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Loosening up a few tight ends

by Jack Neely

I'm not here this week, but don't think I'm one of those wimpy columnists who ever takes a vacation and leaves his editor to fill the space with wire copy and a lame apology like, "Jack Neely will return next week." I know that as soon as I turn this space over to wire copy, even once, well, maybe it won't be here when I get back.

You've got to occupy your space or you'll lose it. That's the lesson Simon Bolivar Buckner learned the hard way in 1863; he left town for just a few days, and General Burnside moved right in.

Still, here I am at the beach, and I'd rather not mess with doing any actual research. I don't even know where the library is. So rather than coming up with a whole new column this week, I thought I'd throw in a few late developments from some recent ones.

* I've hardly ever gotten more response to any column, ever, than I did to my two discussions of Knoxville's shadowy tamale history. You may recall that Knoxville had something of a reputation for its tamales for decades before the city had a single Mexican restaurant; the Aztec delicacy was plentifully available here in diners, from street vendors, even in private homes. Several local cooks developed reputations for their recipes. One reader recalls a Mrs. Barlow who sold tamales from her home on Oklahoma Avenue 30 or 40 years ago. Another noted an old furniture store on Central that still sells tamales, on occasion, in the back.

I also speculated about the tamale dish still known in fine Knoxville restaurants as the Full House. A Full House, you'll recall, is a tamale dunked in a bowl of chili; some insist it should also have shredded cheese, raw onions, and/or crackers on top. I began to wonder if the Full House, rare elsewhere and apparently unknown by that name outside of the Knoxville MSA, is the definitive Knoxville Dish that has eluded cookbook writers for decades.

One reader reminded me of an old street-scene photo we ran in Metro Pulse a couple of years ago: it's a portrait of the Biltmore Cafe on Union Avenue, a place run by the Greek Anagnost brothers. (The brick Victorian building, still there near Market Square, is now home to K-Town Finance.) In the photograph, the 10-waitress staff is posing out front underneath the cafe's long, clever sign, which reads, BILTMORE CAFE / EATMORE GOOD FOOD. And beside the name, in large letters: RED HOTS - CHILI - TAMALES.

The date, ascertained from the license plate of a parked car, is 1935. The photograph seems incontrovertible evidence that the tamale was famous enough in Knoxville 64 years ago to draw people into a popular cafe. The shaven-headed cook, George Anagnost, was then known downtown as the "Chili King." Was he the genius behind the Full House?

By the way, Mary's Tamales on Magnolia is closed for the season, as always. The theory, according to Clara, who runs the place most days, is that their tamales are so hot they wouldn't sell in the summer. She'll reopen in a few weeks; in the meantime, you can still get good homemade tamales at Sarge's.

* A couple of physicians have speculated on the mysterious syndrome known as "the Jerks" which afflicted hundreds of Knoxvillians in 1804. One guessed it might have been something now called Sydenham's Chorea, a neurological side effect of rheumatic fever, that might last weeks or months. I guess we'll never know for sure. Now, of course, we have different kinds of jerks.

* A couple of folks commented on the "Old College Inn / Since 1939" mystery. I alleged that the OCI was piggybacking on the heritage of a previous restaurant, the popular cafe known as Brownie's, which was indeed founded—albeit at another address—in 1939. One reader remarked that Brownie's arrived in the OCI building even more recently than I suggested. Earlier it had been in another building a few doors west on the same block, he said, but that the building was demolished when they built the filling station that's now Pilot. Raymond "Brownie" Brown had moved his restaurant, almost perfectly duplicating its interior, in the late '60s. The City Directory seems to confirm that, indicating that the current address of the Old College Inn was actually Brownie's fourth location.

* A few months ago I was surprised that Knoxville was featured prominently in a history of dobro music that appeared in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. I was equally surprised, the same day I read that article, to encounter a dobroist playing blues for change on Gay Street. I shouldn't have been. Anybody who has read Suttree recently knows.

Every time you reread Cormac McCarthy's Knoxville-based novel, set in 1951, you notice something new. Anyway, in one locally famous passage, Suttree's trying to sell some fish on Market Square and walks out of the market stalls on the Wall Avenue end. There he sees "A blind black man was fretting a dobro with a broken bottleneck and picking out an old blues run. Suttree let the four pennies into the tin cup taped to the box. Get em, Walter, he said...."

* Finally, I didn't expect this column would ever show up on Daniel Berry's vintage opera program, Echoes From a Golden Age, on WUOT. But for years I've been listening to that fascinating Saturday afternoon show, which plays operatic recordings from the dawn of the recording era. Scratchy Italian tenors is the perfect accompaniment to cooking pasta for Saturday lunch.

Week before last, Berry dedicated part of his show to recordings of soprano Emma Juch and baritone Giuseppi Campanari—just because they're probably the only featured singers in Knoxville's grand June Festival of 1889 whose recordings have survived. It's eerie, hearing the same voices that enthralled Victorian ladies and Civil War veterans during that weird week 110 years ago. You could almost close your eyes and believe you were there then, and that the scratches were background gunfire.