secret_history (2005-37)

The Last New Idea

Is Knoxville a limiting concept?

by Jack Neely

There’s been a good deal of discussion this year of the idea that Knoxville should be content to be what it is: a simple, modest, scruffy sort of thing. People seem to bring that up with me a lot, presuming that I’ll agree.

Sometimes I do. But you can push an idea too far, I think. Especially when we begin applying draconian standards for Knoxville scruffiness. A few years ago, when outdoor cafe-style seating came into vogue, some didn’t like it one bit. I heard grumbling that it was a phony put-on, mere foreign foolishness. Where do these people think they are, Paris? This is Knoxville. We eat inside.

I’m not sure Paris has the copyright. Sidewalk seating wasn’t unusual here in the 19th century. I found that out when I researched a story about a meteor that appeared over Gay Street in 1860. It was after 10 at night, but dozens of people saw the thing, partly because they’d been sitting out in front of the tobacco shops and saloons whiling the night away. The fact that people over in Paris might have been doing something similar was not their concern.

I suspect Knoxvillians weren’t scared inside until the smoky industrial years of the late 19th century, when they started finding soot in their beer. There’s not nearly as much soot anymore, folks, so I think it’s safe to come back out, even if you’re accused of being unKnoxvillian.

That phenomenon applies to a whole lot of things, this strict definition of Knoxvillian. I remember a friend about 10 years ago who was quite sure that coffee houses were a short-lived fad. He declared espresso-based drinks would never catch on in Knoxville. Who do these folks think they are, bringing their highfalutin coffee here, he said, to the good ol’ J.F. of G.

He should have known that by 2005, we’d be getting lattes to go at the Weigel’s Farm Stores. I haven’t seen him lately.

Cities change, and fate plays the old shell game with cultural institutions. Things that once seemed the essence of a city pass away, to be replaced by new things that seem to a new generation to be the very essence of a city.

I’d prefer not to think of Knoxvillian as a limiting concept, and history is pretty dependable in proving that it’s not. Some things that seem new to Knoxville—horn-based jazz, public transportation, downtown lofts—are really old things once popular in Knoxville that have been gone or subdued so long no one remembers them as Knoxvillian.

And even if you find something that isn’t, so what. All great cities in history, I think, have added something new now and then, and I don’t know why Knoxville should be any different. I know I’m going to get angry e-mails for saying this, but Knoxville didn’t invent college football. It was once a weird new thing from up North.

I went through all that to soften you up for this idea. In the last 10 years we’ve heard about presidential museums and planetariums and wintergardens and baseball stadiums and glass domes and habitrails. This is one of the very few ideas I haven’t heard proposed for downtown.

A culinary institute.

I know what you’re thinking. But give it a chance. It’s an idea for Knoxville that especially appeals to UT architecture professor and pioneer downtowner Mark Schimmenti. Each year he assigns his class of fifth-year architecture students to consider a provocative proposal, and come up with plans for it. This year, he’s offering that idea, as a proposal for the empty space on the east side of Gay Street, near the end of Wall Avenue. Originally the site of the Union Bus Terminal, an arcade-style depot which was torn down decades ago, it’s the big gap where they’ve recently talked about putting the transit center, perhaps combined with something else.

“What else could bring more coolness to downtown than teaching people to be chefs?” says Schimmenti. He remarks on what the Johnson & Wales Culinary Institute has done for downtown Charlotte. Most of its 5,000 students live downtown, he says, and patronize downtown restaurants, which have come to cater to more discerning palates than ever before.

As a result, he hears, even the hamburgers at McDonald’s taste better.

Schimmenti’s architecture students seem excited about the idea, and have been researching culinary institutes, and Knoxville cuisine in particular, to see what they can learn.

It’s not that outlandish. We eat, don’t we? Knoxville does have an eccentric and arguably scruffy culinary tradition, of mets & beans, pigburgers, and the once-famous Full House. A trade journal noted not too long ago that Knoxville had more restaurants per capita than any American city after New York and San Francisco.

And there’s definitely a need for a good cooking school. A couple of generations ago, you could be pretty confident that by the time an East Tennessee woman was 20, she’d know how to make biscuits from scratch. Maybe we didn’t need a culinary institute back then. Our menu might have been limited, but at least we knew how to cook.

I’m not sure we do anymore. When Mrs. Paul’s called me a few years ago asking if I’d make a statement on the subject of why Knoxville consumed more fish sticks per capita than any other market in America, it occurred to me that maybe we could use some help in that regard. Maybe, in fact, we need a culinary institute more than most cities do.

Maybe we could get some emergency federal funding for it.

And that would be a good place for it, I think, a scant block from Market Square, which was long East Tennessee’s primary food market. Around 1900, the city was boasting that it was the biggest fresh-food market between the East Coast and New Orleans.

By the way, sort of, a few readers have noticed Knoxville references in the recent book The Devil and the White City , Erik Larson’s harrowing non-fiction novel about a serial killer and the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. In it, maverick landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who was then working on an unremembered Knoxville project about the same time as that exposition, is quoted as complaining, in Chicago, that the food in Knoxville was as good as the food there, but much cheaper.

We have a reputation to build on.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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