Saturday afternoon I found myself leading a tour of festival music-history pilgrims, and encountered a dilemma. It was 4, and Market Square was packed. I looked down one side and the other, and I didn’t think I could get all 40 of my charges, some of them new to town, through that mob without some significant attrition. So, I thought I’d surprise my guests with a bold and clever maneuver. We’ll just make an end run down the alley, I said. And we turned off Union into Strong’s, or Armstrong’s, Alley.
(There are historical reasons why it might be called either. A century ago, there was a clothing shop at number 34 called Armstrong’s. But in the 1880s, B.R. Strong’s amazing 250-foot-long dry-goods store offered entrances on both Gay Street and Market Square, with an enclosed “arcade” over the alley.)
It says something that this alley, a sometime knife-murder scene long avoided except by scullions, rats, the severely nauseated—and me, when I wanted to remove myself from circulation for a few minutes—was packed on a Saturday afternoon, too. It was worse than West Town Mall. The alley is now an art gallery, of course, lined with colorful and interesting murals. That’s part of the problem. But, as it happened, our group had to stop, mid-alley, for a bridal fashion shoot in progress. Even alleys aren’t safe anymore.
My hometown has changed in lots of ways. Some claim it’s unrecognizable compared to 25 years ago. But it’s pretty interesting that most of Knoxville’s rebirth is a logical growth of its own particular history. At the north end of that old alley is the back of a new place called Market House Cafe.
It’s just another downtown restaurant, maybe, but one thing about it makes it emblematic of my point.
Back in the ’90s I once proposed that Knoxville should have some distinctive dishes with distinctive names, derived from Knoxville’s history and culture. I’d seen it work elsewhere. But these things have to be intuitive, to come from the creators.
Sometimes something will pop up, like the Thunder Road Burger at Litton’s or the White Mule Ale at the Downtown Grill and Brewery. But few take that risk of local reference, and no one has ever taken the idea farther than the new Market House Cafe. The big menu board behind the counter offers an almost loony approach to local history in the names of its sandwiches.
Take the Gold Sun Greek Salad. It’s an apt homage to the Gold Sun, one of the most durable restaurants in Knoxville history. It opened in 1908 in the space that’s now Blue Coast Burrito. For most of that century, the Greek-owned restaurant was famous for the fact that it never closed, and for the fact that they’d serve you pretty much anything you wanted, whether it was on the menu or not. Waiters were known to venture out into the market to accommodate special requests.
I have not yet tried the Tennessee Will-Ham and Cheese sandwich. Playwright Tennessee Williams never lived in Knoxville, but his father, aunts, and grandparents did, and his sister Rose spent summers here. There are Knoxville fingerprints on his Southern gothic tragedies.
Classic Cornelius is a salad. We might assume it’s a reference to the rarely used first name of the title character of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree; or to Tennessee Williams’ father, another Cornelius. Either way works equally.
Beauford Delaney Abstract Strata is named for Knoxville’s most famous abstract expressionist. Cal Johnson Biscuits and Gravy is named for the enterprising former slave who became a wealthy businessman with a chain of saloons and a string of thoroughbreds. Perez Dickinson’s Wondrous Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit is named for the 19th-century “merchant-prince” who was proud of his extraordinary farm in what he called his Island Home.
Streaking the Strip Turkey, Bacon, and Avocado is named for the day when, out of character or not, Knoxville became famous for being naked. Streaking was a national phenomenon in early 1974, but the West Cumberland Avenue area took it over the top, just in terms of mass nudity—and in a time when the city was craving distinction, Knoxville was declared the Streaking Capital of America.
Million Dollar Fire Fresh Made Salsa refers to the biggest fire in Knoxville history, the 1897 conflagration on Gay Street less than a block from this corner.
Calaboose Kale Salad is one of several dishes honoring the incarcerated. The calaboose, the street name for the Knoxville jail, was originally right across the alley from this cafe, in “City Hall,” which from 1868 until the early 1900s occupied the space where Market Square’s stage is.
Kid Curry Chicken Salad is named for the Wild Bunch outlaw, aka Harvey Logan, who spent his last verified year and a half in the Knox County jail, before his 1903 escape. It does include curry, of course. McAdoo Macaroni Salad refers to a very different jailbird, lawyer-entrepreneur William Gibbs McAdoo, incarcerated on the Square in 1897 for his part in fomenting a deadly streetcar riot on Depot Street. McAdoo later became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and a U.S. senator from California, presidential candidate, and co-founder of United Artists. I bet he would have appreciated this salad.
I don’t know, but I bet the Bulletproof Cadillac Italian Macaroni Salad is named for a modern legend that a bulletproof Cadillac was discovered during the urban-renewal-era demolitions of the 1950s and ’60s, bricked into a garage on Central Street. It may have provided mob transportation to somebody, but it reportedly went on the fair sideshow circuit as Al Capone’s personal car. That one’s the hardest to verify.
Let Us Now Praise Pimento Cheese is a James Agee reference, and All the Pretty Zucchini and Greens is another McCarthy reference.
It’s over the top, but I’m not complaining. It could have been worse: Let Us Now Praise Famous Mettwurst. Cities of the Plain Biscuit. Or, evoking the Everly Brothers, who seem to be enjoying a revival, the Let It Be Meat sandwich. Or the alternative, Bye Bye Love Handles low-fat wrap.
Some of them may puzzle customers for years to come, but it doesn’t seem to get in the way of the Market House Cafe’s business. And it all seems healthy for a growing city that’s finally finding its heart.
Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.
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