The Tamale King: A Mexican Dish Makes an Unlikely Return to Its Street-Vendor Origins

Of all the vendors participating in the busy Market Square Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the one most likely to sell out of everything they brought, before the official closing of the market at 2 p.m., are the guys who run the tamale cart. Good Golly Tamale is not yet a year old, but their business has already developed tamale habits. They sell them about as fast as they can make them. Lately they’ve been selling 500-600 tamales a week, all of them hand-rolled in corn shucks and steamed to perfection in their tiny tamale kitchen in the Old City. 

These aren’t necessarily your grandmother’s tamales. One variety is called Thai chicken, a spicy one. One’s a queso poblano, with roasted peppers and farmer’s cheese. One’s beef and sausage, the closest they come to the traditional tamale. Their most popular, a bit of a surprise to them, is the vegan, which combines black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, and collards, sort of a soul-food tamale. There’s a breakfast tamale of eggs and green onion and a barbecue tamale with pulled pork. They’ve experimented with a couple of others, like a butternut-squash tamale with maple-glazed pecans, and a Thanksgiving tamale, with turkey and cranberries and some sage in the masa, but they figure six distinctly different varieties of tamales at a time is plenty choice for most folks. 

At this point they’ve made and sold close to 20,000 tamales.  

“It amazes me,” says Bekki Vaden, one of the main cooks, as she uses an ice-cream scoop to measure out some moist masa, the beginnings of one more. “People always ask, ‘Y’all make these yourself?’”

Tamales show up in nearly every culinary nook and cranny to a degree that always surprises newcomers. For years, about once a month, downtown’s oldest restaurant, the Bistro at the Bijou, has featured a hot tamales-and-chili special. Just recently, Holly’s Corner, run by culinary artist Holly Hambright, offers a Tamale Tuesday. For several years, Chez Guevara offered its own version of the “full house”—an ancient specialty that seems to exist by that name in Knoxville and nowhere else—not with individual tamales but with chili layered over spicy masa. 

The West Knox favorite Horn of Plenty is no Mexican restaurant, more of a mom-and-pop chicken-and-dumplins comfort-food place. But they sell tamales by the dozen, old-fashioned ones of beef or pork, corn flour, and spices. In fall and winter, high tamale season, they sell close to 600 a month, both in-house and takeout. Originally from Memphis, the Tragesser family ran a barbecue place in Germantown before moving here in 2000. In Memphis, tamales and barbecue make a natural pair, and they learned there was a healthy respect for tamales in East Tennessee. For several years, they bought their tamales from a Morristown supplier who recently died, forcing them to learn how to make them themselves, in both ground-beef and pork varieties. Mike Tragesser, who makes them, says he’s happy with the result. He favors the pork but says they sell more beef. 

Since it opened 12 years ago, the Happy Holler institution Time Warp Tea Room has had a short food menu, but it includes chili and tamales. When served together, as every longtime Knoxvillian knows, it’s called a full house. Dan Moriarty, who grew up nearby and says his Irish-Catholic mother always made tamales, made them a priority in his business. Their tamales are made out of house by a local specialist. 

Cloer to the cultural source, perhaps, is the taco truck known as Taqueria el Jalapeno, which regularly parks in Bearden. Most taco trucks don’t bother with tamales, which are much more complicated than tacos, but Gabriela Ramirez makes them her specialty. Originally from the Mexican state of Chiapas, Ramirez usually offers a choice of perfectly spicy pork or chicken varieties, but she will accept orders in advance for a vegetarian version that’s especially fine. She caters, too. 

Several area churches have offered tamale dinner fund-raisers for decades. Sometimes you see signs, in certain residential neighborhoods, perhaps on a piece of cardboard nailed to a tree: “Tamales $1.” Some area farm families have made tamales at home for generations, and if you ask them about it, they find nothing peculiar or exotic or particularly interesting about that fact. 

Knoxville’s tamale tradition is not a quick study. Tamales have been common here for well over a century. In fact, tamales were a local specialty in Knoxville at least 80 years before the city’s first-known Mexican restaurant. 

Tamales made their way into Norte Americano cuisine generations before tacos or burritos. Your grandparents probably grew up joking, “Chili today, hot tamale.” The fascinating and addictive Google search option Ngram proves that the word “tamale” was by far the most commonly cited Mexican food in the English-speaking world before about 1970, when tacos first came to the fore. 

Tamales, and the English singular, tamale, entered the English-language lexicon rather suddenly in the 1870s, and the word was especially common by the 1940s, when most Americans couldn’t guess what a taco or a burrito was. But that’s surprising, because tamales aren’t that simple to make. 

So some of the tamale paradox is a national story. But Knoxville’s experience comes with a few twists. 

We may prefer to rave about the fine food in one restaurant or another, nouvelle this or fusion that or down-home something else, but to food writers, Knoxville’s culinary distinctions are disproportionately in the tamale world. 

The only reason Knoxville is mentioned in the late John Egerton’s magisterially comprehensive culinary tome Southern Food was a restaurateur/street vendor named Charlie Green, who made wonderful tamales. More recently, culinary editor Fred Sauceman referenced Mary’s Tamales in a food blog. 

The women who ran Mary’s Tamales on Magnolia Avenue were from Northern Mississippi and knew Charlie Green, who shared his recipe with them when he retired.  

Greenville, Miss., is especially famous for tamales, a fact that always astonishes newcomers. There they have become an essential feature of local soul food, commonly served in Northern Mississippi barbecues. Over the years, culinary speculation tends toward the theory that, despite the 500-mile distance, Knoxville’s tamale tradition came from Greenville. And in recent decades, some of Knoxville’s best-known tamale makers were indeed from Greenville directly. 

So we can trace about three successful tamale makers who moved from Greenville to Knoxville in the last 50 years, and conclude that’s that. But there’s much more to it. 

Asking whether there’s a distinctive Knoxville tamale is a good way to start a fight. To some, the term “old-fashioned tamales” means one thing—the fairly mild, elegantly slender things, usually made with ground beef and wrapped in tamale paper. To others, the definitive old-time Knoxville tamale was the thick bundle stuffed with a dark beef-sausage combination and tied with twine. The latter was last seen in the kitchen of Theondrad Jackson, the Sarge of Sarge’s barbecue joint on Western Avenue. Sarge’s closed in 2001, but Jackson kept making tamales to order out of his Lonsdale home until his death about four years ago. Some old-timers have told us that only Sarge’s tamales were very much like the tamales sold in pushcarts in Knoxville before World War II. 

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In Hodding Carter IV’s recent gee-whiz feature in Smithsonian, “How the Hot Tamale Conquered the American South,” the writer refers to the prevailing theory that North Mississippi tamales “likely arrived with Mexican workers in the early 1900s and then stayed for good as a cherished late-afternoon treat.” 

Maybe so. Other writers have come to the same conclusion concerning the evolution of the Delta tamale. But a century ago, tamales were common here, too. Knoxville, 1,200 miles from the Rio Grande, had little association with Mexican workers. In newspapers and city directories across Knoxville’s first couple of centuries, Latino names are not unknown, but rare. 

Besides, if Greenville didn’t get tamales until the early 1900s, Knoxville was already there. 

Everyone jumps to the conclusion that ancient tamales imply ancient Mexicans, but that may be a faulty assumption. Italian opera, Chinese porcelain, and French champagne all existed in Knoxville in the 19th century without a major influx of the ethnic groups we associate with them. The man who by all accounts introduced tamales to Knoxville was a black man who was born in East Tennessee.

It’s usually hard to pin down the origin of a food tradition, but in this case all trails lead to one unusual entrepreneur named Harry Royston. Historian-aviator Bob Davis helped us nail down a few previously elusive facts about the man. 

Born in Jonesborough around 1861, Royston grew up in Greeneville, Tenn., but he soon became very well traveled. As a teenager in the 1870s, he ran away with the circus—John Robinson’s Circus, which had Deep South origins but often set up a tent in Knoxville, as well as in many larger and smaller towns. Royston was in charge of concessions.

Whether the circus introduced him to tamales or vice versa, the durable, portable delicacy worked well with a big traveling show that depended on drawing crowds of strangers. Robinson’s Circus was known for its herds of camels and elephants and a clown who declaimed Shakespeare. By circus standards, tamales were just exotic enough. 

Royston was still traveling with the circus during its summer tours when he settled in Knoxville as a young man. According to one contemporary newspaper account, he introduced his tamales to Knoxville around 1887. 

It was when he came home from his annual circus jaunts—it was usually right around Sept. 1—that Knoxvillians started thinking about hot tamales. Royston sold them in the black community of Cripple Creek, just east of the modern Old City. But the white community knew him best for the many evenings when he set up his elaborate custom-designed cart on the sidewalk near Staub’s Theater, just as the vaudeville season was starting back up. By the turn of the century, Harry’s tamales were a Knoxville institution. 

“The voice sounded musical,” recalled newspaper columnist Charles Patton years later. “Hot tamales, Hot, Hot. Red Hot! Get ’em while they’re steaming.” Another reporter recalled that he’d chant, “They’re hot, red hot, they’re Harry’s!”

Knoxvillians were fascinated with “the famous Mexican dish of mashed maize and minced meats.” When Knoxvillians bought a tamale in the evening, before or after a theater performance, they called it a “night lunch.” Generally available for about two cents, tamales were the most democratic of foods. 

Royston also sold hot dogs and was sometimes listed as a “wienerwurst vendor.” It’s just possible that the first time wienerwurst was called a “hot dog” was when it was sold from Harry’s cart. A New York etymologist has traced the term to a random newspaper reference in Knoxville in 1891. Royston also sold chili con carne, raising the question of whether it was Royston himself who originated the full house—basically a tamale dunked in chili, perhaps with crackers and chopped onions. 

Royston eventually quit the circus, staying in Knoxville year-round. In the summer, he didn’t sell many tamales. There was more demand for his “Hokey-Pokey Ice Cream.” (Whether it was actually a brand or not, Hokey-Pokey was a term used generically in New York and elsewhere as a term for ice cream sold by street vendors.) Royston also sold toy balloons and other novelties for children. At his height, about a century ago, Royston employed a squadron of assistants, all dressed in white jackets, who fanned out across the city, selling Harry’s distinctive treats from a special insulated cart with multiple shelves. He had designed the carts himself, with the help of the Post Wagon Company. (A descendant of that company still does business on Sutherland Avenue as Post Trailer Repair.) 

Royston was best known for tamales, and even in his time, the mainstream press recognized Royston as the “Tamale King.” He was on the front edge of a national phenomenon. Tamale fever spread, becoming known as street food in several Southern cities, including Atlanta. We know they were highlighted in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair at the Mexican Pavilion.

Although Royston was once said to have had a “monopoly” on Knoxville tamales, several others got in the game in the early 1900s. 

It seemed to be becoming such a standard thing that, by 1909, the Knoxville City Directory, which didn’t often single out particular dishes in its headings, listed a new category: “Tamale Manufacturers.” Of the first two listed, neither was Royston. Both proprietors were black men, Lewis Forney and Albert Coe. Forney’s business was located at 318 E. Jackson Ave., near what’s now the Old City’s free-parking area. But by 1911, Royston’s officially listed among the “Tamale Manufacturers,” too. His business was at 509 Willow, around the corner from Forney’s. For decades, that area just east of the modern Old City formed a sort of Tamale District, with multiple practitioners of the craft. 

During Knoxville’s huge National Conservation Exposition of 1913, the Negro Pavilion at Chilhowee Park offered hot tamales. 

By 1915 or so, a newcomer to the business named Andrew Taylor was offering some competition under that Tamale Manufacturers heading. Soon a guy named William Jones was selling tamales on Willow near Central. At the same time, Royston established a sit-down tamale cafe, an “eating house” on Willow. 

At the height of the craze, in 1917, Royston died of a stroke, at age 55. His son Clyde was regarded as a tamale master and ran the business for a while. But after some years, the younger Royston got regular employment as a doorman at the posh Andrew Johnson Hotel and made tamales only for his friends and family. Andrew Taylor, known to some customers by the honorific “Mr. Andrew,” became Knoxville’s tamale man, and outlasted Royston for durability. First located on East Jackson, Taylor’s place was later at 112 Patton for 30 years, then at 618 Willow. 

For about 75 years, all of Knoxville’s tamale masters operated in the same tight neighborhood, part of the predominantly black urban neighborhood along the crook in First Creek then known as the Bottom. 

By then, tamales were out of the bag. Restaurants, especially the early Greek-owned diners, advertised tamales. In the early part of the century, more than half of all Knoxville’s Greek-owned restaurants were along South Central, near Jackson—if Knoxville had a Greek Town, around 1910-20, it was right there, within shouting distance of the epicenter of black tamale culture. Did that proximity play a role in the fact that tamales and chili became a luncheonette staple? 

A well-known 1935 photograph shows the Greek Anagnost family’s Biltmore Cafe on Union Avenue advertising, in big letters on their permanent sign, RED HOTS - CHILI - TAMALES—the same combination of delights Harry Royston had served from his cart a generation before. 

Around the same time, a bowlegged man known as George became known for dragging a tamale cart around downtown, especially in the Old City area, with a little camp stove to heat them up. 

Then Knoxville’s Tamale District was urban-renewaled away, much of it along the path of James White Parkway. Around 1960, Andrew Taylor, the last of that original generation of “Tamale Manufacturers,” moved one more time, half a mile east to the corner of Linden and Bernard, where he ran Andrew’s Tamale & Grocery. It didn’t close until the early 1970s, when that block was torn down, too. 

Tamales were always especially associated with Harry Royston’s old neighborhood, the now mostly vanished urban blocks just east of the Old City. But by World War II, working-class restaurants all over town, from the Glenwood Sandwich Shop to the Dutch Tavern, offered tamales, whether they were homemade or not, usually in combination with chili as a full house. 

At the time, most Knoxvillians had probably never heard of Mexico’s simpler dishes, like tacos and burritos. 

It was only later, probably in the 1960s, that Charlie Green arrived from Mississippi, and became known for his homemade Delta-style tamales, both from a street cart often parked in Mechanicsville. It probably didn’t have a direct connection to the city’s tamale tradition, but much of his clientele was surely composed of people who missed Royston’s or Taylor’s specialties. When Green retired, he left his recipe to a couple of North Mississippi sisters, Mary Manuel and Clara Robinson, who ran Mary’s Tamales on Magnolia for many years. 

Meanwhile, Theondrad “Sarge” Jackson was peddling his own tamales, wholly unlike Green’s. And though he always said his recipe was based on secrets he’d learned in the Caribbean, in the service, some of his most regular customers, like the late Ron Allen, were convinced Sarge’s tamales were an old Knoxville style, the worthy heir of the street tamales of his 1940s youth. 

Mary’s Tamales closed when Clara Robinson retired in 2010. Sarge Jackson died just weeks later. It seemed the end of an era. Maybe it was just the end of a chapter. 

***

Some would say it’s a peculiar time of year to write about tamales. Traditionally, in Knoxville at least, it’s been a cool-weather dish. The idea was that nobody would eat something as hot and spicy as tamales when it’s already hot outside anyway. Some places, including the amazingly durable take-out stand the Original Freeze-O—one of Knoxville’s oldest restaurants—doesn’t offer tamales in the summer. Scott’s Place on Asheville Highway serves them only in the winter. The lamented Magnolia institution Mary’s Tamales just closed down for a month or two in the summer. But the guys that sell tamales from the Good Golly Tamale cart seem to do very well in hot weather. 

Matt Miller is a friendly, laid-back young man who, if he ever took a break from working so hard, could pass for a hippie. He’s worked in several restaurants around town, including Tomato Head and the Public House, but last year he and associate Chris Watson, a longtime Tomato Head employee, took a bold leap toward recreating a local tamale industry. 

“I wanted to do some kind of street food,” Miller says. His first idea was burritos. What drew him to tamales was partly that they keep well and don’t get soggy like burritos. That is, they’re already a little soggy, and they’re supposed to be. All it takes to juice them up again is another steaming. He and his younger sister, Bekki Vaden, work together and recall fondly that their great-grandmother, who lived off Rutledge Pike, made tamales regularly. But they say their recipes have little to do with family heritage. When they landed the tamale idea, they started by checking out some books from the public library. Renowned Mexican-food guru Diana Kennedy’s comprehensive surveys of the dozens of tamale traditions were especially inspiring, and the Good Golly team adapted some of her ideas to a street-food operation and the Knoxville market as they saw it. 

What they do may not be easy to duplicate in most home kitchens. They start with dry whole corn, treated with lime, and then ground—“the hominy of corn meal,” Miller says. But what they use is not something you can find at Kroger. They order it in 50-pound bags from the Gold Mine company in San Diego. There are some closer suppliers, Miller says, but Gold Mine suits him best, partly because they avoid genetically modified products. The cooks mix that with spices, basically salt, baking powder, and cayenne—even the dough’s a little spicy—and moisten it with a savory broth (chicken for most of the recipes, vegetable for the vegan option) in a big vat with Benton’s bacon fat, for the meat tamales, or vegetarian shortening for the vegan ones. Then they scoop it out in tamale-sized dollops, flatten it out by hand, and add the stuffing.

Then they roll it in corn shucks, ordered through the Washington Pike Mexican market La Esperanza, dried and remoistened in hot water. The corn shucks actually add some flavor, according to some aficionados, who insist they can tell a corn-shuck tamale from a paper-wrapper one by taste. Then they go into the big stainless-steel steamer for at least an hour. 

They eventually load them into the stainless-steel box in back of a big tricycle, an old-fashioned heavy-duty model designed for industrial use, and pedal it up to Market Square, where they accomplish about 90 percent of their sales. The farmers’ market has an all-local mandate, and though they order their corn meal from California, they make up the balance of what constitutes a Good Golly Tamale in local suppliers, using only Strong Stock Farm beef and JEM farm pork. 

And when they sell at the Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, they’re on Union Avenue, a few feet away from where the Anagnost family’s big TAMALES sign was in the 1930s. 

Good Golly Tamale was a hit from the start. They first tried their tamale cart outside the Public House, the low-key foodie mecca on the Magnolia end of downtown, and among their first customers was one of Knoxville’s most talented and open-minded chefs. Holly Hambright asked then and there if they could supply tamales for her new restaurant, Holly’s Corner. Hambright composes almost everything else she sells but was interested in launching a “Tamale Tuesday” at the restaurant. Miller was starstruck. “Here we’re just getting started, and a lady who’s known for making really kick-ass food in Knoxville wants to have our tamales.” He wondered if she was just being nice, offering “a tip of the hat to a start-up small business,” but she still orders two dozen a week for her cafe. 

Good Golly Tamale manufactures their tamales on South Central. It’s hardly a stone’s throw out the back door from where Harry Royston and Andrew Taylor once set up shop. Maybe it’s purely a coincidence that they’re on the fringe of the district where, a century ago, rivals challenged the Tamale King. 

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