Buying local is not as easy as it was a couple of generations ago. As sprawl has consumed the farmland near the population centers, corporate agriculture has established complicated interstate networks. Regions specialize much more than they once did.
As a result of these consolidations and specializations, some products once abundant in the Knoxville area are now more scarce: home-grown poultry, for example, and pork. And though East Tennessee still does grow a significant number of beef cattle, chances are it will make at least one, perhaps two or three interstate trips to the Midwest or Texas before it returns to the grocery in the form of beef. It's difficult, and maybe meaningless, to insist on East Tennessee beef; by the time you spend it, your beef dollar already has several other loyalties.
However, the Knoxville consumer may have more local choices than most regions in America do. Even after all these years, Tennessee is still an agricultural state, with a diversity of crops. Stanley Trout, of the State Department of Agriculture in Nashville, estimates that 80 percent of Tennessee's vegetable harvest comes from east of Crossville, within a 100-mile radius of Knoxville.
Some, like Grainger County tomatoes, are justly famous. Others, like Jefferson County hot peppers and cantaloupes, aren't, though they're shipped out to the rest of the country by the semi-truck load. What else can you find on the supermarket shelves? You might be surprised.
November's not the best time of year to show off our abundant produce; most of it's out of season. The biggest drawback to buying local is facing a winter without fresh fruits and vegetables. Hardcore buy-local advocates stress the importance of eating seasonally. Take-no-prisoners localists eat seasonally even when it means doing without some of our favorite fruits and vegetables for part of the year.
However, there are some here and there, especially greens and apples, walnuts, pecans, sweet potatoes, and squash, that are still available in local produce markets.
We asked Connie Whitehead, a school nutritionist who also runs her own 22-acre farm in East Knox County, to make some suggestions. She uses the term foodshed to describe our food-supply region. Her interpretation is more liberal than some, taking in everything within a 300-mile radius of Knoxville.
"All people should have access to fresh food," she says.
"There's a big taste difference between an apple grown in North Carolina and one shipped here from across the country. There's no reason why we can't be getting most of our food locally."
Whitehead is a strong proponent of farmers' markets. There are, of course, several in town, from the beleaguered Knox County Farmer's Market near Knoxville Center, to Sherrill Perkins' modest setup on old Market Square; thanks in large part to Mr. Perkins, the Square has maintained its 150-year-old identity as a farmer's market without a break.
One of Whitehead's favorite stops is at Pratt's Country Store on Tazewell Pike in northeast Knoxville, which has one of the city's best selections of produce, as well as some local cured meats. This month, they're also selling homemade applesauce stack cakes, an ancient regional specialty.
The end of the growing season of Grainger County tomatoes is one of the melancholy realities of fall. But they don't completely disappear in the winter. Hothouse tomatoes—presumably from Grainger County hothouses—are available at Son Shine Produce on Sutherland and the West Knox Farmer's Market on Kingston Pike.
Of course, canned items don't care what time of year it is. Thanks to Mason jars, a good many locally grown-and-produced products, such as jams and jellies, sorghum molasses, chow-chow, and various other pickles and relishes are available year-round.
Whitehead is one of several experts we talked with who recommended the Knoxville Community Food Co-op. Located on Broadway about a mile north of downtown, this fragrant old building with dark wooden floors offers rare choices. Until one recently opened in Memphis, they were the only business of their kind in Tennessee. The Food Co-op is a not-for-profit grocery store, owned and operated by its 1,600 dues-paying members. They specialize in health foods, vegetarian fare and organic produce.
Like other groceries, most of what they sell comes from out of state, especially from organic specialty stores in California. However, they do have an interesting array of local food, much of which doesn't make it into either Kroger or farmer's markets: Milk from Cruze Farm, perhaps the only dairy that's more local than Mayfield's; free-range eggs from JP's poultry; pesto and hummus from the Tomato Head; soy milk from Maryville; bottled beer from the Highland Brewery in Asheville; bread from Hogan's and other area bakeries; blueberries from Hoot Owl Hollow in Anderson County; and a variety of produce from several local growers, including Tamsen Farms of Rogersville.
"Everything that's local is the very best stuff in here," says general manager Jacki Arthur. "There's no doubt about it. If we could buy everything from around here, we would."
They can't, at the moment. But as it happens, this week the Co-op is putting labels on food to identify it as local. Arthur also talks about the 300-mile-radius "foodshed," which would include tofu from the Farm, the hippie-era commune still at it in south-central Tennessee, but most of the products she lists as local come from much closer sources, within about a 100-mile radius. The Co-op is also going to sell local food for less, just because they decided it was the right thing to do.
Ask someone at the Knoxville Superchamber or the Department of Agriculture in Nashville about buying local, and they may come at it from another angle altogether. Advocates of organic produce aren't likely to praise Walmart or Food Lion, but Stanley Trout, of the state Department of Agriculture, does. He says they're both supporters of the TDA's current Pick Tennessee Products campaign. It's a slick promotion fronted by the state's own Martha Stewart—UT's Tammy Algood, a food professional who promotes her recipes that call for Tennessee products. They're not all from the Knoxville area, of course, but many are.
"East Tennessee has a large advantage logistically," Trout says, and offers an example. East Tennessee, it turns out, has a ripening pepper industry. Most of the nation's peppers are grown out west, from California to Texas, but much of the market for them is in the Northeast. "Peppers from Tennessee arrive fresher, quicker, and you save all that freight cost."
Trout calls cottony West Tennessee the "biggest-dollar" agriculture in the state, and Middle Tennessee grows the most beef cattle. But East Tennessee's abundance of vegetables—and a work force cured by labor-intensive tobacco cultivation—give it the edge as a well-balanced producer of food.
"People in the East Tennessee area are used to things that require hand labor" like produce, Trout says. As a result, East Tennessee may be the most self-sustainable third of the state. Unlike some other advocates of the organic and the homegrown, the TDA also pushes the state's considerable trade in processed foods.
And several Knoxville-area food products, in packages with labels even, do arrive on supermarket shelves. Some are pretty obvious, of course: because bread doesn't travel well, most cities have a bakery or two, and Knoxville has Kern's and Merita and, more recently, the smaller specialty-bread operation, Hogan's. Because milk doesn't travel well, most cities also have dairies, and the Knoxville area has Mayfield (based in McMinn County); Weigel's milk, which is purchased from local farmers and processed at their plant in Powell; and smaller companies like Purity and Cruze's.
Perhaps the most nationally recognizable Knoxville food product is Bush Brothers, the canned-bean corporation headquartered in West Knoxville since 1992, which operates large canning facilities east of town, in Jefferson and Cocke Counties. However, most of the actual beans are grown in other states around the nation. Though the operation may seem to have little to do with the region's agricultural sustainability, Bush is a corporate booster of local projects, and choosing Bush beans supports the local economy.
That phenomenon holds for several other local processing businesses. One neighborhood of hardly a dozen square blocks in the northeast corner of downtown accounts for some of Knoxville's best-known food manufacturers: White Lily Flour, an internationally renowned product manufactured here for more than 100 years; JFG coffee, popular across the Southeast, which also produces peanut butter and mayonnaise; Lay's Meats; Harrison's Chicken City; and McKenry's Produce.
Together, these downtown food suppliers employ at least 500.
McKenry's employs about 40 in their facility just east of the Old City. They've been here in the same neighborhood for 104 years now, but lately they've been buying their chicken from farms mainly in the Deep South.
"There's no such thing as a local chicken," declares 81-year-old Joe McKenry, who runs the operation. "In 1968 we gave up buying locally. There just weren't any more."
Today, eight trucks loaded with chicken leave McKenry's plant every day, covering a 50-mile radius of Knoxville, but they're no longer bound for grocery stores. It's tough to patronize McKenry's on purpose, because they sell their chicken mainly to restaurants. He won't mention any of his regular clients, just to keep from offending those he doesn't mention. They don't advertise, but if you drop by their place and need some chicken, they'll sell it to you.
Lay's Meats—no relation to Frito-Lay, the snack-food corporation which, incidentally, has recently built a rather large distribution facility here—is about as local as you can get these days, as far as meat goes. However, like McKenry, they're not an outlet for local farmers. Lay's closed their slaughterhouse years ago, and today processes raw pork that's shipped in mainly from the Carolinas. At their East Jackson Ave. facility, where they employ 150, their butchers prepare hams, ribs, bacon, and other cuts for the consumer.
Lay's, which has its own no-frills customer-service store on East Jackson, just west of the Old City, ships to most of the major groceries in the area. Their specialty is hickory-smoked barbecue.
It's hard to ignore one interesting irony. If you buy some "down-home style" food—country ham, fried chicken, mashed potatoes—chances are pretty good that much of it originated outside of the East Tennessee region. Even if you go to a fresh-produce market and ask for some taters, they may well point to a heap of them just in from Idaho.
The freshest stuff you're likely to find around here—that is, the food that wasn't at least partly produced out of state—is not necessarily the sort of thing that you think of when you think of Tennessee. When the field hands hollered "What's for dinner?" Grandpa Jones never said much about sharp cheddar cheese, hot peppers, cantaloupes, mushrooms, habanero sauce, India pale ale, or muscadine wine. If you sell this sort of thing in a restaurant advertised as Down Home Kookin,' the Yankees will complain. Throw in Grainger County tomatoes, some White Lily flour, and you'll find that our gross regional product is dangerously close to the sort of food categorized as gourmet.
The spiciest local product is Big S hot sauces. Started not quite three years ago by Wes Snyder and his partners, Big S is the biggest habanero producer in Tennessee. The headquarters is on Clinch Ave., but the Big S farms are in Cocke County, near Parrotsville, where they develop the mash for their distinctive brands: Tennessee Thunder, Tennessee Mountain Green, and Tennessee Lightning.
This past season, the Cocke County farms produced 54,000 lbs. of mash, which can render the equivalent of 800,000 12-bottle cases of hot sauce. It's grown locally, processed locally, and marketed locally; but in between, the hot sauce has to be bottled by an FDA-approved bottler, which we don't have. So it's shipped to James Island, S.C., for that step.
Big S also makes salsa, and putting the salsa in jars is a simpler process that's sometimes done locally. It's making some headway, but the hot sauce is what seems to be catching on.
Snyder says he has 50 East Tennessee accounts, and about 100 out of state. It seems to be catching on in the Northwest, and there's one restaurant in New York's Greenwich Village—the Tennessee Mountain Restaurant, naturally—that keeps Big S sauce on the tables.
Here, Big S is the house hot sauce at the Tomato Head and some other local restaurants.
Snyder will volunteer a lot about his business, but when you ask him the obvious question, he won't answer it. "There's a story behind that," he says of what the Big S stands for. "I don't know if I ought to let you know about that or not. It's a well-guarded secret. Just as guarded as our recipes. Someday, maybe, we'll let people guess it."
Snyder will only allow that it's not for his last name, or for anything having to do with salsa or sauce. "We're more than hot sauce and salsa," he says. He's hoping someday to establish a retail outlet for Tennessee products, perhaps with a restaurant and brewpub attached.
"We're trying to make East Tennessee a genuine food mecca," he says.
Snyder has hopes of helping revive home-bottled beer in the Knoxville area, and he's not the only one. A year ago, a story like this wouldn't have been complete without a mention of the only food product that bore the city's name proudly on the label: New Knoxville Brewing Company. After a five-year run, they closed up shop early this year. Full bottles of their IPA are increasingly rare, rumored to be traded on the black market.
But for those who don't mind doing their beer drinking right out in public, there are several other local options. A couple of local brewpubs like Calhoun's and Hopps make beer for in-restaurant consumption.
Sevier County's home to Swaggerty Sausage, but it's also home to the Knoxville area's only wholesale brewery.
Ron Downer, brewmaster of Rocky River Brewing Co., first heated up his kettles in 1998 and brewed 1,200 barrels of beer this year. Downer says Rocky River is now the only brewery in Tennessee with a wholesale distributor's license.
Though Rocky River's home-brewed specialties aren't available in bottled form, Downer's ales and lagers have established a beachhead in several Knoxville eateries, including Barley's, MacLeod's, the Sunspot, and the Texas Roadhouse, which all have multiple Rocky River taps.
Downer says his Ten-Point Ale, a light, German-style kolsch is the best-seller at his Sevierville restaurant. However, at his 20 other accounts, the favorites are the heartier Copperhead Red and Mad Wolf IPA. Even the stronger, more eccentric Hefeweizen seems to be getting a good deal of local attention.
As a local producer of fermented beverages, Rocky River joins Tennessee Valley Wineries, located on the opposite side of Knoxville, in Loudon County. They've been making a variety of wines from local vineyards since 1984; some have won awards.
No one's predicting it except the ever-dwindling Taliban, but if the U.S. were to lapse into anarchy, the best place to weather the crisis might be the green rolling hills of Loudon County, which produces a wide variety of food products, from the fresh to the processed. Not only do they have their own wine, but lately they've been producing their own cheese to go with it.
Sweetwater Valley Cheddar is more expensive than Kraft and a whole lot fresher. They make 25 varieties of cheddar, over 100,000 pounds of it each year. All of it's made from milk produced by their own cows. It seems to be available in several Knoxville supermarkets, as well as the Fresh Market and Pratt's.
It turns out that Loudon is also home to what may be the biggest mushroom producer in the Southeast, outside of Florida, at least: Monterrey Mushrooms. Established in the 1970s, they now employ 430 and produce half a million pounds of mushrooms each week. They're the white button variety, all of it grown on the premises for regional consumption, though their "region" extends to the Gulf Coast.
"We feel like the consumer really does like to support the economy, plus you're just gonna get a fresher product that way," says representative Dick Rodgers; he says Monterrey Mushrooms should be available in all major Knoxville groceries.
Cheese, wine, mushrooms, and various produce: throw some Lenoir City-based Wampler's Sausage into the skillet, and you've got most of the basic food groups covered right there in Loudon County.
That's not the end of it, surely. There are local food sources yet undiscovered by most of us. Local fish seemed elusive to some food experts we spoke with, but Chef Bruce Bogartz, who runs the Homberg Place restaurant that bears his name and is famously devoted to regional cuisine, buys from the River Bend Trout Farm in Robbinsville, N.C. He has also located a real East Tennessee caviar, obligingly supplied by paddlefish to a Chattanooga distributor.
Suburban sprawl may have rendered Knox County less agriculturally productive than ever before; but as a region, we appear to be better off than many metropolitan areas in the country. We still have choices, and if we keep them fertilized, they'll grow.