Front Page

The 'Zine

Sunsphere City

Bonus Track

Market Square

Contact us!
About the site

Secret History

on this story

Creeping Regionalism

We were somewhere in that Smoky Mountain mist....

by Jack Neely

A few years ago, I was asked to help with research for a new "Knoxville cookbook," and I was more than happy to oblige. I'm not much of a cook, but I've observed how important cuisine is to other cities' self-images. Most interesting cities seem to have their own cookbooks, but I hadn't seen anything called a "Knoxville Cookbook" in my lifetime; the last one I know of was published in 1900, which includes some recipes from James Agee's grandmother. The fact that there might finally be a new Knoxville cookbook seemed undeniable evidence that we were in a civic renaissance.

However, I was surprised when the book came out without the word Knoxville in the title. Apologizing, my Junior League contact told me they'd been overruled by higher authorities; somebody in Nashville decided to rename the project Dining in the Smoky Mountain Mist. Never mind that few of the recipes in the cookbook have anything to do with the Smoky Mountains—or that the Smoky Mountains, and their collective mist, are nearly an hour's drive from Knoxville. The motive, I assume, was to get that damnable word Knoxville out of the title. On a globe on somebody's desk in Nashville, I guess, the Smokies look close enough to substitute.

But to me, it seemed equivalent to the Junior League of Memphis coming up with a book called Dining in the Arkansas Fog. (That's not really fair. Memphis is much closer to Arkansas than Knoxville is to the Smokies.)

It's hard to blame the Junior League, or Nashville; people look at a city and see a region; Knoxville's just a callused thickening on East Tennessee's bumpy skin.

When I first heard of Nine Counties One Vision, it seemed like a powerful idea, but I was headed in the opposite direction. I grew up in the nine-county region, maybe more than I grew up in Knoxville. When I was a kid, every weekend the sun was halfway out, we'd load up the outboard and be out to Douglas Lake, or Watts Bar, or Norris. When we weren't on the lake, we were hiking in the mountains. Sometimes we spent whole weekends staying with friends in a cabin at Elkmont or on Ft. Loudoun Lake. As my dad evolved from a bass fisherman to a trout fisherman, we spent more and more time in the mountains, trying to find the most remote streams.

Whenever we stayed in Knoxville on a weekend, it meant it was raining and usually cold and we had a hell of a lot to do in the way of "running errands," which always meant hours of poking around gray lumberyards and auto-parts stores. The city of Knoxville came to seem a dreary place, and it seemed a little pitiful that anyone would name a baseball team for it. That's the hazard of living in a region that draws you away on weekends. Knoxville's been a quieter place since they built the lakes and opened the Smokies and made Knoxville a "gateway" to somewhere else.

I'm grateful for those weekends away. I learned a great deal, though I'm not sure I can still tie a fly. When I meet someone who hasn't been on at least one good long hike in the mountains, I know they're missing something that no one who lives here should miss. But Knoxville, lower in altitude than Atlanta or Lexington, is no mountain town.

I later discovered Knoxville proper to be a place distinct from East Tennessee, a city of extravagant graveyards and ethnic delis and Victorian buildings and barbecue joints and stories that were stranger than any I ever heard in the mountains.

As I've sharpened my focus on one city that I still don't feel I know well, I can only watch in awe as others try to take in this large, ungainly region of lakes, mountains, and plains, mysterious nuclear labs and bizarre theme parks, aluminum plants and dead coal mines and forgotten hollers. These particular nine counties wouldn't seem to have anything in common except that they tend to honor U.S. currency. Some of its residents are known to boast that they've never been to Knoxville.

I've sometimes wondered whether Knox-ville uses its region like a bullfighter uses his cape, to distract would-be antagonists.

Nine Counties is at least worth a try, especially to explore the possibilities of inter-city public transportation. The hazard is that as we cover for the whole region, Knoxville may get lost in that Smoky Mountain mist.

When I freelanced for the News-Sentinel in the '80s, I got used to editors' changing my stories, but was puzzled when an editor changed a reference to "Knoxville" to "East Tennessee." Asked why, the editor explained they had a lot of subscribers outside of Knoxville and didn't want to hurt their feelings. Around the same time, I sat in on an editorial meeting as a monthly magazine changed its name from Knoxville Lifestyles to Citytimes, for exactly the same reason.

Most cities much smaller than ours, including Farragut and Norris, have a city history museum or city historical society. We've got an East Tennessee Historical Society and an East Tennessee history museum, but there's no such thing as a Knoxville or Knox County either one.

The Knoxville Writers Guild, which regularly publishes interesting anthologies, never uses the word "Knoxville" in their titles, usually opting for the word "Valley." (I wrote an introduction for Voices From the Valley.) It begs the question, should the proper Junior League euphemism for Knoxville be "mountain" or "valley"?

Maybe people just don't like to use the word Knoxville under any circumstances. But I think it's more that Knoxville sees itself as the protective mother hen for a rambling regionful of rambunctious chicks: always willing to give up her own identity and ambitions in life to nurture her young. Even though some of them now fully grown gamecocks that beat Mom up on a regular basis.

May 25, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 21
© 2000 Metro Pulse