At the risk of shocking those who think they have me pegged as a food-hugger I have a confession to make. Upon moving back to Knoxville from Sacramento, Calif., one of the first things I did was buy a bag of Krystals.
Krystal is the Southern equivalent of iconic hamburger chain White Castle, and in fact Krystal was founded in Chattanooga, Tennessee, 13 years after White Castle was in Chicago back during the Depression. Like White Castle, the traditional Krystal is a small, square burger — a slider, as they’re called — fried on a flattop grill, topped with re-hydrated dried onions, a large squirt of yellow mustard, and a round of dill pickle. When I was in high school we called them grease burgers and the restaurants pits, as in grease pits. They’re nasty little burgers, but I grew up on them.
Back in the early ’60s the burgers sold for 12 cents apiece; my mother could feed herself and three kids for about $3.00 and during the summer she did so once every week or so. The four of us sat in an un-air-conditioned Rambler station wagon, sweating like the cups of coke we washed the burgers down with. So, even though “they’re nasty little burgers,” I have a soft spot in my heart and taste buds for that childhood treat.
Not having had a Krystal since leaving Knoxville 10 years earlier to become an itinerant editor, I had to have a batch when I got back. As you might imagine, the price had gone up a bit since 1965 and it cost me four dollars to feed myself alone.
There was another burger joint that I also visited shortly after returning, Litton’s Restaurant and Market.
I drove back to Knoxville from Sacramento, a cross-country trip I had long wanted to make and finally had an opportunity to do. Along the way I pretended to be Jane and Michael Stern and did my best to avoid any chain restaurants and fast-food joints on the journey. My effort resulted in a few good meals — such as a pizza place in Barstow, California, filled with an eclectic mix of bikers and families and a sandwich shop in Gallup, New Mexico, with a killer tuna melt — and a few bad meals like a diner that served canned everything (not frozen, canned) somewhere between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. But most meals were simply unmemorable. Not what I hoped for, but sometimes reality is no more satisfying than a bad Elvis impersonator.
In 1980 a former Marine named Barry Litton returned to Knoxville and opened a meat market in Fountain City, one of Knoxville’s older outlying neighborhoods. He started making hamburgers, which he cooked in a three-legged electric skillet. One thing led to another and he eventually ended up opening Litton’s Restaurant and Market with his sister, Kelly. It’s really more a diner than a restaurant and market though, replete with a counter, stools, and banquettes. Nevertheless, Litton’s has become a highlight in Knoxville’s appallingly predictable food scene. In fact, Litton’s would stand out wherever it was located
The menu is what you would expect in a diner — Blue Plate Specials like meatloaf, fried chicken, salmon croquettes, and so on. But the real claim to fame is the burgers. These are the diametric opposite, in any sense you can imagine, of a Krystal. Each morning a baker comes in at 4:30 and begins making the buns from scratch for that day. The meat is freshly ground from top round steak (the “steak side” as Kelly says) and the fries are hand cut and twice-fried as God and the Belgians intended. I’ve never eaten in any other burger joint that ground its own meat and baked its own buns (not to mention the desserts). Oh sure, these days as burgers go upscale, you can find fancy restaurants doing their own grinding and baking, places like the Boca Raton Resort and Club with its $124.50 Kobe burger or DB Bistro in New York and its far more reasonable $29 burger. But Litton’s isn’t a high-class froo-froo fine dining establishment in New York City or a resort in Boca Raton, Florida. It’s a neighborhood diner in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The food isn’t fast and isn’t cheap. The burgers are thick and take time to cook — even if you want it rare, which they will do. I like bacon and cheese on my burgers and Litton’s offers a choice of real cheese and the bacon is always crisp, but not hard and dry. In fact, the bacon is also made for each order.
Our American popular foods (whether pizza, burgers or fried chicken) became so because the combination of ingredients and cooking method were perfectly matched and because they appealed as much to those whose ancestry was German as those whose ancestry was Mexican. They became fast foods because the cooking method was already quick or could be speeded up and, so, subject to mass production (make the pizza dough in advance; use frozen, pre-formed burgers; cook the chicken under pressure). But quick almost always compromises quality. And fast-food joints don’t sell food but instead sell promises that always fail, unless the promise, like a Krystal, can reach back into your childhood, your roots. McDonald’s gets this and spent years and dollars accomplishing that by appealing to kids.
But if you’re an adult, then after eating that nasty McD or Krystal or KFC for nostalgia’s sake, go back to the originals. The real food. You’ll find that pan-fried chicken can remind you of an imaginary grandmother, from-scratch pizza can enlighten you, and even a burger — hand made from patty to bun — can make the world a better place.
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