Return to Big Ed’s Pizza

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.

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7 Responses to Return to Big Ed’s Pizza

  1. Edward Neusel says:

    This is really cool. I love seeing who and what my papaw affected during his life. He was an amazing person.

    • Kathy Schroeder says:

      YOUR grandfather was a wonderful man. He truly cared about those whose life came into his pizza place. I will always remember how he taught several of us that the best way to teach kindness and compassion, was by doing. MY friends and I frequented Big Ed’s from the first week he opened, all through High school. Even today, when I make it back “Home,” It always involves a visit back to Big Eds.

    • Greg says:

      I offer my condolences on your father’s recent passing. I have fond memories of your namesake. He was an impressive sight with his buzz cut and tattooed arms back in 1972-3 when I lived in OR. Great town for a kid back then, I rode my Schwinn Stingray all over the place- especially to the Boys’ Club and Big Ed’s. I saved my lawn money to buy a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors in a store nearby. I hope the tradition continues, but both men will live long in the fond memories of their many friends.

  2. Willie Blanchard says:

    I had the good fortune of discovering Big Ed’s while I was in town working on the film “October Sky”. To this day it is my favorite pizza. I also bought the T-shirt but alas have worn it out (It was my favorite too).

  3. Rmw says:

    I grew up in oak ridge and lives near big ed’s pizza. It is firmly etched into my psyche now and harkens back fond memories. Now I’m in NYC as a senior person at a major investment bank and of all the places I could go to eat I would still on a dime go back to big eds. It’s sad that big ed passed on – I remember him too sitting by the bar watching high schoolers work.

    Once I was watching mike tyson training and he was wearing a big ed tshirt. They are very recognizable. It was on a VHS tape so i paused it and got confirmation from my dad. That night we went to big eds and I excitedly told him what I discovered.

    Of course, he gave me a tshirt.

    Seems to have been his thing to do.

  4. tennesseeguy says:

    It would be interesting to know how many high schoolers passed through the Big Ed School of Management and owe part of their success in life to him.

    • I grew up in Anderson County. My friends were some of the first customers. Big Ed always asked us about our day, what was going on with us. The only reason I never worked there, is because at the time, I did not have my own transportation. But Big Ed always kept up with us, our triumphs, and our failures. He always encouraged us to reach for our dreams. He even kept a few of my friends in school, simply because he believed in them. I will always have fond memories of Big Ed, and his legacy. I too, have worn out my Big Ed shirt. I would love to be able to buy them online!

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