Old newspapers, legal documents, letters, and directories of various sorts are full of mundane detail. More interesting stuff about life in Knoxville more than a century ago is often elusive. Like what people ate.
Archaeologists can tell us that people had ham bones, because they often threw them into the cistern or into the backyard. They can’t tell us how often they ate ham, or how it was prepared, or what they had besides ham, perhaps dishes that didn’t have bones at all.
Most written accounts are maddeningly vague. When Louis-Philippe, the future Citizen King of France, came to Knoxville in spring, 1797, he fussed about Knoxville’s street layout and its ability to care for his horses; but the French nobleman remarked that the meals he got here were “not bad.”
Meals were rarely described in detail. We can find names of Knoxville restaurants, 100 or 150 years ago, their proprietors and their precise location. In most cases we don’t have any idea what they served. I’ve always been intrigued by the 24-hour Depot Street restaurant known as The Owl. Whether they served actual owl is unproven.
One book offers a peek. To my knowledge, there’s been only one book published under the title Knoxville Cookbook, and it came out 115 years ago. I’m a connoisseur of old cookbooks, which I like to read as I’m eating ramen noodles. The Knoxville Cookbook is more interesting than most, a mixture of down-home and haute cuisine, and unlike many old cookbooks, written in actual prose, with just a touch of personality.
Behind it was the Woman’s Building Board, the organization in charge of the Woman’s Building on Main Street—actually the Knoxville Pavilion, moved all the way from Centennial Park in Nashville after the big 1897 exposition, which here served as a sort of art museum and event space. It was an impressive assemblage of women of means who were bound to make a big mark on the city. On that committee of 12 were Bettie Tyson, who later established Tyson Park in exchange for the promise that the city’s airport would be named for her son, the airman killed in action during World War I; and Mary Boyce Temple, who 25 years later would save Blount Mansion from becoming another parking lot.
It opens, “Knoxville claims the best market southwest of Norfolk…. With such lavish generosity on the part of Nature back of her, it would be almost an injustice not to make use of so prodigal bounty. This accounts possibly for the reputation Knoxville has attained to in culinary lines.”
So Knoxville had a culinary reputation. Naturally it did: “The rivers and mountain streams are rich in many kinds of fish; the woods that still retain some of the wild solitude of Indian days are filled with game; the Holstein and the Jersey pasture upon the peaceful hillsides, where here the fruit and vegetable world have set up a powerful kingdom.”
Among the Knoxville Cookbook’s recipes are some things you’d expect, like Light Biscuit, Crisp Buttermilk Biscuit, and Raised Biscuit: three very different recipes. The last requires exactly seven hours. Then there are two recipes for the Beaten Biscuit, a different thing altogether, and an acquired taste. One beaten-biscuit recipe is especially formulated to be less noisy than the other. There’s even a Mother’s Potato Biscuit.
There’s Pone Corn Bread, Chow-Chow (two recipes), and Pig’s Foot Cheese, which sounds down-home—but also, on the same page, Pigs’ Feet a la Poulette, which doesn’t.
It’s cosmopolitan in its perspective: Mexican Chili Meat, Maryland Terrapin (calls for a live terrapin, of course), French Pancakes, Canada Eggs, Bavarian Cream, Mignon de Volaille, Welsh Nectar, German Sauce (from peaches!), Italian Sauce (no tomatoes, it’s pureed onions with white sauce), Chicken Gumbo, Italian Macaroni Soup, Cock-a-Leekie—and Potage a la Reine, which the Knoxville ladies recommended as “Queen Victoria’s favorite soup,” a thick, creamy chicken soup with egg yolks.
There’s a recipe for making pasta from scratch.
And the Cookbook proves Knoxville in 1900 had Pigs in Blankets—but they had nothing to do with hot dogs. Knoxville did have hot dogs. In fact the world’s first known reference to hot dogs, by that name, is in an 1893 Knoxville newspaper. But that was street food, unmentioned in this cookbook. In 1900 Knoxville, a “pig in a blanket” was an oyster wrapped in bacon and served on toast.
It always surprises newcomers to the Victorian era how much Knoxvillians, 400 miles inland, ate oysters. Beginning when the first trains arrived in the 1850s, and well into the 20th century, oysters were our favorite fast food, in saloons, but also a staple in the kitchen.
The 1900 Knoxville Cookbook offers 23 separate recipes for oysters.
That’s not counting Mock-Oyster, made from “oyster plant,” which I gather was another term for salsify. Oscar’s Oyster Relish includes vinegar, olive oil, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, shallots, and chives.
There are three recipes for ox tails, none of them ox-tail soup, which is the only ox tail I’ve ever tasted. There’s Brains and also Mock Brains, made from egg yolks.
Not long ago, I bought a pound of lentils at a little produce market. The cashier looked at it curiously, and at me curiously, and asked me what I did with lentils, because she’d never tried them. I felt, for a moment, hip and exotic, and told her about my thick lentil soup. But Knoxvillians in 1900 were eating lentils: “They are exceedingly nice when soaked, boiled, and served with rice; or as the Arabs serve them, boiled and rolled in cabbage leaves and boiled again.”
And it’s a decidedly pre-Prohibition document. A whole chapter on Drinks includes nothing called a cocktail, but rather “cordials and “punches.” The Roman Punch has a cup of brandy and a cup of sherry. Several other recipes call for rum, whiskey, claret, or champagne.
Let’s return to our roots as a culinary capital, have a big party, and serve this stuff again.