on this story
From the spirited to the soulful, the distinctive cuisine of an underrated quarter
by Jack Neely
Go hungry to an outdoor party or festival in most parts of town, especially one that entails speeches from Republican politicians, and you're lucky if you get hot dogs or nacho chips with Velveeta sauce.
The birthday party in Haley Heritage Square last week could have passed for any other ceremonial public function: a public party with several Republican politicians on hand, short speeches from several of them. What made it different from any downtown ribbon-cutting or groundbreaking, besides drummers and a jazz combo, was that there were a couple of guys selling catfish sandwiches and deep-fried chicken wings, good-sized ones, at a dollar each. The catfish was tasty, sides of fried fish not nearly contained within two pieces of white bread there just so the sellers have the legal right to call it a "sandwich"but the chicken wings, lightly breaded, have an unusual, subtly spicy taste to them. You buy more than you expected to. But what is that? Some kind of mild curry? Garlic and jalapeno? A hint of ginger, maybe? No. Saffron andsomething? Or is it the oil? Asking won't help.
"That's my secret," says James Upshaw, the chef, who speaks as he labors over a pot of boiling oil. "I know it's different," he says. "It's something the colonel forgot." He doesn't cook in any restaurant, but just shows up at special events; he says he learned to cook by watching his mom at home.
East Knoxville may not be the first place you think of when you're looking for books, or records, or cars, or trendy accents for your greatroom. But it can be a great place to eat. There was a time, not too long ago, when Knoxville regularly drove east to eat, especially on a Sunday afternoon. Helma's, the down-home icon on Asheville Highway, once known for its broasted chicken and heavenly hash, may be past its prime, when it attracted the likes of Liberace and Roy Rogers and often sported a line clear out the door into the parking lot, but it's still there.
Some of that eastward temptation is still there. Puleo's, in still (barely) rural Strawberry Plains, puts regional touches on Italian dishes, and was the surprise winner of Metro Pulse's Best Restaurant poll last year, and it's worth a trip, too.
For the purpose of this article, we'll be looking mainly at East Knoxville. Even that geographically small section can be a tough concept to hold together. East Knoxville contains most of Knoxville's independent barbecues, but is also home to Knoxville's only all-tamale restaurant, our only all-chitlin restaurant, our only cook-it-while-you-wait fish market, and our only homemade-pizza drive-in.
It may have a reputation as a dangerous place, but it's safe to say that, statistically, it's much safer to eat in East Knoxville than it is to drive a car in West Knoxville. But to be on the safe side, be aware that there are some pungent dangers that are a problem chiefly for the unaware. For suburbanites used to the predictability of Applebee's, East Knoxville dining poses some challenges. Observe the following three rules and you won't have too much trouble.
1.) Wear old clothes; East Knoxville cuisine has a certain tendency toward spillage.
2.) Put aside any prejudices you might hold against evangelism and styrofoam boxes; in East Knoxville, both are nearly universal.
3.) Brace yourself for hot sauces that'll burn just a little brighter than the ones you're used to in the suburbs.
East Knoxville food comes in three large categories: soul food, which might take in everything from collard greens, to fried chicken, to fried fish, to barbecue; home-style, old-fashioned heartland fare that some might call "country style," and festive treats that, by one provocative theory, may have been influenced by East Knoxville's lively history. More about that later.
East Knoxville contains a few interesting variations, like Knoxville's first Filipino restaurant, an Arabic deli, a couple of Chinese restaurants, and what we suspect is the metro area's only drive-in pizza parlor. That one is a landmark.
If you want to go to a drive-in that's not Sonic, you'll have to go to East Knoxville. Liberally defined, the East Side has two. Cardin's, in the rural Carter area, is a rare delight, but maybe a little too far out into the country to pass for East Knoxville.
But when you mention East Knoxville cuisine, one of the first places folks are likely to mention is the Pizza Palace, on Magnolia. Squat in the middle of East Knoxville proper, near the park, it's one of Knoxville's underappreciated gems. It's not that it's underrated, exactly; by most Knoxvillians who don't expect to find good food in a drive-in, it's not rated at all.
The name is a little misleading. Though pizza, made fresh with homemade dough and tomato sauce, is a specialty, they also sell everything from veal cutlet a la parmigiana to ravioli to tenderloin steak. The Pizza Palace Special is a quarter-pound hamburger that some regulars swear by; others talk about the spaghetti. They may also be the only pizza place in town that regularly serves good barbecue sandwiches, served with homemade slaw and their own distinctive sauce.
It has a little bit of Greek flavor, as you'd expect at any establishment associated with the prodigious Peroulas family, with Greek salad. As some American tastes have gotten blander, anchovies have been dropped from some pizza menus around the country, but at the Palace they're still listed boldly among the toppings, every bit as respectable as pepperoni. The Greek Pizza features a combination of fresh white cheeses. If you order a small one, it's not huge, but so thick it might be good for a couple of fine meals.
It summons images of American Graffiti, but it's no trendy retro place. The Pizza Palace is bona fide. Arthur, Gus, and Al Peroulas founded the Pizza Palace in 1961, the year before that movie's setting, and the Peroulas family has found no cause to change the place in the 42 years since. Al died just this summer. His son Sammy is helping run the place now; he and his cousin Charlie are in charge.
Though Sam & Andy's always claimed to have introduced pizza to Knoxville in the '40s, Sammy Peroulas claims the Pizza Palace was Knoxville's first true pizzeria. "That's the way they set it up back then, a drive-in, a place to get together, a small gathering place, not just sitting at a table." Though most folks stay in their cars these dayssome antisocial types even leave their windows up, and their engines and air-conditioning ondrive-ins were gathering places during the era of the Mercury Comet.
Part of the draw, according to some longtime East Knoxvillians like UT journalism teacher Chris Wohlwend, was beer. You may not expect to be able to order beer at a drive-in, but that you can do at the Palace. Domestics, of course, precisely priced at $2.10. They're reportedly much tougher on underaged drinking than they were in the '60s.
Now you can get beer all over the place, anyway. What draw folks today is the food. "People still come from Lenoir City, all over," Peroulas says. "Everything's homemade. Pure ingredients. Dough, spaghetti sauce, same recipe since '61. Me and my cousin Charlie are learning it now."
It's among Knoxville's great restaurants. It's almost too bad you have to eat it in your car. They've got a few stools inside, and you're allowed to sit there, but only if you're willing to eat on the marble windowsill.
Some folks are confident that East Knoxville barbecue started with the Tic-Toc Drive In on Magnolia, which opened in the late '40s, specialized in barbecue, and carried on, for some years, a symbiotic relationship with the Pizza Palace. Teenagers would drive back and forth from one to the other, in the alley behind. Both places served beer, in a time when many restaurants didn't and, naturally, both lots were often packed. The Tic-Toc closed just a few years ago.
However, East Knox barbecue goes back a ways before that. Exactly how long, no one will ever be able to say: the old city directories that stretch back beyond the memories of living people mainly list restaurants or "eating houses" only by namealmost always the name of the proprietoroffering no clue about what sort of food they served. But the catchy acronym Bar-B-Q starts showing up in restaurant names in the 1920s; there weren't many places like that in town, but all of them were in East Knoxville. The McCalla Ave. Bar-B-Q Stand was one of the first to sport that moniker; it was near the south entrance to Chilhowee Park. Over on Magnolia and just a little older was a joint called O U Pig, which we can only hope was not the unfortunate name of the proprietor; it opened at 3229 Magnolia around 1925. It likely carried on a rivalry with Walker's Bar-B-Q, which was next door.
It's safe to say there have been more than 100 East Knoxville barbecue joints since then. Barbecues come and go, but then they always come around again. Some of the East Knoxville barbecue joints that we surveyed for our restaurant guide four years ago have since closed, or, like Spooky's, which is now comfortably out of place in the heart of Bearden, moved. But one of the best is still there. In a tiny old-style stucco building that looks like maybe it could be one of those old circa 1930 Bar-B-Q's, heralded with a red neon sign, is Dixson's, a classic stripped-down takeout place near the old ball park. A screen door vents the fragrant kitchen smoke toward Jessamine Street. It's a great place to take home some spicy ribs, chicken, or, for those who prefer something light, a pigburger. Priced to sell at exactly $2.13, it's a nearly spherical pork ovoid of ground barbecue pork, hot, medium, or mild, served with onion between two thin slices of white bread. By the time you're half done with it, the bread is more or less a thin gray paste there just to keep you from actually touching the pungent meat. Once served by Brother Jack, Sarges, and other old-line barbecues, some people believe, but can never prove, that the pigburger is of Knoxville origin.
Dixson's is the favorite barbecue of many East Knoxvillians, who often have to get their barbecue fix elsewhere, because Dixson's is only open three nights a week: the festive nights, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, around 4 p.m. to midnight, but don't hold them to it. They're best known for ribs, and serve 80 or 90 slabs of the stuff every weekend, not counting chickens and pigburgers.
Some 80 years after the term "Bar-B-Q" started showing up out here, most of Knoxville's independent barbecue joints are still in East Knoxville. Scruggs's Real Pit Barbecue on Magnolia may now be the oldest same-name barbecue spot in this storied quarter, and does a steady trade in sandwiches; some find Scruggs a little milder, and a little more conventional in its presentation, than its neighbors. It's clear that, uncounted decades after the first one, the east side still seems like the place to open another: the latest entry, advertised by its parking-lot smokers, is at a lonesome spot on Asheville Highway, just past the city limits on the right, called the Smokehouse. It's hard to tell whether it'll catch on, but for the time being, they serve some creditable pork barbecue, with three levels of saucethe intermediate one is called "hot and spicy," and is; the hottest one, "Burn Yer Doors Off," is homemade from locally grown habanero peppers, and accurately named. As in most bona fide barbecue places, a "rib sandwich" is really a handful of sticky ribs with a couple of thick pieces of sweet white bread, served separately. A specialty side dish called "pit taters" are a surprising mixture of potatoes, chilies, and garlic that takes some getting used to.
Nearly every place we visited in East Knoxville, even the Pizza Palace, even the placid "home-style" places like the Country Table and the Lunch House, serve a barbecue sandwich of some sort. And if there's anything distinctive about East Knoxville cuisine as a whole, maybe it's somewhere in the barbecue sauce. Though it undergoes subtle variations from place to place, almost all East Knoxville barbecue sauce is tomatoey, both hot and sweet. Maybe 60 or 70 miles farther east of here, you'll start running into vinegar-based Carolina sauce, but there's no trace of it in East Knoxville.
Probably the most-recommended East Knoxville restaurant at the moment is called Chandler's. Opened just over three years ago at a former Taco Bell at 3101 Magnolia, it's the current darling of the East Knoxville gourmand. Its sign hails it as "Chandler's Deli Restaurant." Don't come in here looking for a pastrami and swiss on ryeand if you're kosher, you'll have better luck at Arby's. There's nothing deli about Chandler's Deli. The operative phrase on their sign is "Bonesucking BBQ." Believe that part.
Chandler's may be the most positive result of the big Levi's shutdown. Gwen Chandler was one of the hundreds sent home. Her husband, Charles, had retired from ORNL's K-25 plant. "I was thinking about something to do. After I got laid off, this was something we could do together."
The Chandlers, who had lived in East Knoxville for years, had long been frustrated with the food offerings in their old neighborhood, specifically a lack of good home-cooked meals in a sit-down restaurant. The Chandlers didn't have any commercial cooking experience, but "we both came from big families, and we always barbecued." So, in early 2000, they bought an old Taco Bell on Magnolia, and had a hit on their hands.
She seems modest about her accomplishment. "I guess we just cook it the way we did at home," she says. "I'm not going to serve anything I don't think is good."
They've got ribs, rotisserie barbecued chicken, and sometimes fried chicken, served always into styrofoam boxes, even if you're getting it "for here," buffet style, along with one of the best arrays of home-cooked vegetables: sweet potatoes, green beans, collard greens and mixed turnip-and-mustard greens. Judge a soul-food place by the fact that, in the handful of vegetable choices, there are two different kinds of greens. It doesn't seem a bit odd to Gwen Chandler, who says some of her customers have strong opinions about greens. "A lot like the collards, but don't like the mustard-turnip mix," she explains. "A lot like the mix, but don't like the collards."
The barbecue sauce is hot and sweet, a secret Charles Chandler concocts at home with what Gwen calls "his special ingredients." They're also proud of their ice cream, which, if you get the rib plate with hot sauce, may seem like a necessary antidote.
East Knoxville cuisine often comes with some evangelism on the side, but here it's low-key. As you drive in from Magnolia, you'll have to slow down and study the sign to note Chandler's recommendations of verses in Matthew. Inside, there's a nice portrait of Jesus and his apostles, and you wonder what they were having. Probably not the pork; the chicken, maybe. There are also commemorations of secular triumphs, like a decorative clock celebrating Austin East's 2001 state championship. Pretty soon there will be a picture of Sen. Lamar Alexander hanging in there, too.
That story is their latest claim to fame: Sen. Alexander had some Chandler's ribs driven up to D.C. to serve 36 of his best friends in the Senate; it was the idea of Knoxville honcho Tom Ingram, a Chandler's fan. "It was a nice surprise," Gwen recalls, "and a challenge." He sent them an autographed photo, and the Chandlers are fixing to frame his recommendation.
Chandler's has been recommended as a great purveyor of "soul food." But white people can look at the same spread of fried catfish, barbecued pork ribs, cornbread, blackeyed peas, fried okra, and collard greens, and call it "home style" or "country style."
There are other fine purveyors of soul-food in East Knoxville, some of them not quite as familiar to our Republican senators. Convenient Mart #1 is listed as "Mart #1" in the phone book, but is better known as CJ's. If it were ever a convenience store, it retains only a few vestiges at the counterthey sell deodorant, Black Soap, incense, and vanilla cigarsbut folks come here for the main product, advertised on the marquee out front of this boxy building at McCalla and Bertrand with a bail-bondsman's mural on the side: Home Cook Meals Daily. Most of it's to go, and their chalkboard menu behind the counter may be added to or subtracted from while you wait. Have a can of beer, if you want tosome regulars come here mainly for that, and the pool table, and on a Saturday night, the often crowded place can get pretty lively. The mature lady at the cash register apologizes for the noise, saying that it's only like that on weekends. They sell fried chicken and fish, fresh-tasting collard greens and yams, all in a styrofoam box to go, a well-balanced soul-food meal for maybe six bucks.
Avon Rollins, director of the Beck Cultural Center, grew up with parents who ran East Knoxville restaurants, like the long-gone Steak House on Bechet Street, and the Mee Street Grill. He's especially fond of Chandler's, and often orders food there for Beck events. He says there's not much difference between "soul food" and "country style food."
"It's poor-people's food," he says, "what people relate to. That's the commonality. The difference is the hands that make it." He does acknowledge that there are some differences, and that African-American cuisine may have more spice to it. The activist whose participation in organized sit-ins helped desegregate downtown lunch counters in the early 1960s remembers his first meal at the S&W, which had been a favorite among middle-class whites for a quarter of a century. He remembers thinking, I waited all these years for this?
And soul food, of course, embraces a few items that "country style" doesn't, like chitlins, which Chandler's occasionally sells. Lema's World Famous Chitlins, in Burlington, will happily sell you a whole plate of boiled chitlins, with a hot pepper or two on the side.
Another thing you can't help but notice. Though some East Knoxville places draw heavily from one race or another, at most of the places we visited, both races were not only present in roughly equal numbers, but chummy. Maybe it's too much to look to the dining establishments of one part of town to guide our municipal future, but to a guy barely old enough to remember segregation, it can, on a sunny day, seem like progress.
East Knoxville cuisine is hot, but it's also homey, and sometimes the homey wins out over the hot. At the Lunch House, for example, a prim little white-painted brick house in Burlington, the mantle over the fake-log fireplace is adorned with family pictures.
The clientele is nearly evenly black and white, symbolized by framed-photograph testimonials from country singer Con Hunley and soul star Clifford Curry. It's segregated only by smoking habits.
The menu's pretty middle-of-the-road, but with a range from grilled cheese to ribeye steak. They serve a token barbecue plate, as almost all East Knoxville eateries feel obliged to, but most of their business appears to be in the meat-and-three department. The meat is soothingly bland, and the three cooked to softness. But they do keep two different kinds of hot sauce on the counter. Some people come here for the desserts.
East Knoxville believes devoutly in dessert. The Pizza Palace serves some of the best homemade pies in town. Chandler's is almost as famous for ice cream as it is for barbecue. If you don't order dessert, an East Knoxville waitress may well look surprised and hurt. It will be an undeniable clue that you ain't from here.
Among poet Nikki Giovanni's fondest memories of the East Knoxville of her youth in the 1940s and early '50s were the open-air vendors at the old Cal Johnson Park on old Mulvaney Street. She remembers an old woman, in particular, whose shout of, "Hot fish! Good Hot Fish!" was well-known in the neighborhood. Redeveloped into oblivion during urban renewal, it's the part of East Knoxville that no longer exists as a community. If you go to the same spot today, you won't find people selling hot fish, or anything else.
But in Burlington near MLK on Fern Street is a small white cinderblock building. The only sign says, "Open." To strangers, it doesn't look very welcoming, but then, strangers don't come here much.
Go into the left door, and you'll be able to tell where you are by the smell, because nowhere else in Knox County smells like this, unless it's the lakeside dock of an especially successful fisherman. You're in the Burlington Fish Market. They sell fresh fish by the pound: drums, spots, croakers, the sort of fish you probably haven't seen since the last time you caught one yourself. They also carry the more common grocery fish at better prices$4.98/lb. for catfish, 7.99 for flounderthan you'll find at Fresh Market. It's mostly shipped in from the east, Virginia tidewater area, four days a week.
Fortunately for those of us who can't wait to tote it home, they also fry fish for you in the adjoining kitchen. You can take your choice of species, as long as they're not out of it, and while you sit and wait with the other customers beneath the fan in the folding chairs they fry it up in a savory peppery breading. If you order the sandwich, it comes on sliced white bread; it comes with mustard, hot sauce and onions, as well it should.
That's the basic East Knoxville fish sandwich, whether it's here or a couple of miles down MLK, at one of the St. John's Missionary Baptist Church's benefit sales, in a vacant lot at Five Points. A fish sandwich is made up of deep-fried fish on white bread, and it always comes with mustard, onions, and Texas Pete, the hot sauce of choice in these parts. Sometimes slaw, but don't look for tartar sauce, vinegar, or lemon juice unless it's one of the places that try to lure the suburbanites.
Closer to the mainstream are places like the Country Table, one of those places that's more homey than hot, on the northern end of Cherry Street. When it has a parking lot full of pickup trucks, you can bet they've got all-you-can-eat catfish going on inside. It's a windowless '50s-style place with padded booths, the paneling adorned with framed photos of Humphrey Bogart, Buffalo Bill, Bear Bryant, and Marilyn Monroe, along with deer heads and other hunting and fishing trophies to make their clientele feel at home.
Some places in East Knoxville are practically soul-food speakeasies. One place on McCalla said "open," and the cars in its parking lot testify to the fact that it must be. But it has no sign indicating a name or a type of business. Maybe they have food; maybe it's something else altogether. They're not trying to appeal to folks who don't know. It's clear that our survey of East Knoxville cuisine is surely leaving a lot out.
Other places are more up front about their attractions, but keep unposted and sometimes unpredictable hours.
The Magnolia Cafe, about a block past the abandoned old Park Theatre, is a party center for East Knoxville gentry. They have frequent live jazz calculated to appeal to mature, settled East Knoxvillians, and a diverse menu that includes most of the items the neighborhood is famous for: barbecue ribs, fried chicken livers, catfish sandwich, pork chop sandwichand the Apple Martini. It has been called East Knoxville's Lord Lindsey; their weekly schedule often revolves around private parties. Bill Haslam hosted a campaign event there last month.
The only problem is finding out when the dang place is open. No hours are posted on the door, and if you call, the recording offers only hints. If the sign out front says Wings Tonight, well, maybe they've got them, and maybe the door's closed and locked and the parking lot desolate. Currently, they're open Wednesdays, plus some Thursday and Friday evenings, starting about 5, which is happy hour; but that's known to change, so if you set out for the Magnolia Cafe, have a backup plan in mind.
If you do make it in, you'll find yourself in one of the most comfortable eateries in town, with a friendly, laid-back staff and clientele and sunny front rooms and well-preserved, woody rooms of an early 20th century bungalow. Wings, often just 20 cents each, are worth the trouble, as are the ribs. Here, none of it's too hot, but there are big bottles of a nameless hot sauce at each table allows you to adjust it to your personal preference.
Of course, in East Knoxville, as everywhere, there are a few jags here and there that don't follow any rules. The Philippine Connection may be the only restaurant in East Knoxville that doesn't serve some sort of barbecue sandwich. Near Chilhowee Parkbut maybe be a little less distinctly East Knoxville than it used to be, since they opened a second carry-out place in North Knoxvillethis place is still the flagship, the place that introduced Filipino dishes like the fine-noodle delicacy, Panci't Guisado Bihon to Knoxville. They do most of their business in carryout, but have three two-seat tables in the restaurant, plus benches facing Magnolia for nice days.
They're a little bit of an East Knox-ville puzzle. Most of what they serve is relatively mild by East Knoxville standards. They apologize that it's because that's the way Americans like it. But even if you ask for it "spicy" it may be not quite as spicy as the sauce at Chandler's or Dixson's. But if you insist, and use the code phrase "heavy spicy," they'll cook a dish for you they way they like it back home.
Nearby is the Red Fez, one of Knoxville's older but lesser-known Middle-eastern places. It used to operate as an inconspicuous little deli/jewelry store on Gay Street, but moved out here seven years ago, where they're doing a lively business in the drive-through trade, serving many of their own specialties, like steak-in-a-sack. In the move to East Knoxville, they added a deep frier, and now offer fried chicken wings. And, of course, they have a barbecue sandwich with homemade hot sauce.
I talked to several chefs about what made East Knoxville cuisine different, as a whole. Most offered some vague comment about their own place being better than other restaurants. Some, like Bill Dixson, at Dixson's, talk vaguely about his "barbecue salts" and marinades being "different," and that that's why people say they like it. He says Dixson's pigburgers are like no one else's, and the claim is credible.
But he admits he hasn't eaten anywhere else in a long time. About East Knoxville in general, he says, "I wouldn't know." Several other chefs echo his sentiments. It's an uncommonly fair-minded restaurateur who allows himself to be seen enjoying a meal in somebody else's place.
So I talked to my old friend, East Knoxville gourmand Chris Wohlwend, about what made the cuisine distinct. Chris brought up something about his East Knoxville youth in the '50s and '60s that surprised me a little.
"There were a lot of neighborhood grocery joints that served sandwiches," he says. He mentions fried-baloney sandwiches, on white bread with mayonnaise, in particular, a delicacy still available in East Knoxville (Scruggs's serves an extravagant version of it, with slaw). "When they did a really good job, the grocery just sort of fell by the wayside. Every one of them served chili dogs. Chili dogs were just a dime. Every kid's got a dime."
He mentions several other places that also served chili dogs, from the EZ Curb to Kay's Ice Cream, to the Pink Poodle, which survives, architecturally at least, as a produce store. Most of the chili-dog purveyors he remembers seem to be within a mustard squirt of Chilhowee Park. (He recounts a story that a certain well-known East Knoxville restaurateur, in failing health and unable to manage the kitchen, sent family members out to bring her back a sustaining meal. She didn't want anything from her own place; what the convalescent cook insisted on was chili dogs from Cardin's.)
"You could make a case for there being a fairgrounds influence," he says. "Call it Fair Fare."
Maybe the Fair Fare ethic is still afoot. One of Knoxville's few restaurants that specialize in hot dogs is a fairly new place called Judy's, at 2341 Magnolia, which does business as a lunch spot for hard-working men. They also serve some other honest East Knoxville staples: Catfish, BBQ, and "hot bites," which is jalapeno & cheese. But what Judy advertises with a big neon sign in the window is Hot Dogs. The most unusual thing about their hot dogs is the price: Judy's has the best 69-cent hot dogs we know of. Get it with everything, and a Coke. Just like you would have at the fair.
You might also think of Cardin's, a family place that serves everything from pimiento-cheese sandwiches and chili burgers to catfish, shrimp, and even oyster plates, but specializes in the funner foods, like dip dogs and dip cones, sundaes, banana splits, and hot fudge cake. It's the sort of fare you might expect to find on the boardwalk at Myrtle Beach, except that Cardin's adds a creditable articulation of the ancient and distinctively Knoxvillian chili-with-tamale specialty, the Full House. You can eat it in your carthey don't need a fancy-pants phone-in system; the waitresses will just meet you wherever you parkor under the green awning at one of the picnic tables.
Wohlwend also remembers a garage on Elmwood that sold "great tamales." Tamales are an old East Knoxville staple. They're maybe not quite as popular as they once were, and they're actually made in lots of other places from Lonsdale to Niota, but I've never been to a place besides East Knoxville where you can see them advertised in carboard signs hanging out on front porches: TAMALES $1. And the only all-tamale restaurant in the metro area is Mary's on Magnolia. It's now run by Clara Robinson, who's originally from Greenville, Mississippi, which is famous for tamales. Her recipe didn't originate in Knoxville. But she couldn't have stayed in business so long if she weren't in a neighborhood where folks didn't have a yen for tamales.
The origin of the Knoxville tamale is a mystery we've addressed in these pages before, and the best answer we came up with was that these exotic Mexican treats entered our consciousness via one of the large expositions held at Chilhowee Park in the years before World War I. It's just a guess. We don't know for sure that tamales were even available at those fairs, like the Conservation Exposition of 1913. But some historians have observed that tamales were popular in some other extravagant American expositions in the early 20th century.
Is it a coincidence that East Knoxville is the home of Chilhowee Park and Knoxville's big early-century expositions became the epicenter of tamale culture? Is the tamale, by Wohlwend's theory, Fair Fare?
Magnolia Avenue used to be where all Knoxvillians, black and white, went to have fun. Chilhowee Park was home of the fair and an amusement park; Cal Johnson's racetrack was in Burlington, nearby, site of races involving horses, automobiles, and occasionally, airplanes. It was all too exciting a place to spend much time sitting around a table. Maybe that's why most of its dining attractions were, and still are, to-go oriented, eye-catching, and fun. Magnolia was a little more light-hearted, and a little more light-footed, than the rest of town. Maybe it still is.
August 21, 2003 * Vol. 13, No. 34
© 2003 Metro Pulse