Using the 1900 tome called simply “Knoxville Cook Book,” historian Jack Neely illuminated attendees at the Southern Food Writing Conference earlier this month with information on just what a cosmopolitan city Knoxville was back then — at least in the food department.
It all centered on Market Square where, Neely reported, “people would claim you can get anything.”
“Knoxville was at a crossroads in 1900,” Neely said. “On Market Square they sold bear, possum and biscuit flour by the barrel. They sold Italian pasta and German sausage, seafood and Kosher food. Some restaurants were open 24 hours. But Knoxville had rough edges. It was a very stratified society.”
Neely described the Gold Sun, one of those 24-hour places where you could play “stump the waiter” and try to see if you could ask for something the restaurant couldn’t prepare. Then, there was the Vendome, a fancy French restaurant. And expensive wine bars on Gay Street and in the Hotel Imperial.
There also was a wide array of street food available in Knoxville, including tamales sold by an African-American street vendor. And hot dogs. In fact, the first time the words “hot dogs” ever were mentioned was in a Knoxville newspaper in 1893.
Interestingly, there were oyster bars everywhere, he said. Dating from the 1850s, fresh, live oysters were shipped to Knoxville and kept cool in train cars. “Oysters were big in Knoxville,” Neely said. So big, in fact, that the “Knoxville Cook Book” contained 23 recipes for them.
Knoxvillians were eating lentils at that time and also “had tendencies for eating innards,” Neely said. “I don’t know why, but we stopped eating them.”
The cookbook had a dozen recipes for sardines, recipes for aspic and “hard boiled eggs in almost everything.”
The cookbook called for seven different kinds of milk as ingredients in various dishes and included a whole chapter on drinks. But it didn’t call any of the drinks “cocktails.” Rather they were referred to as “cordials” or “punches.”
The cookbook also had recipes for several “mock” dishes: mock turtle, mock oysters and mock brains (which really were egg yolks). Surprisingly, he said, there wasn’t a single recipe for grits. Or possum.
Other excerpts from the second half of the Southern Food Writing Conference. (See previous post for a report on the first half.)
- The hilarious food writer Julia Reed of “Garden & Gun,” “Elle Decor” and “The Wall Street Journal,” didn’t disappoint. She said that, growing up in Greenville, Mississippi, she noticed that “everybody either drank or couldn’t drink. Nobody didn’t drink.”
- Steven Satterfield, executive chef and co-owner of Miller Union in Atlanta, has a just-released book about vegetables called “Root to Leaf.” “Fresh produce is nature’s multivitamin,” he said. Click here for a New York Times review of his book. But know that if you read this review, you will absolutely go buy the book. I know I am.
- One of my favorite speakers at this event each year is Cynthia Graubart. She usually co-presents with the legendary Nathalie Dupree, but Nathalie couldn’t make it this year. She and Cynthia are co-authors of several great cookbooks that I love. “My mother was a terrible cook,” Graubart said. “I learned to cook in self-defense.”
Later in the evening, after a field trip to Cruze Farm, the conference guests headed to The Standard for The Biscuit Bash, an event that is the official close of the food conference and the official opening of The International Biscuit Festival.
Next year’s Southern Food Writing Conference is May 12-14. Get in on it!