James Beard should go to the World's Fair. And Julia Child. And all the chefs of all the New American restaurants and all the writers who are celebrating the American culinary renaissance.
They need to know what they are up against.
A hundred thousand square feet of dining space devoted to culinary commercialism, the World's Fair in Knoxville is a devil's dance of culinary Americana. And crowds are standing in line for hours to sample it.
Comfort may be taken in the fact that while they are buying it, they aren't necessarily liking it.
"I make better Oriental food than that," drawled a Tennessee woman who had just eaten at the Korea Pavilion's restaurant, where waiters in black tie and waitresses in silk gowns served short ribs in a slick and starchy sauce, seafood and beef fritters that were gristly and hard, chewy rice permeated with overripe scallions, at $7.50 for a platter saved only barely by some crunch in the vegetables. The menu had been pared down to five items, at least three of them in the same sauce and none half as savory as an airline dinner. When our waiter abandoned us mid-meal to sit down to his own lunch, we didn't know which was worse, his manners or his taste.
There is nothing like a captive audience. The second week of the fair, the Mexico Pavilion restaurant ran out of food one day by 8 p.m. And the Kuntry (sic) Kitchen was opening each morning at 11, always to run out of fried chicken, once as early as 11:30.
And despite prices like $1.50 for a Coke at the Hungary Pavilion, and at another place, $1 for a doughnut that tasted like it wasn't even good yesterday, 75 cents for a Stokely-Van Camp pickle and $6 for a hamburger with the works at Ruby Tuesday restaurant or for a tuna melt sandwich at the L & N Fish Market, the lines were long everywhere. Lines doubling back on themselves at Hardee's. A three-hour wait to pay $2 to get up to the See FAIR, E?, Col. 1 FAIR, From E1 Sunsphere restaurant, and then another $15 for a roast beef platter that even the manager on duty admitted was drawing a lot of complaints--chewy and fatty, he'd been hearing. And we agreed, though we had noticed that chewy was a theme--from the $10 game hen to the $10 roast pork--which was a diversion from waterlogged (cauliflower and potatoes), oversalted ("wild rice blend") and just plain dreadful (Canadian cheese soup that tasted like thinned Cheez-Whiz). The flagship of the new Hardee's specialty restaurants, the Sunsphere dining rooms were serving to 2,000 people a day what the manager called "full-service fast food." And on one of the two floors the restaurant had only one women's restroom facility, so again there was a line.
But some people loved the food. A Florida woman relishing Pierre Interlude's watery and saline all-you-can-eat onion soup (served at seven World's Fairs so far) had adored her red snapper at the Sunsphere, so fresh and so delicious (so defrosted and so paprika-dyed).
The World's Fair is redefining the word "fresh." The word is splashed all over the stand called Grandma's Cobbler. Are the blackberries, the apples, all those fruits really fresh? "Well, not out of the garden," the server replied. How about out of a can? "Well, yeah." And the "fresh" orange juice at the Ha agen-Dazs stand? Reconstituted frozen. Are the clams actually "fresh" in the chowder at L & N Fish House? No, not if you ask twice.
Fourteen restaurants and 43 snack stands are serving food from all corners of the earth. Philippine menudo, Hungarian rabbit paprikash, Greek gyros. Maybe it's the Tennessee air, but they all tasted pretty much the same. The Philippine stand displays brighter-than-life photographs of its menudo ("sloppy joe-style hamburger"), chicken adobo, inihaw (skewered beef) and alimasac (stuffed crab) but almost all were ladled with the same glistening but tasteless sauce, and the skewered beef was so tough and gristly that we couldn't even bite it off the skewer. And they had about the same non-taste as the Oriental Express chow mein and chop suey, which, if you added paprika, could have passed for the food at the Hungary Pavilion.
But Hungary claimed one touch of authenticity. The white wine was served warm. "That's the way they do it," insisted the waitress, adding, "I'm from Japan. What do I know?"
The Japanese snack stand, on the other hand, insisted that Ginza Chicken was Chinese. The Chinese wouldn't want to claim it either, was our guess. $3.75 for greasy hunks of boneless fried chicken served with rice and coleslaw. What's Oriental about that? "It's fried in soybean oil," the server clarified our confusion. But even though that stand was charging 50 cents a cup for ice, we recognized it had assets: pretty good steamed pork baos. And the coleslaw was fine.
A World's Fair it may be, but it shows its Tennessee roots. Thank goodness. The Greek stand's gyros may taste like lamb bologna, the Skinny Dippers potato skins (four pieces for $1.55) may be the world's first inedible version of that can't-miss food fad, but every pavilion and stand serves good, sweeten-it-yourself iced tea, with fresh lemon, lime or orange wedges, and almost everybody serves coleslaw. In fact, the coleslaw was usually the best food to be had. Unless there were biscuits.
The clams with linguine tasted like fishy canned chicken noodle soup, but the L & N Fish House served a terrific biscuit. The Kuntry Kitchen sold four pitiful dried-out bits of chicken and four potato wedges for $3.50, but its biscuits were only 10 cents.
Southern fried chicken is another matter. You get your choice of greasy and mushy or dried out. And after a day at the fair we felt strangled by chicken fingers. At the Smoky Mountain Country Restaurant ("down-home Southern cooking") they are shaped like factory-made hamburgers. Down-home cooking in this case means burgers, hot dogs and chicken-in-a-basket. The daily special three days in a row was fried chicken wings, four for $4 (the chicken baskets, of course, contained breasts without the wings). But the biscuits were good, and the country ham not bad. Talkin' about country, a stand called Appalachian Appetite serves such regional foods as hamburgers with cheddar and hamburgers with American cheese.
Brookhaven Farm's Country Kitchen serves country ham, too, along with fried chicken, beans and cornbread and daily specials such as chicken and dumplings. After waiting in a long, slow line, a man ordered the chicken and dumplings. Eventually the server put two plates in front of him, both with french fries (the corn on the cob had run out), coleslaw and corn muffins (the biscuits had run out), accompaniments to what looked like a lumpy pool of gray mucilage. "Is that the chicken and dumplings?" the man asked. When he was assured that's what it was, he sadly shook his head and walked off, leaving the plates on the counter. We wouldn't have eaten them either.
For real country cooking you had to go to the Folkways Food Exhibit, where a home kitchen was installed, lined with home-canned foods, for demonstrations of real down-home cooking. "Now, chitlin's are a very emotional subject," folklorist Mary Hufford explained as she outlined the week's cooking demonstrations: barbecued neck bones, pickled pigs' feet, groundhogs. Evelyn Badgett was handing out free samples of her crusty, crunchy crackling bread, the neck bones and mustard greens already having been picked to nothing by the crowd around the stand. Bystanders traded memories of their mamas' variations on the crackling bread theme. Everyone was learning from everyone else as the weeks went along, said Hufford, who shuddered as she talked of the commercial "country cooking" at the fair. Unfortunately the Folkways project hadn't been allocated enough money to stay open longer than 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. But the next day a crowd had gathered again, this time to taste Marie Wright's good-for-what-ails-you potato soup. "Mother gave it to us no matter what," she said, as she told the recipe: Cook six peeled and cubed potatoes with half a chopped onion in water to cover until tender. Add half a stick of butter and half a cup of milk. That's it. It was just plain good after a morning of greasy deep-fried meatballs called BoBos, of greasy deep-fried vegetables, of greasy sour-cream-and-onion flavored popcorn that tasted like some chemistry lab leftovers.
But there was other good food at the Fair. The problem was it just took so much weeding out to find it.
The best of the restaurants, the one that any country wouldn't mind claiming as its own, was the Mexico Pavilion's. Maybe that's because it was the only international restaurant actually imported from that country. The Hungary restaurant came straight from Knoxville, the Korea and China from New York. The China restaurant had promised chefs from the mainland, but visa problems, it was said, had prevented their materializing. Furthermore, a hailstorm had closed down the kitchen for the time being, and the menu--such exotica as mu shi pork, pepper steak, kung pao chicken, Peking duck and egg drop soup--was being sent off to have its prices raised from the already-high average of $9 per entree, $12.50 to $17.50 for fixed-price dinners.
But the Mexico restaurant had real Mexicans serving some truly homemade soups, fresh and crunchy tacos and intense mole'. Some of it tasted toned-down, particularly the carne asada, and the fish was defrosted and overcooked, but in general its meals were refreshingly interesting. You could also get some good--though overpriced--potato pancakes and bratwurst at the Strohaus, some fine fudgy and gooey brownies at Mother Hubbard's in flavors such as cream cheese and coconut-cherry (if you carefully avoided the sugary, tasteless and overpriced brownies at the stand next to the Philippine booth) and fresh fruit plates at Fresh Fruit Works, if you didn't mind peeling your sliced melon, pineapple and banana. Never did half a cantaloupe filled with strawberries and grapes look more refreshing or seem more a bargain at $1.75. In the amusement area, stuffed baked potatoes had generous servers ladling mounds of green peppers, olives, bean dip, tomato sauce, onions, sour cream, chili, ham, whatever, on big and bargain-priced potatoes. And in the context of this fair, pizza seemed like a dear old friend. The hamburgers at Ruby Tuesday's--400 pounds of them a day--came with lots of flavor and a jazzy environment (as well as occasional gristle). You could also get a good minced barbecue sandwich at Buddy's, and enjoy it with bluegrass music. In that case it was best to be a cheapskate, for the $1.75 barbecue sandwich was far better than Buddy's falling-off-the-bones $4.25 ribs. A raw bar was set up on a waterfront barge, the breeziest location of the sun-baked fair. And a carryover from the last World's Fair was still and deservedly the hit: Brussels Patisserie's Belgian waffles, light and crisp, covered with fresh strawberries and real whipped cream squeezed out of a pastry bag.
Few of the eating places opened as early in the morning as the fair did, at 10 a.m., though the beer stands were doing business right from the start. But by noon the lines stretched in front of any place where you could sit out of the sun. What you couldn't find easily were water fountains, though the fair had belatedly installed three dozen in the second week. A spokesman said the average expenditure for food was $5 a person. A high proportion of that was certainly going for beer, Cokes and Gatorade which, unlike water, were official beverages of the fair.
A few big plans had gone awry. The New Orleans Seafood stand was yet to open; the concession manager of the Kuntry Kitchen was planning to take it over, admitting, "At this late date we had to compromise," and bemoaning that if it hadn't been delayed, "We could have been makin' some money." The do-it-yourself pasta bar in the restored Candy Factory had turned into a cafeteria-style spaghetti-and-pizza place, and the open-broiler restaurant never materialized, while the Polynesian and Canadian buffet upstairs had sunk into roast beef, ham, chicken cacciatore, seafood newberg and the like, the usually gloppy-looking steamtable stuff, at nearly $14 for dinner.
This is not the fair to invent the ice cream cone or the hot dog; it is not about to influence the tastebuds of a generation, at least not in any way that one would hope. It may be remembered only as the fair that gave dinner-in-a-bag its start.
It is the fair for the likes of a woman from Memphis who summed up her visit with, "We got all this in Memphis. It's too expensive for what it is." But she didn't regret her visit because, "After all, I just wanted to say I've been here."