I’ve written here before about loving the idea of regional specialties, and recipes that you just can’t find all over the country. I’m starting to see that some of these, you have to look a little to find. For example, there’s Knoxville, a terrific city that I have visited better than a dozen times. Like its I-40 neighbor, Asheville, it’s a city where we don’t know anybody yet, and so visiting isn’t quite as fun as we would like it to be, but until we befriend some locals one day, there’s still a lot to do. Especially if you’re a Vols fan. We’re not, of course, but I think that SEC cities are always exciting and fun. Well, I say that, but it’s not like I’ve visited even half of them. But anyway, Knoxville has a couple of good record shops, two absolutely amazing bookstores, Marie’s favorite pizzeria and something we knew nothing about until about a week ago: steamed sandwiches.
There’s very little information online about Knoxville’s hot, steamed sandwiches, and what there is seems both dismissive and contradictory. The first Google result that I pull up (http://www.cs.utk.edu/~plank/plank/recs/rest/sandwich.html , evidently a URL registered shortly after the introduction of the printing press) is one man’s chronicle of how weird and awful these sandwiches are, with some spirited rebuttals from locals who love them. Over at a site called city-data.com, a user going by the handle “SpectreBlofeld” describes the steamed sandwich as “mighty” and did not realize until he moved to Texas that the soggy sandwiches he was used to were very much a local thing, and that Texans found the notion of a soggy sandwich completely baffling. Last April, however, a New York Times food writer suggested that these were not so unique, and that steamed hamburgers have been common in Connecticut for years.
For most of us, ordering a hot sandwich will see the bread, meat and cheese placed either in an oven or in a press, but in Knoxville, they use a proper steamer. You can expect an aluminum contraption with a reservoir of heated water underneath a cooking chamber. The result should be melted cheese mixed with the meat and very soft bread. Apparently there are arguments about how moist or soggy the bread should be. “SpectreBlofeld” calls for it to be soggy, but an article at StateMaster.com (which looks a lot like it once appeared at Wikipedia but was eventually deleted on account of nobody really being all that interested) states that this is not acceptable, “and likely the result of a defective steamer.”
At Nixon’s Deli, one of the homes of the steamed sandwich, I would call the result pretty darned soggy, but also very acceptable.
Nixon’s Deli has five locations in the city, and, along with Slappy’s, is evidently one of the best places to get a steamed hoagie. On the weekends, Nixon’s offers two footlong subs for $10.99, so Marie and I each ordered one. One of the comments that I read had suggested that lettuce and tomato don’t go very well on a steamed sub, so I passed on those, but Marie considers sandwiches incomplete without them. Mine was a turkey and smoked cheddar and Marie had salami and cheddar. Hers turned out to be considerably more photogenic than mine.
The steaming takes quite a while to get right. The restaurant was not very busy, but we did have a pretty long wait while the two staffers prepped our food. We did not mind, as we were dropping our son off with his mother for another stay with her, and our daughter wanted to have a little time to see her, too. Also, my kids have a three year-old half-brother who wanted to show off and entertain everybody. Everybody in a three-mile radius. That kid’s got some lungs.
We were quite pleased with the results. The bread was very moist and agreeably soft, though I can see the argument that this process might have only started years before to mask the taste of dry, shipped-in sub rolls. Marie said that her salami was very good, and I really liked the combination of the melted cheese and soft bread. This is definitely a meal that I can get behind revisiting.
A dissenting opinion was offered by my daughter, however. She had a small Italian sandwich on pumpernickel bread and found it incredibly disagreeable. Evidently, I didn’t do my part in explaining what I meant by steaming. This despite the fact that whenever Marie steams tortillas at home, somebody has to help my daughter take hers from the rack, otherwise she yelps and whines that the steam is too hot. At any rate, she complained that the bread was wet and that she didn’t like wet bread and did not finish her lunch. It worked out for the best; I was considering stopping for a snack, giving me the chance to visit a longtime favorite before we would leave town a couple of hours later, but I knew that after my huge turkey sub that I wouldn’t be very hungry, but she would. This way, we would both win.