Cinco de Mayo

For the well-read individual, the historian, and, perhaps, for some champions of authenticity, Cinco de Mayo isn’t an exciting holiday.  In the way of the commercial world, the 5th of May, like a few other notable holidays, may have more of its roots in sales routes than in anything else.  But for us at Tomato Head, this particular Cinco de Mayo is an unusually special day, and, if you remember our second restaurant on Market Square in the 90’s, the beloved if short lived Lula, you, too, may think this Cinco de Mayo is pretty cool.

It’s not uncommon for food and beverage writers to lament that Cinco de Mayo is a trumped up little holiday without much correspondence to the reality of Mexico’s own holiday calendar.  It is not the Mexican Independence Day, which is actually on September 16th, nor is it a huge party day across the Mexican nation.  The common complaint is that May 5th was the creation of beer marketers and, later, further popularized by the caramel colored clown that is our nation’s best-selling tequila.

That’s not entirely true.

It’s certainly a holiday that generates its fair share of American hangovers, but it does commemorate an unlikely Mexican victory over invading French troops in 1862.  The battle is still celebrated in Puebla, the state where it happened, and the locals keep the day in festive array with reenactments, parades, and other celebratory happenings.

But what makes Cinco de Mayo particularly fascinating is the way that it has impacted the United States – and not by booze alone.

The victory at Puebla, though not a major battle in the way that strategists think of such things, was a major symbol in the Mexican resistance to Napoleon III’s attempts to reclaim a debt and establish a colonial power.  It helped energize the resistance, which not only kept France from solidifying power but prevented them from fiddling in the American Civil War.  If France had been able to overrun Mexico, there’s a pretty good chance they would have aided the Confederacy in order to end the Union’s pesky blockade of Southern ports.

That might have been a major game changer in the course of human events.

More recently, and perhaps the reason that beer marketers found the holiday, Cinco de Mayo was an important rally day for the Chicano Movement in the 1960’s.  The movement embraced the day as a way to celebrate Mexican tradition, history, and identity in the United States during their struggle for equal rights.

There’s a lot more to the history of the day than we have room to discuss – and that’s certainly true of the Chicano Movement and its impact on Civil Rights.  But suffice to say that we’re proud to celebrate.

And, to show our joy, and to celebrate a little of our own history (not to mention showing off our shiny new liquor license), we’ll be adding tequila to our small but growing collection of spirits.  It will be a 100% blue agave tequila which we’ll mix with house made limeade for a margarita that will almost reincarnate the very popular drinks that we served at Lula back in the day.

If you don’t recall, Lula, our second restaurant on Market Square, featured a contemporary take on Mexican and southwestern cuisine from mole to margaritas.  Sadly, Lula was ahead of its time (and ahead of the crowds on the Square), and we closed the restaurant in 2000 to concentrate on making Tomato Head the best it could be.

Still, we, and many of our friends, have always kept fond memories of Lula in our heart. Now we’ll keep some at the bar.

Happy Cinco de Mayo!  And regardless of what you celebrate, we hope you’ll share part of the day with us!


Strawberry Pie

Our fresh strawberry pie was featured in the Knoxville News Sentinel! To celebrate the official kick-off of strawberry season in East Tennessee, our very own Mahasti Vafaie shares the full recipe and explains what farmer’s markets mean to her.


½ cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 cup frozen cranberry juice, thawed

¾ cup water

6 cups fresh strawberries, quartered



1 Mix sugar, cornstarch, juice and water in a medium saucepan. Over medium heat whisk mixture until thickened and boiling. The mixture will be cloudy when you start and take on a deep rich color when done. Pour mixture into a medium bowl and allow to cool. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 2-3 hours or overnight.

2 Prick bottom and sides of pie crust with a fork. Line with parchment paper or a few coffee filters. Fill with pie weights or beans and bake in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes. Allow to cool a little and then remove the pie weights and parchment or coffee filters and bake an additional 5 minutes until the crust looks dry. Cool crust completely.

3 Remove the sugar and cranberry juice mixture from the refrigerator and whisk until smooth. Stir in the strawberries and pour all ingredients into pie crust. Refrigerate pie for 2-3 hours before serving. Serve with fresh whipped cream.

Hi-Wire Brewing – Featured Brewery

On October 26, 2015, the world was changed, and it was good.

At least, that’s true for the beer-isphere, because that’s the day when Hi-Wire Brewing announced that their Big Top production facility was on-line and would soon make it possible for Tennesseans to enjoy their beer without a commute to Asheville. Before the Big Top, Hi-Wire worked out of a much smaller facility in the South Slope area that produced just enough lovely beer for a select few. Things are much better now.

The 27, 000 sq. ft. that the Big Top occupies comes with a major upgrade in technology that allows Hi-Wire not only to ramp up their production of the flagship brews that built their following but also to plan for the introduction of new brews including a line of seasonal lagers.

Hi-Wire is one of many dream-come-true stories that have helped define the craft beer phenomena: College roommates love craft beer, drink it; move into real jobs; continue loving craft beer; start making it.

Co- Founders Adam Charnack and Chris Forsacker both have had lucrative jobs: Charnak worked in development of affordable housing; Forsaker was a pharmacist. But when a local brewery put their old equipment up for sale, the friends didn’t think twice.

In under 3 years, Hi-wire has grown by leaps and bounds – and the growth came through good reputation alone. In an interview with the NC Beer Guys Adam said, “I don’t think we’ve spent a nickel on advertising. It’s been word of mouth… And people have been receptive. And we have a strong model, we wanted to do four year round beers that were easy to understand styles and we’re trying to do the best we can with those.” We reckon they’ve done a fine job, so this month we’ll have the four core brands on tap, and what beers they are:

Hi-Wire Lager: This true American Lager is made with 100% Pilsen malt with a delicate body and light hop profile. Lagered in the tradition of the style to full maturity. It’s a break from the typical craft American beer scene.

Bed of Nails Brown: The Brown ale is crafted as an ode to the traditional English brown. Its delicate body allows the flavors of caramel and toffee from our specialty malts to come to life.

Prime Time Pale: Simcoe hops bring a plethora of flavors and aromas from this crisp American Pale Ale. From floral to earthy, citrus to pine, this dry ale is an easy drinker.

Hi-pitch IPA: A Western North Carolina take on the West Coast style IPA. Huge citrus hop aromas make this a Hop Head’s dream. Its full body balances well with the bitterness and allows the drinker to enjoy its depth of hop flavors and aromas.

If you make that commute anyway you’ll find Big Top in the Biltmore Village area. Asheville has long been a “beercation” destination, but Biltmore Village is increasingly offers a central hub for the seekers of quality suds. Big top is one of Hi-Wire’s two locations in Asheville, the other, South Slope, is home to their Specialty Brewery and their acclaimed one time release ales and lagers. Hi-wire made news in January of this year when they announced that they were transitioning South Slope’s focus to the exclusive production of sour and wild beers. It’s a pretty good reason to make the trip across the mountain, but, before you make your plans for a visit, make sure you do your homework with us!

Earth Day 2016

Earth Day makes me sad.

I say that only because this year marks the 46th celebration of what many call the birth of the modern environmental movement, and I am older than Earth Day. That brings to mind unfortunate jokes about being older than dirt at a time when I’m not sure whether to celebrate my age or lament it.

Of course Earth Day is ultimately an optimistic celebration, and so, in that spirit, I think that being older than Earth Day means that I can remember some of the first positive impacts of the movement that led to its creation. Like many Tennesseans of a certain age, my awareness of littering was forever framed by a Tennessee Department of Transportation public service announcement featuring a catchy tune and an unshaven man driving a beat-up convertible. The car was filled with trash that the driver gleefully discarded like so much confetti as he drove along and befouled the otherwise picturesque landscape of Tennessee.

The commercial was set to a memorable tune called Tennessee Trash, which was sung by Ed Bruce (the same fellow who wrote, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and he also played the part of the unwashed litter bug); it first appeared in 1976, six years after the first Earth Day. I can still sing a few stanzas of the song: “A little bit of litter goes a long, long way” and “Lord, there ain’t no lower class than Tennessee Trash.”

I can’t say for certain that the celebration of Earth Day specifically motivated the commercial, as it did another famous PSA from Keep America Beautiful; commonly known as the “crying Indian” ad, it featured actor Iron Eyes Cody standing alongside a highway with a single tear in his eye – the result of a bag of litter tossed at his feet by a passing motorist and a symbol of the gross and public disrespect for the nation’s natural beauty. This ad first ran in 1971 to coincide with the second Earth Day and remains a haunting, iconic memory for those of us who saw it.

(You can see both of these public service announcements on YouTube, and they’re worth a look.)

Fortunately the conversation didn’t die with time, and now we’re a little more likely to think about recycling that litter instead of just picking it up for a landfill deposit. At Tomato Head, we began recycling very early in life, back in the days when Mahasti’s old Datsun B-210 was the recycling vehicle and separation of paper and plastic was the rule. Those memories make us particularly happy about today’s single stream pick-ups. Still, whether it was easy or not, we’ve always tried to eliminate waste – we figure that over the last 25 years we’ve recycled over a million pounds of cardboard, metal, glass, plastic and paper.

Today, like many forward thinking businesses in our town, we consider our business in terms of sustainability. In addition to recycling, we compost almost every scrap of food that qualifies. And when we remodeled our Market Square location we included lots of LED lighting, water free urinals, and more elements that make the building less taxing on the world. In fact, while that remodel increased our space by 50%, it only added about 10% to our utility consumption. We’re proud of our efforts, of course. But more than that we believe in a holistic approach to sustainable business, which is why we support organic agriculture, food grown close to home, and other companies that share our goals of helping create a clean environment.

The “Tennessee Trash” commercial ended with the ominous words, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.” While that might be true, we prefer to think of it in a different way, one that reflects the hope and optimism of Earth Day: we have seen the solution, and it is us.

National Grilled Cheese Day

In my personal pantheon of comfort foods, a grilled cheese ranks in the top tier of edible idols. And, despite the legion of silly food holidays, this sammie not only warrants a national day of observance, it really ought to have its own month.  It’s a particularly cozy comestible because it begins so simply with an irresistible combination of pantry standards that, when treated to a special kind of love in a frying pan or on a griddle, turn into magic: gooey, melted cheese and good bread made better by the unmistakable crunch that comes of frying it in butter.  This remarkable combination of flavor and texture make it one of the great joys of eating – especially when paired with a rich tomato soup that you can dunk your sandwich in.

The only downside to the sandwich is that the grilled cheese is all too often shunted over to the kids’ menu. And believe you me, it takes great fortitude and a mighty will for a person of a certain age to order from the kids’ menu under the glare of a disapproving server (and even some unsympathetic spouses), whose eyes smolder with an unspoken injunction, “Oh, please, grow up!”

In most cases, I’m immune to people throwing shade over my cravings but, here, not so much.  I love kids as much as the next person, and I don’t mind sharing a grilled cheese with children; but they hardly merit having it all to themselves.  Besides, bread and cheese are among life’s most sustaining joys – I’m pretty sure that you could live off of that combination alone.  I’m certain I could.  And judging from the world’s many essential foods that consist mostly of bread and cheese, I’m not alone.  Whether it’s an Italian panino, a South African Braaibroodjie, French Croque Monsieur or an English Toastie, the grilled cheese’s many incarnations are vast and vital, delicious and decidedly grown up.

Although I’m not always in agreement with the urge to update or improve every classic dish in the cooking canon, the sheer number of possible combinations of bread and cheese along with the wealth of foods that meld and melt perfectly between them make it impossible to remain a purist about the grilled cheese.

So, in celebration, the restaurant is going full tilt on the indulgence scale for a sandwich built for the happy adult.  Today, which is National Grilled Cheese Day, we’re serving a special combination of Montery Jack, bacon jam, apple chutney, gritz, and crumbled potato chips (yep, you read that correctly) all on delicious Flour Head 100% whole wheat bread.    It’s an explosion of everything that we love about the sandwich, from intense flavor to hearty texture, which we’re certain will make you glad you got up and out today.

And what’s more, we’ll celebrate again on Thursday with even more Monterey Jack on whole wheat but this time topped with red pepper pesto and roasted kale.

Of course, if you’re really celebrating, you’ll want a cup of good soup; and for that we recommend our Tomato Chipotle soup, which is now available every day.   It’s a rich potage with a lively kick of chipotle’s smoky spice and a smooth but hearty texture that makes it a prime candidate for expert sandwich dunking, which, as far as I can tell, is a life skill that only fully develops in the adult of our species.

Jezebel Sauce

We give the devil his due.  I mean, everyone knows who the devil is whether he’s an ex-lover or ex-friend, a boss of special evilness or just a particularly vexing detail; even if we mean the angel of light or prince of darkness, we know about the devil in his more obvious guises.  So when we say deviled eggs or ham, we understand that we’re talking about food that’s zesty, piquant, or spicy.  Though if you ask me, most deviled eggs don’t truly earn the name. If I had my way, the only foods that would be called devilish would be ones that carried a Scoville rating for their inferno-like, spicy heat.

In my mind, other foods where something simple gets all dressed up – like the mild, but beloved stuffed eggs that grace my family reunions – should take their titular cues from a very special sauce that graces many a southern table, especially if there’s a ham on it: Jezebel Sauce.

The sauce is named for one of the Old Testament’s wicked royals who had a particularly sticky end that involved some harsh prophecy from Elijah, a crowd, a horse, and a pack of stray dogs.  You can read the whole story in the 1st and 2nd Book of Kings.  For our purposes, the important part of that story is that just before [spoiler alert] she was thrown out of the palace window, “she painted her eyes and adorned her head and looked out…”  And thus the name of Jezebel has forever been linked to women (of course) who are overly made-up, women of loose morals, or any poor gal who fall on the wrong side of the patriarchal standards for approved feminine demeanor and appearance.  Isn’t that nice?

In food terms, the word refers to a sauce base, usually something wholesome like apple, peach or pineapple preserves that gets all tarted up with the addition of lots of horseradish, yellow mustard, and some black pepper, too.  It functions much in the same way that chutney and other relishes do – it adds additional sweetness and savor along with a mighty kick.  In fact some original recipes call for so much mustard and horseradish that in addition to making your eyes water and your nose run, it was potent enough to make you spout steam from your ears.

We aren’t interested in seeing you spout steam from your ears, as fascinating as that might be. But we do think it’s a fine sauce to add to the roster of great Southern accents for living.  In fact, it’s essential to a very famous Southern hors d’oeuvres – a Triscuit smeared with cream cheese topped with a dollop of Jezebel.  But we’re more likely to recommend it with pork, especially in the form of breakfast sausage on biscuit with Monterey Jack cheese – which is exactly how we’ll be serving it at the Tomato Head this weekend.  If you’d like to learn more, Mahasti will be taking to the airwaves to share her own delicious take on Jezebel Sauce – so we invite all of you boys and girls to paint your eyes, fix your hair and tune in to WBIR’s Weekend Today to get saucy with us!



4 cups Pineapple tidbits, drained

2 large granny smith apples, cored and diced

1 1/2 cups of the pineapple juice, (you can add apple juice to make up the difference if you don’t have enough apple juice)

2 Tbl prepared Horseradish

1/4 cup Yellow Mustard

3/4 cup Sugar

2 tsp Black Pepper

2 tsp Salt

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Place all ingredients in a pot over medium heat.  Bring to boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until apples are soft.  Puree the mixture with an immersion blender or cool then puree in a blender.

You can serve the sauce hot, or chilled.  Will keep in the refrigerator for quite a while.

Calfkiller Brewing – Featured Brewery

As breweries become more of a fixture on the urban landscape, it’s refreshing to find one that’s close to home but situated smack dab in the middle of a picture perfect vision of bucolic Tennessee.  Located in Sparta, which is just about an hour and a half from Knoxville and almost due south of Cookeville, our featured brewery for April, Calfkiller, is a backyard operation that’s been patched together in a fashion that’s the stuff of storybooks and beer loving dreams.

Sparta is one of those places in Tennessee that probably doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, though in the 1830’s it was an important spot on the wagon trail to Nashville, and it’s still the home to the Sparta Rock House, once an important inn, tollhouse, and rest stop that’s part of the National Register of Historic Places. Lester Flatt lived there for a spell, and the city hosts an annual bluegrass festival in his honor.  Sparta came close to being our State’s capital, but, according to legend, it lost to Nashville by one vote – and that vote was sold for a drink of whiskey.  Perhaps it’s ironic or merely just that another thirst quencher has helped Sparta reclaim some of its luster.

Calfkiller, named for the river that flows nearby (which, according to one legend, is named for a cattle loving Cherokee chief), is the passion child of brothers Don and Dave Sergio.  Located in the back yard of Don’s house, the brewery was constructed and equipped mostly from reclaimed and recycled materials and gear, though it’s as picturesque as anything you might plan.  And it was put together and grew as the brother’s expanded what originally was “an aggressive home-brew hobby” that they started around and about 2001.  It wasn’t until 2004 that Don and Dave commenced brewing Calfkiller proper, and they’ve spent the ensuing years honing their craft, ramping up production and distribution, and making a name for themselves.

But the fact of the matter is that the trappings of the building and the burdens of marketing are secondary concerns or, perhaps, just necessary evils to these modern day Spartans – their cause in love, peace, and perhaps battle, too, is a frothy class of “Beer free of the tyranny of stylistic oppression.”

That’s a pretty good fight to fight – at least as we see it.  The beer is good and has the added value of being made by loving hands in a beautiful part of the world that you can visit in about the same amount of time it would take you to get in and out of Turkey Creek on a holiday weekend.  You can visit their website to schedule a tour or buy some groovy Calfkiller merchandise that will brand you as real beer lover and a smart one, too.

We’re featuring 4 of their brews – maybe some others, too – so you’ll want to hurry on down and see what it’s all about:

Wizard Sauce

It’s an American style IPA that the Sergio boys describe as, “An ode to summer, an ode to magic, an ode to 13 years of brewing Wizardry…the Calfkiller Wizard Sauce. Some things DEFY explanation! Taste the Magic!”  5.3% ABV

Scorned Hooker

This American Style Amber ale gets a colorful description, too: ” ‘She may be a little bitter, but she ‘s still so sweet!,’ describes this hooker to a ‘T.’ Its bright whole-hop flavor is balanced perfectly with a smooth, malty backbone and notes of caramel and honey.”  5.7% ABV


“Traditionally untraditional. An ‘oatmeal and brown sugar entire,’ precursor to the porter. This beer is well balanced, dry, faintly roasty, slightly chocolatey, moderately warm and heavily drinkable!” 6.0% ABV

Just Dew It with a side of Pecans

The approach of Big Ears, in addition to a fantastic slate of music, gives us pause to appreciate things homegrown.  It also reminds us of how nice it is to be in Knoxville, and how lucky we are to have witnessed and participated in all the work that has gone into making our city a place where something as cool as Big Ears can find a home.  We’re looking forward to the festival and all the good things that come with it.  So we’re celebrating in Tomato Head fashion with lots of southern themed specials and, of course, desserts.

In the spirit of East Tennessee and its sense of humor, we’re commemorating one of our most famous soft drinks, Mountain Dew.  As with any notable product, the actual origins of the recipe for this soda are subject to some disputation, but it is undisputed that the product was first trade marked by Barney and Ally Hartman who ran a bottling plant in Knoxville.  And that’s good enough for our purposes, especially seeing as we’re not here to pick a fight- we’re just baking a cake.

Mountain Dew cake is a recipe that comes from any number of possible sources, but we’ll be using Paula Deen’s recipe which combines a lemon cake base, supplemented by lemon pudding and a can of good ole Mountain Dew.  It’s a very limited offering that we’re baking up just for the festival, so if you want to “do the Dew” by living out a few of Mountain Dew’s slogans  and “tickle your innards” or “get that barefoot feelin’” you’ll want to stop in early this weekend before the Dew evaporates.

We’re also putting up our Pecan Pie – it’s the kind of dessert that gives us the warm fuzzies and makes us feel at home whenever we see it, let alone eat a piece.  Part of that comes from the fact that we like to claim the pecan as a particularly Southern nut- and we’re mighty fond of Southern nuts, particularly if they’re our relations.  But if the truth be told, pecans belong to a large swath of the United States – the name itself is an Algonquin word that, according to the vast wisdom of the web, means something like, “all nuts requiring a stone to crack.”

Certainly Pecan Pie remains a decidedly Southern dessert whose nutty, rich, buttery and gooey excellence occupies a place of honor in the pantheon of our regional cuisine and the images upon which fond recollections of an unspoiled youth in the country are founded.  It’s also a young-ish recipe, but nobody’s really certain when the pie came to be; it didn’t show up in cookbooks until the 20th century.

Still, it’s a potent symbol of Southern hospitality and tradition and the value we place on gathering together to break bread.  Of course, a real Tennessee table knows no strangers – so whether you’re visiting to hear a little music with Big Ears, or if you’re one of the neighbors that we see all the time, we’ll be tickled pink to see you!  Come one in and sit a spell.

March Artist Rick Whitehead

This month on Market Square, Tomato Head will be the home to an intriguing exhibit by artist Rick Whitehead; it features a dramatic series of pictures from the equally dramatic tornado season of 2011 when funnel clouds and hail descended upon Knoxville in nearly Biblical proportions. “It’s a series of photographs that I took over the course of several days. There’s no zoom and no cropping. I call the series the ‘Tempest Solarized’,” he says, “and that refers to the technique pioneered by Man Ray in the 20’s and 30’s. It’s an effect [that happens to the photo] when you’re in the dark room and open the door to the light for a few seconds.“

This is the first time that he’s had the chance to show the pieces together as a group, and it’s an exciting opportunity to see the sky through Whitehead’s lens. The collection owns an almost surreal effect that’s a natural element of cloud gazing – particularly on the stormy days when Rick was shooting. He remembers that “these were all very close by, all the churning clouds. The formations were very dramatic… this one reminds me of a landscape and this is just the churning of the tornado. And others become more like abstract shapes that you don’t recognize as clouds.”

Photography is only a small part of Whitehead’s métier – painting and drawing are his principle foci, and his show will include some of examples of that work. “I’ve been experimenting with pressed charcoal and I’ll have some of the latest pieces and also some from my Aboriginal Series. I didn’t want to keep the show completely in the clouds.”

Rick draws inspiration for his painting from many sources, including dream-life: “There are dream pieces that are directly from dreams, but mainly I think it is that when I look at certain things, especially a lot of the series of landscapes, they’re more like visions.” Still, the quality of the dream seems to pervade much of his work, which, at least to this eye, gives the whole exhibit a vast array of associations.

Whitehead is a graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and his work has been exhibited throughout the country and internationally in Belgium and Spain. And while the exhibit that we’re hosting is only a small part of his work, it’s enough to make us want to know and see more. And while you can see more on his website, you won’t want to miss this opportunity to these absorbing works in person.

Rick’s show will hang downtown through April 4th and then transfer to the Gallery through May 2nd.

© 2016 The Tomato Head Site by: Robin Easter Design