“Welcome to the Knoxville Food Tours!” I exclaim, to the group of 12 guests who are gathered in front of me in the Knoxville Visitor Center. I have already discovered a little about them as they checked in. They are a varied group – a couple who have been on one of my tours before have brought their friends with them, a couple celebrating their anniversary, two who have been best friends since they were kids, and a family of three generations. Even though I am going into my fourth year, and have led over 400 tours, today, as usual, I feel a bit of nervousness at the beginning of the outing. I want everyone to have an amazing experience.
The group listens attentively as I discuss how the Visitor Center is a great destination, even for locals. Their partnership with radio station WDVX brings many people in every day for a live radio show, which they are surprised to learn, takes place on a tiny little stage in the corner. “This is where the Blue Plate Special is?” someone asks. “I listen to that every day on the radio!”
I introduce guests to Visit Knoxville employee Casey Bright, as this is our first stop on the tour. Participating in the food tours is a great way for Visit Knoxville to highlight the locally made and packaged food products they sell for their vendors on consignment. Today Casey has made a dip with Apple of My Eye dip mix from Sophie’s Choice, mixed with cream cheese and served with crackers. Sophie’s Choice is a line created by local resident Tracie Graham and made with her daughter Sophie. One advantage of their mixes is that they only need to be combined with one other ingredient. The Apple of My Eye mix contains toffee bits, brown sugar, and dry molasses. To accompany this rich dip is Goodson Brother’s Coffee. The Mr. Goodson who runs this company is a direct descendent of James Franklin Goodson, who created the coffee powerhouse JFG in 1882.
After Casey finishes his presentation about the Visit Knoxville, I tell the group that I have one more item for them to sample before we head out. I pull out a menu from Cities Cupcake Boutique and explain how the owner, Linda Hurst, called me and said she really wanted to be on the Food Tour, but her shop is about 3 miles away, so I told her she could deliver her cupcakes to us. I explain her concept of how every cupcake is named for a city, and how she tries to create a flavor of what each city is famous for. Today we have 2 of the bestsellers – for conservative types, the Washington D.C., with vanilla cake, vanilla buttercream and red, white, and blue star sprinkles. For chocoholics in the group, we have the Chicago cupcake, with chocolate cake, chocolate buttercream, and “snow crystal” sprinkles. We are definitely off to a decadent start on this afternoon food adventure.
As we step outside, I begin my commentary on Knoxville, then we head down Gay Street. After I began the tours in 2010, I soon learned that the guests really enjoy my notes about the history of the city and about some of the historic buildings. Working our way down Gay St. with my narration, we arrive at our next stop, Lenny’s. As we go inside, someone says, “I’ve lived in Knoxville all my life, and you’ve already told me many things I didn’t know about this town.”
Lenny’s, along with several of my other partners, have been with me since the very beginning of the tours. With six stores in town, Lenny’s has a location close to most any local on the tour, so it is a great opportunity for them to connect with the tour guests. Guests are encouraged to choose their own drink from the new “Freestyle” drink machine. It is all touch screen with the ability to mix over 100 flavor combinations. Being designed by Ferrari simply adds to the cool factor of the machine. Guests are each brought a basket of Lenny’s bestseller, the Philly Cheesesteak. The manager Kyle explains that this is a third of their regular size sub which is a half pound of meat and cheese. It is accompanied by a hot cherry pepper relish on the side. “Do you sell this?” someone asks. Kyle displays a jar of the vinegar based sauce which sells for $4.95, and shares some of his experiences of cooking with it at home by using the sauce in eggs, soups, chili, and burgers. ￼
Hot cherry pepper relish in tow, we continue down Gay St. toward the oldest part of Knoxville. “We are going to the fourth oldest building in Knoxville, the Bijou,” I explain. The interior of The Bistro at the Bijou is warm and cozy. We are in the former cellar of this 1816 building. I glance around quickly to see where our table is set up and to make sure the owner, Martha Boggs, sees us coming in. Martha is heading out of the kitchen along with a service of trays of dishes. After a flurry of musical chairs, we are all seated together at a long table and Martha is describing the bowl of grits, ham, red eye gravy, and greens with chow chow that she has prepared for the group. One of the ladies leans over and whispers, “You know, I’ve just moved here, I’m not used to eating foods like this.” “Taste it,” I say with a smile, knowing Martha’s dishes were sure to quickly win her over to Southern cooking. She was about to experience one of the great benefits about the Food Tours, having an opportunity to try new foods or items you might not otherwise order.
While we eat, Martha shares how the Bistro is the longest continuous running restaurant in downtown Knoxville. This building was never used as its original intention of being a private home, but instead has been a hotel, civil war hospital, bordello, prohibition fruit stand, and Knoxville’s first Chinese restaurant. Martha fields questions about her garden and her cooking techniques, someone buys a gift certificate for a friend, and we are off again.
A short way back up Gay St. is our next stop, Dazzo’s, a little Italian place. After we are seated, the front door swings open and who but Martha Boggs strides in. “Hi folks!” she exclaims, challenging them to get her inside joke. “It’s you!” someone says. “I heard the food was good up here,” Martha teases. Martha tells how she bought Dazzo’s from a native New Yorker who taught her his recipes for pizza and pasta. Today we are trying the Grandma’s pizza and a baked ziti. The mozzarella is made here at the shop and is paired with the prized San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. One of the guests leans over and happily says to me, “I’m surprised at the portion sizes on the tour, I thought we would only get a bite at each stop.” Before we leave, I hear someone whisper in amazement, “She really owns two restaurants?” I love how these brief moments with a hard working entrepreneur can inspire so many.
We are heading back up Gay St. and I look back. After quite a bit of eating, the group is slowing down. I stop to talk about a few buildings, we look at the marquee to see who is coming to the Tennessee Theater, then cross over and through Krutch Park. Next stop is Tree & Vine on Union Ave.
“Oh I’ve walked by here but I’ve never gone in,” I hear someone say. The Tree & Vine is a specialty shop that carries flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars from the Mediterranean. We are greeted by the friendly faces of Jetta and Chris. Chris gives the group a description of the items on their tasting bar, from the mildest olive oil to the most flavorful 18 year aged balsamic. After the overview, they encourage guests to start tasting, and talk with them individually about uses and pairing of the flavors with various foods. “Oh, Paula,” one guest says to me, “I’ve tasted so many different things today I don’t think I can try anything else.” “Come and try this,” I say, leading her to the honey ginger white balsamic, great for soothing full tummies.
As guests begin tasting, they discover these imported oils and vinegars are not something they can find at the local grocery stores, and a flurry of purchasing bottles to take home ensues. The walls of Tree & Vine are lined with more specialty regional and imported packaged food items, coffees, teas, cookware and gadgets, and accessories for food and drink.
This two and a half hour tour is drawing to a close and as I am thanking everyone for coming, some of them begin telling me who they are bringing back with them on their next tour. That’s what I like to hear, and it reminds me to let everyone know that the downtown tours are held weekly all throughout the year, on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and that I have a brand new tour beginning every Thursday in the Bearden area. Tickets can be purchased online at www.knoxvillefoodtours.com or by phone at 865-201-7270.