Pup’s Pit BBQ (112 Walker Springs Road) is a cultural barometer, social weather vane, and microcosmic bellwether for the soul of our nation. It also manages to be one of the best sources of barbecue in Knoxville.
Since setting up shop 18 months ago in a rickety shack on the edge of a raging Interstate 40 feeder road, Pup’s Pit has won a reputation for competition-standard fare among the city’s barbecue cognoscenti. No-nonsense classics are prepared with a disarming simplicity that borders on candor. Overall, the quality is perhaps just shy of the recently relocated M & M Catering but well ahead of Buddy’s. The meat is fresh and flavorful, the sides are varied and generous, and the prices are very low indeed. Yet the caterer’s breezy, artless provision of well-smoked, thoroughly tenderized pulled-pork sandwiches and the like can only prompt the thoughtful diner to ask why the place is so small, so primitive, and so isolated.
For the answer, we need only lift our eyes from our plates. If everything concrete in view were water, and every car a boat, this would be a stimulating yet calming lunch spot. Instead we are sitting in the middle of one of the most spiritually crushing landscapes imaginable. Nothing in view existed 40 years ago, yet almost everything here is now obsolete. Failing, flailing, and abandoned modernity stretches as far as the eye can see.
It’s not that Pup’s Pit is in the wrong location (although almost anywhere on Earth would be nicer). Rather, the problem runs much deeper. The derelict gas station, the used-car showroom, the parking lot, the boxy SUVs flinging themselves across the horizon in an endless, futile roar—all remind us that at the heart of America’s ugliness lies a single invention.
It was the car that killed America. The rise of the internal combustion engine could only result in the death of small, independent towns, fondly bound societies, and family businesses. What used to be self-sufficient, largely self-governing communities became replaceable, increasingly identical settlements that were anything but settled. (The car also managed to kill jazz, America’s classical music, by the way. Even with today’s technology it’s a strain to hear an acoustic double-bass on a car stereo, hence rock ’n’ roll, with basslines that not only are so dominant that one cannot miss them but so predictable one no longer needs to actually listen.) Towns now proved nothing more than commas in the lengthy sentences of the interstate, and a few handfuls of companies became the vast, silent bullies of an entire continent.
As anyone who’s been bullied knows, the first thing you lose in the presence of a tyrant is your imagination. Thus the corporation is able to offer, in stark contrast to its manifesto, not more choice but less. Is there any real difference between McDonald’s and Burger King? If there is, it’s the result of corporate failure, not success, and the variant will shortly be corrected.
We the people have limply allowed this to happen. At $3.95 for a pork sandwich and a single dollar for a hotdog, lunch at Pup’s Pit is cheaper than at the majority of the 20 chain fast-food restaurants located within a mile radius. It’s also much, much tastier, and is prepared by experienced, passionate master craftsmen who are proud of what they do and want you, as a fellow Knoxvillian, to feel the same way. Yet 95 percent of us, it seems, would rather eat a meal that has been prepared as quickly as possible by someone who in all probability hates their job in a transaction that benefits only a small group of multimillionaires we’ll never meet.
Having lunch is not just a necessary act, it’s a political act. It’s also an aesthetic act, and by adjusting their choices by just a few small degrees, people would find themselves not only happier and more satisfied but also members of a better-functioning, friendlier, and more unified community. And a more beautiful one.