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The Tamale Quarter

A missing link, or two, in the evolution of a Knoxville tradition

by Jack Neely

On a cold wet day Knoxville hearts yearn for our municipal comfort food: the hot tamale. The depth of its hold on this city is one of my favorite mysteries.

For decades, most old-line Knoxville restaurants had some sort of tamale offering, usually in a chili dish called the Full House. It was a staple, as basic as a BLT or grilled cheese. Several restaurants still serve it. But how it got on so many menus in this town nearly 1,000 miles away from the Mexican border is obscure.

When I wrote about them a few years ago, I cited one reasonable theory that the tamale was a Depression-era adaptation, a way to make a hearty meal out of just a little bit of beef or pork. I found solid evidence that tamales were available in prewar Knoxville: a circa-1935 photograph of a Union Avenue restaurant advertised them on a sign out front.

I thought I'd scraped the historical barrels. I tried to track down biographical information about a few shadowy individuals, especially a man some remember as "Andrew" or "Mr. Andrew" who sold tamales on the streets long ago. Those who remember Andrew's tamales say they were unusual: thick, spicy and rich.

I never thought to look in City Directory indexes under the heading Tamale Manufacturers. As resourceful antiquarian and tamale aficionado Ron Allen recently discovered, that heading first appears in the Knoxville City Directory in 1909.

The Knoxville tamale industry then consisted of two black men named Lewis Forney and Albert Coe. As Knoxvillians were trying to get the hang of horseless carriages, these cooks were running the Forney & Co. tamale factory at 318 East Jackson, barely a block east of what we now know as the Old City. I have no idea how big their tamale plant was, or what their annual output might have been. It may just have been a couple of guys in a kitchen.

Forney & Co. wasn't necessarily a success; no tamale factories are mentioned in the 1910 directory. But once Knoxville's taste was whetted for a homemade tamale, the demand had to be met by somebody. In 1911, the heading Tamale Mnfrs reappears, with one Harry Royston doing the honors at 509 Willow Ave., just a couple of blocks around the corner from the Forney experiment. He hung with it a good deal longer. By 1915, he was calling his place an "eating house," a restaurant that apparently specialized in tamales.

Royston was Knoxville's premier tamale man for half a dozen years, but he disappears forever in 1917, the year America got into the Great War. A Fay Royston, perhaps his widow, was running the business. But by then she had competition. .William Jones, another black man in the same neighborhood, was also making tamales—or tamalas, as they were for some reason spelled just during the World War I era—nearby at 113 Florida Street.

All Knoxville's known tamalemongers were black people working in the same tight neighborhood. When they started serving tamales with chili and calling it a "Full House" is unknown. But just a block or so west of the epicenter of tamale culture was Knoxville's Little Greece, the block of Central that supported several Greek-owned restaurants, one of them a chili parlor, another a purveyor of chili dogs. The old Bowery was awash in chili. In that neighborhood, combining chili and tamales was just a matter of time.

Anyway, in 1919, a Clyde Royston, presumably a brother or son of Harry, was in charge of the Florida Street tamaleria. That year also marked the first appearance of a rival tamalemaker at 328 East Jackson, almost next door to the pioneering Forney & Co.'s establishment. His name, significantly, was Andrew Taylor. He seems to have served as apprentice tamaleist at Jones' place.

Like Royston, Taylor called his place an "eating house." By 1922, it was located at nearby 112 Patton: there it remained for almost 30 years.

In 1951, he opened "Andrew's Wiener Stand" at 618 Willow Ave. In 1960, during urban renewal, Taylor moved his concern a half a mile east, to the corner of Linden and Bertrand, where his business was known as Andrew's Tamale & Grocery. He lived upstairs.

Andrew's place last appears in 1971, with Taylor still in the tamale business after 52 years making and selling tamales in East Knoxville. He disappears after that; records of his fate aren't handy. His building is briefly called a "Hot Tamale Shop" in 1973, apparently without Taylor's help. Then the building, and the whole block, is torn down.

Some say Sarge's tamales, made until recently out at the big man's lamented barbecue on Western Avenue, were similar to Andrew's. Knoxville's old tamale quarter has been urban-renewed away, now a run-down industrial section. Today, Knoxville's premier tamale manufacturer is Clara Robinson, who runs Mary's tamales. She's from Mississippi, and has no direct connection to Knoxville's Edwardian tamale industry. It's surely coincidence that she's on the fringe of Knoxville's old tamale neighborhood. Her take-out place is on Magnolia, just around the corner from the last known sighting of Andrew's.

January 15, 2003 * Vol. 14, No. 3
© 2004 Metro Pulse