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Secret History Ciudad de Los Tamales

Clues to the obscure origins of a local specialty

by Jack Neely

The other day I went down to Market Square to see Mr. Perkins about some Muscadine jelly. Not expecting much variety of fresh produce this early in the season, I didn't browse—but paying for the jelly I noticed, on the shelf near Mr. Perkins' scales, several fat little parcels wrapped in some kind of waxy paper and tied tightly in twine. What are those? I asked.

"Tamales," he said, and immediately I felt stupid.

"Of course," I said. "I've just never seen them tied in that particular sort of a knot."

"They're not very hot," Mr. Perkins warned. "You just boil them—not for long, because they're fresh."

Mr. Perkins, who lives on his family's farm on the French Broad, says he ate homemade tamales when he was a kid, which was longer ago than most of our childhoods. "My mother wrapped them in corn shucks," he said. "That's the old-timey way."

His 83-year-old aunt made these tamales. If Mr. Perkins knows her recipe, he's not letting on, but he allows she combines ground beef with some unspecified seasonings and corn meal. I bought half a dozen for $3.50 ("you won't find them cheaper anywhere in town," Mr. Perkins said). I took them home, cut the twine with a knife, and boiled a couple of them for lunch. With some spicy barbecue sauce, they were good, very different from the greasy tamales you get in cans.

Many Knoxvillians of all ages say they were raised on tamales, store-bought and homemade both. It's a working-man's meal, one Mexican dish that somehow has never risen to nouvelle trendiness like the chalupa and the chimichanga.

But the more I think about the fact there might be any "old-timey way" to make tamales in Knoxville, the more remarkable it seems. Until recently, we never had a Mexican population big enough to support a Mexican grocery. I don't even remember a Mexican restaurant in Knoxville before the unlamented Taco Rancho, circa 1970. The Mexican tamale—believed to be Aztec in origin—may seem the most un-Knoxvillian of foods. But Knoxville's passion for tamales may be older than Volmania.

Sometimes when I'm eating alone I dip into a weighty epicurean tome called Southern Food. Author John Egerton is a serious and respected historian of the civil-rights movement and other regional issues, but in turn he's also a hedonistic reveler in Southern cuisine who can delineate the often-subtle differences in taste you might encounter in only an hour's drive through the South. Southern Food came out in 1987, and is still the definitive treatise on regional cuisine. It's a fascinating read, but it has very little to do with Knoxville, a city we have to admit has never established itself in culinary circles.

In Southern Food, Egerton made only one positive mention of any Knoxville dish. It's not Greek pizza or mets & beans or Volburgers. It's a recommendation, in passing, of tamales. "At Charlie Green's Rib Shop in Knoxville, Tennessee," Egerton wrote, "you can get first-rate Chicano-class hot tamales wrapped in cornshucks or papers."

I'd never been to Charlie Green's, and the minute I read that I tried to look it up in the phone book. No luck. A few folks I spoke with recall a Mr. Green who sold tamales from a pushcart in Mechanicsville. But from old city directories I learned there was a place on University Avenue, next to the Beulah Church of God, called "Green's Hot Tamales." Green's closed around 1988—probably months after Egerton's recommendation was published nationally.

Charlie Green and Sherrill Perkins were never the only guys who sold tamales hereabouts. In residential East Knoxville you sometimes see cardboard advertisements tacked on porch columns: TAMALES $1. These places don't necessarily have business licenses or health-department ratings, but I hear some of them serve some spicy tamales.

Knoxville's most conspicuous legal, license-on-the-wall tamale place today is on Magnolia, just past Scruggs's barbecue, but on the left; the flaming neon sign proclaims it to be Mary's Hot Tamales. It's a take-out shop with just one table and a large tapestry of da Vinci's "The Last Supper" on the wall. Mary's serves a few things, like barbecue chicken, but it's clear that tamales—hot or mild, $1 each—are the specialty. The sign on the glass door assures you Mary also serves the Full House.

When I went by last week, Clara Robinson was in charge. A thin, energetic woman, she's from Greenville, Mississippi, by way of Chicago. She moved here in the '80s with her sister Mary Manuel. In 1989, the two opened Mary's Hot Tamales.

Clara Robinson and her sister grew up with tamales—Greenville is particularly known for them, another fact you'll learn in Southern Food. John Egerton speculates the tamale percolated from Mexico along the Gulf Coast up the Mississippi River to Greenville, a Delta town.

Asked about their inspiration, Clara mentions the late Charlie Green. She says Charlie Green was also from Greenville, but moved here years before they did: "a long time ago," she says. "In the '50s, maybe."

Greenville has supplied Knoxville with at least three of our tamale masters of the last half-century. But long before Charlie Green's arrival, Knoxville already had a tamale culture. Clara says there was a previous tamale legend her older customers call "Mr. Andrew."

Harold Shersky, who once served tamales in his kosher deli, recalls Mr. Andrew around Central Avenue in the '30s. A short, bowlegged man, Mr. Andrew pulled his a load of hot tamales in a metal wagon equipped with a portable stove and sold them for a nickel or a dime apiece. Some speculate that tamales were one way to cope with the Depression, to stretch meat out with corn meal. Others suspect tamales go back farther than that.

Anyway, Charlie Green eventually took Mr. Andrew's place as the local tamale king. When Mr. Green retired, Clara says, he suggested she and her sister keep his tradition going, which with a few additions, they have. "It's more or less his recipe," she says.

Back in Mississippi, Clara says, they didn't dunk their tamales in chili. And before she came to Knoxville she had never heard of a Full House.

If Knoxville ever goes to war with the rest of the world, here's how to tell if someone's a spy: ask them what the phrase Full House means to them. Those words were familiar on several old-line Knoxville menus—like those of the Dutch Tavern in North Knoxville, the Vol Market and Brownie's on Cumberland, and Gay Street's Rendezvous, all defunct—and the still-kicking Smoky Mountain Market. A tamale dunked in chili, usually with crackers, cheese and maybe onions, is a dish long known in Knoxville and maybe nowhere else as a Full House. It might have been our equivalent of Cincinnati's famous five-way chili, but this poker hand is much scarcer than it used to be.

Clara says it's the best Full House in town, and I can't argue. Her tamales are plenty hot, submerged in spicy chili. It's as good a Full House as any I've ever tried. Some restaurateurs I've met say they're often frustrated by Knoxville's bland, unadventurous tastes in food, but when they say that, they're not talking about East Knoxville.

Some mourn that the Full House, arguably Knoxville's most distinctive epicurean tradition, may be dying out. But for the moment, it seems safe in the spicy hands of some Greenvillians who have perfected it.