited outright. And Sundown is apparently fun , a concept I heard about but rarely experienced much in the Knoxville of my youth.

She was talking about how cool Sundown was the other day and asked, “What did you do for fun when you were a teenager, Dad?”

I thought a minute. Well, I said, there was the usual school stuff, football games and awkward dances. Today people associate malls with teenagers, but back then West Town seemed more a ladies’ place than a teenagers’ place. It definitely wasn’t cool. I tried to think of anything that served the social function of Sundown, a place where you’d see people you knew, but in unpredictable assortments. 

“Well, back in my day,” I finally answered, “there were two different Pizza Huts on Kingston Pike. What we did was, we drove from one to the other.”

When youth is wasted on the young, it’s not always the young’s fault.

A few weeks ago I raised the question of whether grits was a late entry into Knoxville cuisine.

One reader suggested that grits may have been mentioned in the 1900 Knoxville Cookbook —which was, unfortunately, the last publication to bear that name.

It describes a strangely liberal mixture of French and American vernacular cuisine. I have a copy of my own, but hadn’t thought about checking it. I didn’t find any mention of a grits recipe in the index, nor was grits listed as an ingredient in the rather elaborate “Breakfast Menues” suggested in the book. One recommended dinner menu mentions “hominy croquettes,” but then offers no recipe for it. Perhaps it was grits-like. One recipe describes “corn timbales,” which included “grated corn.”

So, I still don’t know. I promised before I wouldn’t write about it again, and I’m serious this time. m