The best pizza joint in East Tennessee is a dark, dimly lit place on Jackson Square in Oak Ridge. I was introduced to Big Ed’s when I went to UT in the early 70s by a couple of Oak Ridgers. The photo below, taken with a time exposure, makes Big Ed’s look much brighter than it really is.
At that time, Big Ed, aka Edward Neusel, presided over his eponymous eatery. He was a large, intimidating-looking guy who seemed to mostly hang around while a group of high schoolers did the work.
When I became a freelance writer, the very first piece of writing I ever sold was an article on Big Ed to a forgettable publication called Pizza & Pasta, a trade publication of the Italian restaurant trade. I got paid a princely sum of $25 for the article and photos. Here is one of them:
Big Ed is standing in front of one of several cases in his restaurant. This one was filled with military items given to him by various marksmanship teams who had eaten at his place. Other cases contained footballs signed by the UT football team and other sports memorabilia. When I began teaching Expository Writing at Harvard in 1979, I conjured up an assignment in which I would give each student a photo and ask him or her to deduce what was happening in the photo and, based solely on that evidence, write a paper describing the scene. I had several photos of Big Ed, and used them many times.
Students would write rather obvious stuff–here is a guy who used to be an athlete; who is reliving his glory days; blah, blah, blah. The smarter ones would sometimes get a magnifying glass and compare the dates on the trophies or game balls and figure out that this guy could not have played on those teams.
Once–just once–I had a kid from East Tennessee who knew who Big Ed was. He couldn’t believe that Big Ed was showing up at Harvard. I got back to Oak Ridge and told Ed about his literary fame, and he gave me a T-shirt. I learned that some of the kids he employed had gotten in trouble and he was helping them get back on the path. He died in 1998, but the place still looks the same.
Now, about the pizza. Note that I said that Big Ed’s is the best pizza joint–not necessarily the home of the best pizza. The pizza is OK but nothing to go out of your way to eat. Big Ed’s is an experience, however, one that is worth going out of your way to enjoy. It is located at 101 Broadway, at Jackson Square, at one end of a long building.
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