Archive for the ‘Catfish’ Category

Arkansas Delta food tour: Part Two

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

This post picks up where we left off in Part One with the Good Friday food tour of the Arkansas Delta. You’ll recall that I was joined by Jason Parker, Jordan Johnson, Gabe Holmstrom and Denver Peacock. We left Little Rock at 8 a.m. We were back by 8:30 p.m. In less than 13 hours, we covered more than 400 miles and made 10 food stops. We ate so much barbecue — all of it good — that at times we were afflicted by what we called the “meat sweats.” When we left you at the end of Part One, we had departed Blytheville and were headed for Dyess in the southern part of Mississippi County.

It was quiet at Dyess on Good Friday afternoon.

We pulled up to the Dyess Colony administration building to view the work being done there. A few years ago, Arkansas State University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation partnered with the city of Dyess to begin promoting the heritage of Dyess Colony. The renovation of the 1934 administration building is almost complete, and work continues on the façade of the adjoining theater (the rest of the building is gone), which was built in 1940.

We looked through the front window of the administration building and could see that some interpretive displays are already in place. I can’t wait for the day when buses out of Memphis are filled with tourists wanting to learn more about the place where Johnny Cash grew up. For the first time, they will have somewhere to go at Dyess. Funds for the restoration effort have been received from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival and other sources.

What was once only a dream is close to becoming a reality in this remote corner of northeast Arkansas.

“The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932 led to new programs that worked to pump life into the nation’s economy, especially in places like Arkansas, which was among the states hardest hit,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Such agencies as the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration tried to ease the poverty of destitute farmers and sharecroppers. William Reynolds Dyess, a Mississippi County plantation owner, was Arkansas’ first WPA administrator. He suggested an idea to Harry Hopkins, special adviser to Roosevelt, in which tenant farmers could have a chance to own their own land. FERA would purchase 16,000 acres of uncleared bottomland in Mississippi County, which was rich and fertile though also swampy and snake infested, and would open the land, with $3 million in federal aid, as a resettlement colony to homesteading families, who would each have to clear about 30 acres of land for cultivation.”

Almost 1,300 men, whose names were taken from relief rolls across Arkansas, began construction of the colony in May 1934.

“In the autumn of 1934, the first of about 500 families arrived and began clearing the land,” Hendricks writes. “They cut down trees and blasted stumps to farm cotton, corn and soybeans, along with maintaining a pasture for livestock. In time, along with the administration building, the town center included a community bank, beauty salon/barbershop, blacksmith shop, café, cannery, cotton gin, feed mill, furniture factory, harness shop, hospital, ice house, library, theater, newspaper, post office, printing shop, service station/garage, sorghum mill and school.”

In June 1936, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Dyess. She gave a speech and ate supper at the café.

Ray Cash, Carrie Rivers Cash and their children were among the five families selected to move to Dyess in 1936 from Cleveland County in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Their son, listed as J.R. in his high school yearbook, graduated from Dyess High School in 1950. He was the class vice president.

Members of the Cash family have helped with restoration of the family home, which is several miles from the administration building. Furnishings have been gathered based on descriptions given by family members. The home, which was in danger of falling in just more than a year ago, has been completely renovated, down to the wooden walls and linoleum floors.

After our visit to Dyess, we moved on to Poinsett County, which includes the incorporated towns of Harrisburg, Marked Tree, Trumann, Lepanto, Tyronza, Weiner, Fisher and Waldenburg.

Like many Delta counties, the high-water mark as far as population for Poinsett County came in the 1950 census prior to the widespread mechanization of agriculture. There were 39,311 people in the county that year. By the 2010 census, the county’s population had fallen to 24,583.

Harrisburg has been the county seat since 1856. The town was named after Benjamin Harris, who gave the land where the courthouse was built and was the son of the first county judge.

During the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, a large part of what’s now eastern Poinsett County sunk, resulting in what locals simply refer to as “the sunken lands.”

Poinsett County was harder hit by the Great Flood of 1927 than any other Arkansas county. More than 200,000 acres were covered by water at one point. Thousands of sharecroppers were forced to flea from the lowlands to Crowley’s Ridge.

During World War II, there were German prisoner of war camps at Harrisburg and Marked Tree.

At Harrisburg, we circled the square and looked over the courthouse and the newspaper office that houses the Modern News. Both buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. The courthouse, designed in the classical revival style by Pine Bluff architect Mitchell Selligman, was built in 1917.

The next stop was tiny Waldenburg, which has one of the best food intersections in Arkansas where Arkansas Highway 14 and U.S. Highway 49 meet.

There’s the D-Shack, a dairy bar with great hamburgers.

There’s Crossroads Country Café, where I had a nice lunch back in the fall.

And there’s the original Josie’s, where I’ve enjoyed fine steaks on Saturday nights through the years following afternoon college football games in Jonesboro. There has been a better-known, bigger Josie’s on the banks of the White River in Batesville since 2004, serving lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. But the original Josie’s (dinner only on weekends) is in Waldenburg and has long been a favorite in the late fall and winter for those who flock to the duck camps in the area.

I remember stopping at Josie’s with my youngest son following an Arkansas State football game several years ago. It was during duck season. He looked around the big room and whispered to me, “We’re the only ones in here not wearing camouflage.”

The fourth dining spot at the intersection is the trailer from which the town’s mayor, William “Woody” Wood, sells barbecue. That’s where we stopped on Good Friday afternoon.

Woody and his wife Cecelia began selling barbecue in 1985 in the months when things were slow for Woody’s crop-dusting service. There was such a demand, not only for the smoked meats but also for Woody’s sauces and rubs, that the couple began selling barbecue on a full-time basis in 1992. Woody’s sauces and rubs are now available across the state. He also caters.

The stand in Waldenburg — there are a couple of picnic tables to eat on — is open on most Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

From Waldenburg, we drove south on U.S. 49 to Woodruff County, which is among the state’s smallest counties from a population standpoint (Calhoun County in south Arkansas is the least populated county, in case you’re wondering). The population in Woodruff County fell from 22,682 in the 1930 census to just 7,260 in the 2010 census. Famous natives of Woodruff County include Sister Rosetta Tharpe of Cotton Plant, bluesman Peatie Wheatstraw (his real name was William Bunch) of Cotton Plant, football star Billy Ray Smith of Augusta, high school coach Curtis King of Augusta and high school coach Joe Hart of McCrory.

Denver Peacock hails from McCrory, so we had to drive through downtown before heading a bit south to Gregory to visit with George Eldridge at his Tamale Factory, which is a restaurant in the barn between the Eldridge family home and the Eldridge family cemetery.

George is best known these days as the owner of Doe’s Eat Place in downtown Little Rock, but The Tamale Factory on his family land (where the tamales for Doe’s are made and where dinner is served on Friday and Saturday nights) is a labor of love for him.

In a highly positive review of Doe’s last week, the Arkansas Times summed up George’s career this way: “Veteran restaurateur George Eldridge (chronologically: Band Box, Sports Page, Buster’s, Doe’s, Blues City Café in Memphis, The Tamale Factory in Gregory) loved the original Doe’s in Greenville, Miss., and worked a deal to open the world’s second Doe’s on West Markham a little west of the Little Rock Police Department headquarters. Eldridge, like many high-profile Arkansans, was buddies with the governor who would become president, and during the 1992 campaign the famed Rolling Stone interview with Bill Clinton was conducted at Doe’s. Bill has been back, and the stories and pictures live on (check the Annie Leibovitz shot of Eldridge with chef Lucille Robinson before the inaugural ball).”

We had tamales at Gregory, of course. We had fried shrimp and boiled shrimp. We hadn’t saved room for George’s steaks.

We did, however, save room for one last stop, the Bulldog in Bald Knob in neighboring White County, where Denver’s parents had met decades ago.

Bald Knob was named for the outcropping of stone that was a landmark in the region. Development in the area took off with the completion of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad in 1872. The bald knob was quarried for railroad bed ballast. The quarry also furnished ballast for Jay Gould’s Bald Knob & Memphis Railroad. In the 1920s, it furnished the stone used to build some of the buildings on the Rhodes College campus in Memphis (which ranks among the most beautiful college campuses in America).

William Leach of the White County Historical Society explains the importance of the strawberry to Bald Knob: “The sandy, upland soil was ideal for the fruit, which was introduced in neighboring Judsonia in the 1870s. The first strawberry association in Bald Knob was organized in 1910. In 1921, Benjamin Franklin Brown, June ‘Jim” Collison and Ernest R. Wynn organized The Strawberry Co. They built the longest strawberry shed in the world, a three-quarter-mile structure parallel to the tracks of the Missouri Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific).

“In the peak year of 1951, Bald Knob growers sold $3.5 million worth of strawberries. Bald Knob became the Strawberry Capital of the World, which described the city until the 1960s when berries ceased to be a major crop because of changing market and labor conditions.”

Though raising strawberries is no longer a top industry in the area, the tradition of strawberry shortcakes at the Bulldog continues each spring. People drive from miles around when the word gets out: “The shortcakes are here.”

There was a traffic jam in front of the restaurant last Friday night.

It was time to get back to Little Rock.

Ten food stops down. And dreams of doing it all over again next spring.

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The great Arkansas Delta food tour

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

The troops gathered at 8 a.m. on Good Friday in the parking lot of the Clinton Presidential Center along the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock.

The goal: To sample as much Delta barbecue as possible in one day with some catfish and tamales thrown in for good measure.

I was joined by Denver Peacock, Gabe Holmstrom, Jordan Johnson and Jason Parker for an excursion that would take us more than 400 miles and allow us to eat at 10 places before dusk. Yes, we did it all in one day.

We began with the fried catfish at the Wilson Café in the unique Arkansas community of Wilson in southern Mississippi County.

We warmed up for the barbecue part of the agenda at the Hog Pen along the Great River Road — U.S. Highway 61 — a couple of miles south of Osceola.

We then headed to Blytheville, the barbecue capital of Arkansas, to sample pig sandwiches (that’s what they call them in Blytheville) from five places — the Dixie Pig, the Kream Kastle, Penn’s, the trailer in the parking lot of the Hays store (that’s how everyone in Blytheville refers to it — I don’t think it has a formal name) and the Razorback carryout trailer.

The next barbecue sandwich was from Woody’s at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 14 and U.S. Highway 49 at Waldenburg, another east Arkansas dining hot spot.

We made our way from there to The Tamale Factory at Gregory in Woodruff County to visit with George Eldridge (best known as the owner of Doe’s in downtown Little Rock) while sampling tamales, fried shrimp and boiled shrimp. We had no room left for George’s steaks at that point.

Our final stop was at the legendary Bulldog in Bald Knob for strawberry shortcake, which is only served in the spring. Cars were lined up onto the highway that Friday night as people from all over White County waited to purchase shortcake.

In between all of the eating, we managed to:

– Walk around the former company town of Wilson

–  Read the historic markers and drop by the museum on the courthouse square at Osceola

– Head out to the banks of the Mississippi River at Armorel

– Visit Dyess to check on the restoration work being done there by Arkansas State University

– Check out the beautiful Poinsett County Courthouse at Harrisburg

Back in January, the town of Wilson was featured in The New York Times due to the efforts of Gaylon Lawrence Jr. to restore it to its past glory.

“The little farm towns here in Delta cotton country spin by, each rusting grain silo and boarded-up discount store fading into the next,” Kim Severson wrote. “Then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes Wilson, a collection of Tudor-style buildings with Carrara marble on the bank counter, a French provincial house with Impressionist paintings hanging on the walls and air-conditioned doghouses in the yards. Wilson was once the most important company town in the South. It sits amid 62 square miles of rich farmland, most of which was once controlled by Lee Wilson, a man almost everyone called Boss Lee. He built his fortune off the backs of sharecroppers and brought Southern agriculture into the modern age.

“For 125 years, the Wilson family owned this town. It ran the store, the bank, the schools and the cotton gin. For a time, the Wilsons even minted their own currency to pay the thousands of workers who lived on their land. Bags of coins still sit in the company vault. After the town incorporated in the 1950s, a Wilson was always mayor. But now the town — home to 905 people — is under new management, which plans to transform the civic anachronism into a beacon of art, culture and education in one of the poorest regions of the state.”

Lawrence, a native of nearby Sikeston in the Missouri Bootheel, owns more than 165,000 acres of land in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois.

He owns citrus groves in Florida.

He owns five banks.

He has the largest privately owned air conditioning distributor in the world.

In other words, Gaylon Lawrence Jr. has the wherewithal to make Wilson as good as he wants it to be.

Lawrence, who was described by Severson as a “can-do kind of man who prefers to check his fields and watch the sunset than speak with reporters,” bought the land from the Wilson family for an estimated $110 million in 2010.

Of the town of Wilson, he told the Times: “At first you are thinking, ‘How can I get this off my back?’ But then you look around and think how can you be a catalyst? I can’t really say I am the boss. I say I am here to help. This town has so much character we don’t have to make it up.”

The buildings on the Wilson square have been repainted, and the majestic hardwood groves (which include some of the largest cottonwood trees in Arkansas) have been cleaned up. A private school is planned along with a new building to house the Hampson collection of pre-Columbian pottery and other artifacts. Wilson will host British car shows and art shows in an attempt to attract visitors from Memphis, the Bootheel and northeast Arkansas.

In addition to sampling the excellent catfish at the Wilson Café, we visited with chef Joe Cartwright, whose food is attracting people from miles around. The recently reopened restaurant on the square serves lunch from Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and serves dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. Friday nights feature fried catfish, shrimp, frog legs and oysters. Saturday is prime rib night.

Cartwright grew up at West Memphis and attended college at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, where he worked at Lazzari Italian Oven.

“I was in college for music education, and I started washing dishes at Lazzari,” Cartwright told an interviewer several years ago. “And then one night we were a man down on the line or something. This chef put me up on the line and one thing led to another, and I never really looked back. It got ahold of me, and it’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Cartwright later moved to Memphis, where he became the chef at Spindini on South Main Street and The Elegant Farmer.

The restaurant in Wilson reopened on Dec. 20.

Locals refer to the Wilson Café as The Tavern (and indeed Cartwright informed us that he has just received a wine and beer permit).

Cartwright even packs box lunches for farmers and construction crews (he’s hoping the construction of a steel mill just up the road at Osceola will help that part of the business), and he plans to offer fresh vegetables from the Wilson community garden during the summer. This is a quality of food you do not expect in a town this small.

We headed north on U.S. 61 after leaving Wilson. The plan was to begin the barbecue portion of the tour at Blytheville. That’s when we saw the Hog Pen on the right side of the road (the river side, in other words) south of Osceola. We decided to sample its barbecue, which was quite tasty. The piles of hickory out back let us know that this place takes its barbecue seriously. We ate outside on a picnic table. Inside, the walls feature memorabilia from Cortez Kennedy, who played his high school football in Wilson at Rivercrest High School and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years ago. Kennedy, who now lives in Florida, eats at the restaurant on visits home.

Kennedy played college football for the University of Miami and spent his entire pro career with the Seattle Seahawks. He participated in the Pro Bowl eight times, earning a spot in the game in just his second NFL season. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s. Kennedy was an iron man, completing seven seasons without missing a game and playing in at least 15 games 10 times during his career. He was just the 14th defensive tackle to make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In the cotton country around Rivercrest High, which has a rich sports tradition, playing football was the thing to do.

“Where I grew up, there was nothing else to do,” Kennedy once said. “We used to throw rocks at each other for fun.”

The next stop was in downtown Osceola for a view of my favorite Arkansas courthouse. Until 1901, Osceola was the only county seat. Blytheville and Osceola then were named as dual county seats. The southern division courthouse at Osceola was built in 1912 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It was designed in the classical revival style by John Gainsford and is known for its copper dome, its baked stone tiles and the fact that the first floor has no windows (in case the Mississippi River flooded).

Downtown Osceola was booming at the time of the courthouse’s construction. There were electric and water utilities, two ice plants, two bottling works, a wagon factory and even an opera house. Six passenger trains a day stopped at the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad depot. The Osceola Times building, constructed in 1901, is still home to a newspaper that first was published in 1870. It’s the oldest weekly newspaper in eastern Arkansas.

We also read all of the downtown historical markers, which tell of famous musicians who once lived in the area and performed in the clubs along U.S. 61 (known as the Cotton Highway). We even went into the Mississippi County Historical Center and Museum. That facility is located in what was the Patterson Dry Goods Store. Fred Patterson purchased the lot that the building sits on for $250 in 1901 and built his store, which opened a year later. He purchased an adjoining lot in 1904 to construct another building for expanded operations. Patterson Dry Goods operated until 1987.

“The store was famous for cotton pick sacks, shoes and hats for men, women and children as well as work clothes,” the museum’s website states. “Through the years, Mr. Patterson’s store was the only place to purchase certain items. Customers came from not only the Osceola area but all of Mississippi County, surrounding counties and the Missouri Bootheel. The trademark of the store was shoes sitting outside at the entrance to announce the store was open. Fred Patterson may have had five or six styles outside at once, but they were never stolen. They were all for the same foot.

“Henry Patterson (Fred’s son) would have only a single shoe sitting out to indicate he was open for business. It is a practice continued today by the museum. The store became the loafing place for Henry’s retired contemporaries with time on their hands. The chairs around the potbellied stove held both men and women who managed to solve the problems of the world.”

The first stop in Blytheville was the Dixie Pig, the only Blytheville restaurant where we actually ate inside.

We picked up sandwiches from the other four establishments and took them out by the river behind the Nucor-Yamato plant at Armorel.  We laid them out on the hood of the vehicle, sampled them and watched the barges move down the Mighty Mississippi while enjoying the nice spring weather.

Armorel was founded in 1899 by R.E.L. Wilson (Boss Lee). The name of the town represents Arkansas, Missouri and the first three initials of Wilson’s name.

The town is the home of the Armorel Planting Co., whose chairman is 82-year-old John Ed Regenold, the current chairman of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission. Regenold had served on the Arkansas Economic Development Commission before being appointed to the Highway Commission in January 2005 by Gov. Mike Huckabee. Regenold also served for a number of years on the St. Francis Levee Board, which is in seven northeast Arkansas counties. Those familiar with the Delta understand just how powerful levee boards are.

Back in Blytheville, we drove around the downtown business district and the city’s older residential neighborhoods, which were filled with blooming azaleas and dogwood trees. Like many Delta towns, Blytheville has bled population in recent decades. It has gone from 24,752 residents in the 1970 census to 15,620 residents in the 2010 census. At its peak, Eaker Air Force Base employed 3,500 military and 700 civilian personnel. The base closed in 1992. Some of that economic blow was softened by the 1988 opening of Nucor-Yamato Steel (which expanded in 1992) and the 1992 opening of Nucor Steel Arkansas (known locally as Nucor Hickman).

Another bright spot was the 1976 opening by Mary Gay Shipley of the Book Rack. The store’s name was changed in 1994 to That Bookstore in Blytheville. Located in a 1920s building on Main Street, it gained a reputation of being one of the top independently owned bookstores in the country, attracting the likes of John Grisham, Pat Conroy and Bill Clinton to sign books. Shipley retired and sold the store to a young man named Grant Hill, who soon tired of running the business. Enter Blytheville native Chris Crawley.

Crawley had moved from Blytheville after high school, living in Wisconsin and California. He moved back to the city in 2012.

“Mary Gay has been like my big sister for about 30 years,” Crawley told the Courier News at Blytheville. “I kind of got the bug years ago watching Mary Gay. … This was like my playground. I would read whole books while in the store.”

In visiting with Shipley after his return to Blytheville, Crawley found out that she was “still so passionate about the store, and that passion was infectious. Once I came in the space, it was just so welcoming. We believed that the legacy was something that was valuable.”

He and partner Yolanda Harrison purchased the store from Hill late last year.

Leaving Blytheville behind schedule, we made our way to Dyess.

Dyess, Poinsett County, Woodruff County and the strawberries of Bald Knob will have to wait for Part Two.

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10 must-have dishes before you die

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

You’ll have to pick up the May edition of Soiree magazine for the full story (and photos that will make your mouth water).

But here’s what happened: Jennifer Pyron, the magazine’s editor, called and asked if I would come up with a list of the 10 restaurant dishes in the Little Rock area that you simply must have before you die.

I like a lot of things. And Little Rock has a good restaurant scene. This was not an easy assignment.

Here’s what I decided: I would go with the tried and true, the kinds of food that longtime Little Rock residents find themselves craving as they drive home at night.

There are finer restaurants than the ones I put on my list.

There are fancier dishes.

I decided to stay away from new recipes. No foam. No molecular gastronomy. The restaurants needed to have been around for several decades to prove their staying power.

Look, Little Rock is becoming one of the best places to dine out in the South. The city is now filled with exciting restaurants, food trucks, talented food bloggers and ambitious chefs. It’s quite a food scene.

I’m energized by that.

Yet the list I came up with spoke to my heart; the heart of a country boy who doesn’t want sugar in his cornbread, wants his country ham to be fried, wishes his wife would let him join the Bacon of the Month Club and could stand to lose a few pounds.

Here goes:

1. Ribs at Sims with a side of greens and cornbread – Sims just screams “quintessential Little Rock” to me. Little Rock is a true Southern city, and it doesn’t get more Southern than ribs, greens and cornbread. I miss the old location on 33rd Street, but the fact remains that this is a place that has been around since 1937. In a city that loves its barbecue, Sims is a shrine.

2. Chopped pork plate at the White Pig Inn — Here we go with the barbecue again. There’s a reason that a photo of the White Pig’s sign is at the top of this blog. This restaurant has been around since 1920, when U.S. Highway 70 was one of the main east-west routes in the country. I like family places, and the White Pig has been in the Seaton family for three generations. The current building is fairly new (built in 1984), but take a look at all the history on the walls.

3. Eggplant casserole and egg custard pie at Franke’s — I know, I know. You’re going to order more than just eggplant casserole and egg custard pie as you go through that line. There’s fried chicken, roast beef, chicken livers, fried okra, turnip greens and more to eat. But I consider the above two dishes the ones that most define this Arkansas classic. C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop in downtown Little Rock in 1919. By 1922, it was a full bakery. In 1924, he opened Franke’s Cafeteria on Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock. The original cafeteria closed in 1960, but two Little Rock locations remain. You will find me at the downtown location often.

4. Buffalo ribs at the Lassis Inn — You Yankees think this is a four-legged mammal, right? You’re wrong. You’re the same people who refuse to believe us when we tell you that rice and gravy and macaroni and cheese are classified as vegetables here in the South. This buffalo is the bottom-dwelling fish pulled by commercial fishermen from the slow-moving rivers of east Arkansas. The ribs are about five inches in length. Tell my friend Elihue Washington that I sent you.

5. Tamales at Doe’s — I realize that you’re likely to order a steak if you’re going to Doe’s for dinner. Still, you must have an appetizer of tamales. If it’s lunch, the tamales can be your meal. George Eldridge has been operating the Little Rock location of Doe’s since 1988. Was it Hunter S. Thompson or P.J. O’Rourke who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on when they came to Doe’s to interview Bill Clinton in 1992?

6. The hubcap burger at Cotham’s — The Little Rock location will suffice (though I always have a fern bar flashback to TGI Friday’s and my younger days when I’m in there), but it’s better to be out in the 1917 building at Scott, which has been serving food since 1984. Politicians such as the aforementioned Bill Clinton and David Pryor made the Scott location of Cotham’s famous. What’s that? You say you cannot eat an entire hubcap burger? Then you’ve come to the wrong blog.

7. Gumbo at the Oyster Bar — The Oyster Bar has been around since 1975, but it looks like it has been there since 1924, when the building it occupies in Stifft Station was built to house a grocery story. Yes, it’s a dive. I especially like the fact that they saved the old refrigerator door with memorable bumper stickers attached. Check out the one dealing with that pass interfence call against SMU. Some of us still remember that call. The Hogs wuz robbed.

8. Smoked turkey sandwich and a cherry limeade at Burge’s — The original Burge’s in Lewisville is outside the geographic scope of this assignment, but the Heights location in Little Rock will do since it has been around for 36 years. Lots of rich, tanned Heights moms and their spoiled kids will be running around on Saturdays to take part in what’s a family tradition for many Little Rockians. After moving to Lewisville from Shreveport in 1953, Alden Burge began smoking turkeys in the back yard for friends and family members. Soon, he was selling smoked turkey and chicken dinners before Friday night football games. He bought a dairy bar in 1962 at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 29 and U.S. Highway 82 in Lewisville. The folks who work for Burge’s in Little Rock follow Mr. Burge’s 1950s instructions for smoking those turkeys.

9. Pimento cheese at the Capital Bar & Grill — Sometimes a Southerner simply must have pimento cheese, and no one does it better than the folks at the Capital. Get it as an appetizer with those homemade soda crackers, order a pimento cheese sandwich or have it on the burger. I’m craving it right now.

10. The foot-long chili dog at the Buffalo Grill and the chopped steak at the Faded Rose — OK, I cheated. I listed two restaurants. Here’s why: I first moved to Little Rock in late 1981 to work as a sportswriter at the Arkansas Democrat. I moved into the Rebsamen Park Apartments (cheap and already furnished, along with very thin walls). The Buffalo Grill opened just down the street in 1981. The Faded Rose was opened by New Orleans native Ed David the next year. I would work in those days until about 1 a.m., get something to eat at Steak & Egg (where the Red Door is now), go home and read and then sleep until the crack of noon. Then I would go to one of those two restaurants. I often would have that gut bomb they call the Paul’s chili dog at Buffalo Grill with chili, cheddar cheese, mustard, onion and slaw. On the days when I went next door to the Faded Rose, I would start with the Creole soaked salad (mixed lettuce, chopped tomatoes and green olives tossed in a garlic vinaigrette just like the Creole Sicilian joints do it in New Orleans). That would be followed by the chopped sirloin, which comes in a lemon butter sauce with a big slice of grilled onion on top. Of course, there were potato wedges with buttermilk dressing to dip them in.

Like I said, no foam or molecular gastronomy on this list.

What dishes make your list in Pulaski County?

Let me hear from you in the comment section below.

Meanwhile, I’ll see you in Soiree along with the “beautiful people” who are holding wine glasses and forcing a smile in a too-tight tux.

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Arkansas food notes

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

There’s a lot going on with the Arkansas food scene right now.

Here are some notes on developments that might be of interest:

– I’m anxious to try The Tamale Factory in Woodruff County, a creation of George Eldridge, the man who put the Little Rock location of Doe’s Eat Place on the map.

The Tamale Factory is in George’s old horse barn at Gregory, which is 10 miles south of Augusta on Arkansas Highway 33. It’s only open on Friday and Saturday nights, from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m.

You order just like you would at Doe’s — bring a big group, come hungry, get tamales and shrimp for appetizers and then have steaks for the main course.

Though there are now Doe’s restaurants in several locations, George was the first to come up with the idea of using the name and concept of the original restaurant on Nelson Street in Greenville, Miss. The Little Rock outpost of Doe’s became even more famous than the original when staffers for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign began hanging out there.

Once the weather warms a bit in March, a Friday or Saturday night road trip to Gregory sounds in order.

– An even shorter Friday night road trip (and one I plan to make) is to Big K’s Fish Barn, which I understand is in a farm equipment shed (my kind of place).

Traveling east on U.S. Highway 70 out of  Carlisle, you should turn north just past Murry’s restaurant onto Anderson Road. After crossing over Interstate 40, Big K’s is the first farm shop on the right.

I’ve heard the catfish is something special there.

– Two of the best meals I had in 2012 — one in the spring and one in the fall — were at the Bohemia on Park Avenue in Hot Springs.

Founded more than half a century ago by Mr. and Mrs. O.E. Duchac, the Bohemia was operated for years by Adolf Thum. I loved his German and Hungarian food, and I enjoyed hearing his heavy accent when he would come over to check on us.

I was saddened when Thum closed his restaurant in 2007. We’ve already lost too many of the Hot Springs classics I grew up enjoying – Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s to name three.

In late 2009, the Bohemia was given new life by Fermin Martinez, who was born in Mexico City and raised in Brooklyn. He later worked in France and Italy.

You would never guess from the outside that this is a fine dining establishment. It looks more like a beer joint as you drive down Park Avenue. Don’t let that fool you. Inside is one of the best restaurants in Arkansas.

– My top Arkansas dining “find” of 2012 was in the former Crain Motor Co. building in downtown Siloam Springs. The building, which had housed a restaurant called Emelia’s, underwent extensive renovations after Shelley and Todd Simmons of Siloam Springs joined forces with Chef Miles James.

An open kitchen was installed, the dropped ceiling was removed to expose the beams and historic photos of Siloam Springs were added.

James, known for what he calls Ozark plateau cuisine, created a menu featuring locally sourced foods. The restaurant is named 28 Springs. It opened in May, and I ate there in the fall.

James still operates James at the Mill in Johnson, long recognized as one of the region’s best restaurants.

James, a Fayetteville native, earned a degree from the New England Culinary Institute and then worked at these restaurants: American Seasons in Nantucket; Park Avenue and the Tribeca Grill in New York City; The Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe; Guy Savoy in Paris (not the one in Logan County); and The River Cafe in London (not the one in Pope County).

He was on the list of the “rising star chefs of the 21st century” that was released by the James Beard Foundation. His cookbook “Cuisine of the Creative” received a James Beard nomination back in 1999 for Best Cookbook of the Year.

Southern Living once described James at the Mill as “an architectural and culinary marvel … the peak of fine Ozark dining.”

For those who like James at the Mill, it’s well worth the drive over to Siloam Springs the next time you’re in northwest Arkansas so you can give 28 Springs a try.

– The hiring of Joel Antunes as the executive chef at Ashley’s and the Capital Bar & Grill in Little Rock’s Capital Hotel was a positive sign. It showed that the Stephens family remains committed to world-class dining in the state’s largest city.

Antunes was awarded the James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast Award in 2005 for his work at the restaurant named for him (Joel) in Atlanta.

Citing his disdain for the celebrity chef syndrome, Antunes once told an interviewer: “I don’t wear a tie and walk around talking. I am a cook. Discipline. I learned that in France. I am in the kitchen every day cooking.”

Joel — the restaurant — opened in 2001 and was named one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in the country.

As a youngster, Antunes went to live with his grandparents in the south of France while his father was serving in the military. He learned to cook from his grandmother and discovered it was something he enjoyed.

Antunes began an apprenticeship at the age of 14 at Belle Meuniere in the city of Royat in France, a Michelin two-star restaurant. He went on to work in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Leyoden in Paris, Duquesnoy in Paris and Hotel Negreso in Nice.

Antunes trained under famous chefs such as Paul Bocuse in Lyons and Michel Troisgos in Roanne.

He headed to Bangkok in 1987 at the age of 26 to work at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. In 1991, he became a partner and the executive chef at Les Saveurs on Curzon Street in London. That restaurant earned a Michelin star in 1994, but Antunes’ investors pulled the plug three years later.

The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta was looking for a chef after Guenter Seeger left to open his own restaurant. The likes of Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse recommended Antunes for the job. He spent several years at the Ritz-Carlton before opening Joel.

A short stay at the venerable Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel in New York was followed by a return to London and stints at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel and the Embassy Mayfair Hotel.

– Near the top of the list of the tastiest things I ate in 2012 were the sausages at the 83rd annual Louie Mancini Sausage Supper, a Knights of Columbus event in Little Rock that drew hundreds of people to the Cathedral of St. Andrew on Dec. 4.

I was honored to be the featured speaker at an event with such a long history. From 1929-78, Council 812 of the Knights of Columbus held the annual supper to raise funds for the Saint Joseph Orphanage in North Little Rock. In the orphanage cafeteria, the orphans would sing Christmas carols while the diners enjoyed the sausage supper.

Saint Joseph’s closed in 1978, but the supper continued, raising money for needy children and their families. It was named for Louie Mancini in 2005 in honor of his decades of support. He helped his father prepare food each year for the supper, followed his father into the Knights of Columbus and continued to devote countless hours each December to the event.

Finally, a few of my dining wishes for 2013:

– That the weather is unseasonably warm on Jan. 25 when I’m standing in the long line waiting to get into the annual Slovak Oyster Supper.

– That the weather is unseasonably cool on Aug. 15 when I’m in the Ned Hardin pecan grove for the annual Grady Fish Fry.

– That the Little Rock restaurant Matt Bell is opening in conjunction with the Oxford American in the old Juanita’s location — South on Main — is as good as I think it’s going to be.

– That the former Capital Hotel chef Lee Richardson opens his own place in Little Rock.

– That someone will use the name The Gar Hole, which was the name of the bar at the Marion Hotel, for a good restaurant in downtown Little Rock.

– That the new restaurant Cache in the River Market District — named after the Cache River in east Arkansas — is a rousing success.

– That chef Matt McClure’s new restaurant in the 21c Hotel at Bentonville, known as The Hive, draws national attention.

– That the new owners of what was The Peabody Hotel in downtown Little Rock will bring in a well-known chef along the lines of Antunes. Since we’re losing the iconic Peabody brand and having it replaced by the boring Marriott brand, they at least owe us that much.

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Farewell to Georgetown’s One Stop

Friday, July 6th, 2012

The phone calls and emails began coming in several weeks before that final day.

“Do you know that Joanna Taylor is closing the Georgetown One Stop?” everyone asked.

Last week, the One Stop served its final meal near the banks of the White River in White County. The place was packed for nights as the end neared.

Because I’ve written about the Georgetown One Stop before — here on the Southern Fried blog and in my Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column — a Democrat-Gazette reporter called me for a quote.

First, I told her that I understood that Joanna was tired and needed a break from the tough task of running a restaurant. No one should begrudge her the choice of retiring.

Second, I told the reporter that there were a couple of things that set the One Stop apart. One was the fact that Joanna continued to serve river catfish caught by commercial fishermen at a time when most restaurants serve pond-raised fish. Another was the fact that you don’t just pass through Georgetown. It’s literally the end of the road. You have to make an effort to get there. The drive along the Little Red River and then through those lowlands was an integral part of the overall experience.

Third, I said that the loss of the Georgetown One Stop was to catfish eaters what the loss of Shadden’s near Marvell was to barbecue eaters. I’m a catfish and a barbecue eater, so I mourn the demise of both places.

Again, though, I understand.

People die, people retire, towns lose their population base. We can’t expect even the classic places to last forever.

Here’s what we can do: We can patronize those restaurants that are special on a regular basis. We can tip well while we’re there. We can tell our friends about them.

In an increasingly urbanized culture, my hope is that Arkansas doesn’t lose too many of the rural, out-of-the-way spots like Shadden’s and the Georgetown One Stop, the places that make this state what it is.

I had feared the One Stop was history in 2011 following the devastating floods along the White River. But then something amazing happened. Area people pitched in and after extensive remodeling, the restaurant reopened in July 2011.

Earlier this year, I was going with two other men to Searcy to hear former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speak at Harding University. One of my guests was from Kansas. The other lives here in Little Rock. Neither had ever been to the One Stop.

We pulled out of Little Rock on that third Thursday in April, arriving in Georgetown shortly after 5 p.m. Joanna was smiling and gave her usual friendly greeting. My guests couldn’t stop talking about their meals. She asked to take our photo at the end.

Little did I know that would be my last trip to the One Stop.

Unfortunately, I had come to the One Stop late in life. After having heard about the place for years, I finally made my first trip in April 2010.

I wrote this here on Southern Fried: “Yes, I made it to the Georgetown One Stop, that end-of-the road citadel of fried catfish in the southeast corner of White County. People would constantly ask me if I had partaken of the catfish at the One Stop. Until last Thursday, the answer was ‘no.’ They wondered why. I had no real explanation. Now, I’ve remedied that.

“Just as she has been doing for every customer for more than a decade, Joanna Taylor made sure I was full. The catfish was great. But the trip was even better. Once I left U.S. Highway 67-167, it was like a step back into Arkansas’ past. On that lazy journey down Arkansas Highway 36, you feel enveloped by the past. It happens as soon as you reach downtown Kensett. This was, after all, the home of the A.P. Mills General Store and Wilbur Mills. It was where Mr. Mills was born, and it was where he came home to die.”

Some historians believe that the site of Georgetown was the second settlement established in the state by European explorers, surpassed only by Arkansas Post. That would make Georgetown the oldest exsiting town in the state since Arkansas Post is now a National Park Service site, not an active community.

French explorer Francis Francure received a land grant of 1,361 acres from the Spanish king in 1789 and settled in the area.

Georgetown got its current name in 1909 in honor of three men from Clarendon with the last name of George who purchased, sold and developed land there. The Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad built a bridge over the White River at Georgetown in 1908. The great flood of 1927 damaged the bridge, and it was never properly repaired. The railroad ceased operations to Georgetown in 1946.

In the 2000 census, Georgetown had a population of 126.

Joanna moved to Georgetown from Little Rock. Her sister, Jeannie, had bought the gas station and convenience store there, and Joanna went to work for her. She began serving lunch and later breakfast to area farmers. When word got out about the quality of the catfish she purchased from commercial fishermen on the White River and then trimmed by hand, patrons began demanding she add dinner. So breakfast became a thing of the past, as did the store and the gas pumps. The One Stop became solely a catfish restaurant. There was no menu.

Granted, Joanna would bring some buffalo ribs, also out of the White River, if you asked for them.

It was $9 for all you could eat.

When I was young, restaurants all over Arkansas still advertised “White River catifsh.” It’s hard to find actual White River catfish these days on a restaurant menu.

A month after that April 2010 post on the One Stop, I was writing about the death of Wayne Shadden and the closing of Shadden’s along U.S. Highway 49 in Phillips County.

Here’s part of what I wrote: “As I passed the venerable Shadden’s store west of Marvell, I noticed that one of my favorite places to eat barbecue in the Delta was closed. I remember hoping that nothing was wrong. I had no way of knowing that last Thursday would be barbecue impresario Wayne Shadden’s final day of life.

“Mr. Shadden died the following day at age 77 at his home near Marvell. The obituary in The Daily World at Helena simply said, ‘Wayne was a good cook and well-known for his barbecue. He was a Navy veteran, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.’

“What an understatement. Well-known for his barbecue. Wayne Shadden was much more than that. For true Delta barbecue aficionados, he was one of the masters. People heard about Shadden’s and came from across the country to try the barbecue. If you ate in the store, there was one table in the back you could share with others who were on their own barbecue pilgrimages.

“I hope the store survives. Too many places like this don’t. An owner dies, and in small town after small town across the Delta, all we’re left with are convenience stores selling fried chicken under heat lamps.”

Well, my worst fears were realized after writing that. The store didn’t reopen. Wayne Shadden’s wife was tired, and the kids all lived out of state — a son in Washington state, a son in California, a daughter in Texas and a daughter in Virginia.

The wooden building that housed Shadden’s is almost 100 years old. From the outside, it still looks like it did when it closed more than two years ago. I drive by now and sometimes see folks posing for photos out front.

Sadly, that trend of being left only with convenience stores selling fried chicken under heat lamps is not limited to the Delta. We’re seeing it all over rural Arkansas.

Ms. Joanna has retired, and the One Stop has closed.

Mr. Wayne died, and Shadden’s never reopened.

Like I said, patronize the really special places while they’re still in business. Once they’re gone, you’ll have only the memories.

P.S. The Southern Fried blog will be taking a one-month summer hiatus. I’m about to take a much-needed family vacation that will be followed by business travel and work on a couple of other projects. I’ll be back sometime in August with new posts. Have a wonderful rest of the summer.

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Hot catfish at Grady

Friday, August 19th, 2011

For the 56th time, they held the Grady Lions Club Fish Fry under the big trees of the Ned Hardin pecan grove.

It’s always held on the third Thursday in August. Always.

It was cooler than usual last night.

The crowd seemed bigger than it had been in recent years.

The fried catfish, fries, hushpuppies and sliced watermelon were as good as ever.

I checked my old calendars and was able to determine that this was the 15th time in the past 16 years that I’ve been to Grady on the third Thursday night in August. The only fish fry I missed during that stretch was in 2004. I was Gov. Mike Huckabee’s representative on the board of the Delta Regional Authority at the time, and we were interviewing candidates in a Memphis hotel that day for the DRA’s chief operating officer’s job.

I’ve written before that my favorite annual winter event is the Slovak Oyster Supper and my favorite annual summer event is the Grady Fish Fry. Both are rural Arkansas traditions.

Bubba Lloyd was behind the wheel last night. I figure that if you’re headed to a catfish supper in southeast Arkansas, you at least ought to have a Bubba driving.

First-time attendees Blake Eddins and Randy Ensminger joined us for the trip south.

More than one person remembered Blake from his days as a Razorback basketball player for Nolan Richardson.

Randy, meanwhile, is a member of the board of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at New Orleans, and we found a fading sign that we’re hopeful the Hardins will donate to the museum. It advertises sorghum, sweet potatoes, pecans, cane syrup — all things Southern.

I have a feeling that Blake and Randy will be back at this event next August. They took it all in — the prisoners waiting tables, the prison band playing, the politicians making the rounds, the folks from all over southeast Arkansas visiting with each other and enjoying themselves.

As always, we visited at length with Sen. Mark Pryor, who also makes it a point not to miss this event.

It’s like something out of a movie. If you have any doubts that the South still lives, all you have to do is show up at the Hardin pecan grove on the third Thursday night in August and erase those doubts.

They start serving the fish each year at 4 p.m. They stop at 8 p.m. In between, hundreds of people make their way through the line and watch the amazing hushpuppy machine (constructed years ago from salvaged farm equipment) drop the batter (two hushpuppies at a time) into the hot grease.

My love for south and east Arkansas — areas of the state that are losing population and often are overlooked by the so-called opinion makers — is evident to those who read this blog. There are fine people and rich traditions in these areas of our state.

I attended the fish fry on a day that had started on a bright note. While having my first cup of coffee, I read in the newspaper that W.O. Prince is reopening his classic Riverfront Restaurant and Fish Market where U.S. Highway 70 crosses the Cache River at Biscoe.

For years, one of my regular stops on the old highway to Memphis was the place known to the locals simply as W.O.’s. You would turn down the gravel road to your right just before crossing the Cache River bridge when heading east. You would order your supper in the bait shop. You would then walk down to the boat that floated on the Cache. They would bring the food down the hill to you. The steaks were as good as the catfish.

They’ll serve lunch on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.

They’ll serve dinner each Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.

They’re supposed to open today. I’ll make a road trip soon.

In thinking about east Arkansas landmarks such as W.O.’s and the Hardin pecan grove, I go back to the points I made in a newspaper column earlier this week. I see nothing on the horizon that leads me to believe that the population shift in this state from the east and the south to the north and the west will slow anytime soon.

People go where the jobs are. It’s that simple.

Grady is in Lincoln County. Biscoe is at the edge of Prairie County (my mother’s home county) just before Monroe County begins on the other side of the Cache. Places such as Lincoln, Monroe and Prairie counties have been losing population since the end of World War II, when the mechanization of agriculture meant that thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers were no longer required. Monroe County, in fact, lost more population than any county in Arkansas during the previous decade — 20.5 percent.

The rural-to-urban trend, of course, is a nationwide trend. It’s hard to believe that rural America now accounts for just 16 percent of the nation’s population.

Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau put it this way in a recent interview: “Some of the most isolated rural areas face a major uphill battle, with a broad area of the country emptying out. Many rural areas can’t attract workers because there aren’t any jobs, and businesses won’t relocate there because there aren’t enough qualified workers. So they are caught in a downward spiral.”

Here, however, is the thing most of those who write about and comment on the population shifts in Arkansas miss: The forests of south Arkansas and the farmlands of east Arkansas remain vital to our state’s overall economy.

I would contend that they’re about to play a bigger role than ever.

Here’s why:

– The latest projections show that the world’s population will increase from about 7 billion people today to 9.5 billion by 2050.

– That population increase means that net agricultural production will have to increase by 60 to 70 percent during the next four decades just to satisfy the need for food and energy.

– More than 37 million acres of arable land are displaced annually by population growth, making key agricultural areas such as Arkansas more important than ever in our interconnected global economy.

– Extreme weather conditions in 2009 and 2010 across Russia, China and Southeast Asia helped drive U.S. grain and cotton prices to record highs. Because of predictions of even higher prices for corn and wheat, along with record demands for soybeans and cotton, U.S. farmers planted 10 million more acres this year than last year. Arkansas is in a prime position to take advantage of these trends.

– Low cattle inventories, the grain shortage and revised trade agreements have pushed milk, meat and egg prices to record highs. Due to this and the high grain prices, U.S. farmland values have increased an average of 5 to 7 percent despite the recession. That means that land in the Arkansas Delta is becoming more valuable rather than less valuable.

– Advances in technology are making the production of alternative fuels more feasible, another factor in betting that the value of the pine woods to the south and the row-crop areas to the east will increase in the coming decade.

– In what’s increasingly an urbanized state, the farming, livestock and forestry sectors still account for 260,000 Arkansas jobs. That’s more than one of every six jobs in the state.

– Agricultural products account for 12 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. That compares to 6.94 percent for the Southeast United States as a region and 5.52 percent for the nation as a whole.

– Agricultural workers in Arkansas receive more than $9.5 billion in annual wages and salaries.

– With 49,100 farms on 13.6 million acres, Arkansas ranks 12th nationally in farm receipts, first in rice production, fourth in timber, second in broilers, third in cotton and cottonseed, third in catfish, third in turkeys, fifth in sweet potatoes, ninth in eggs and 10th in soybeans and grain sorghums.

Even as the population of many east and south Arkansas counties declines, their value to the state’s overall economy remains strong. That’s a fact that shouldn’t be lost on this state’s growing percentage of urbanites.

For me, the Grady Fish Fry represents more than a chance to eat fried catfish.

It represents all that is right about rural Arkansas. 

 

 

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Rebuilding the Georgetown One Stop

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

In the comments section of a previous post, a reader reprinted a letter to the editor that appeared Wednesday in The Daily Citizen at Searcy.

I want to give the subject a separate post, though, so fans of the fried catfish at the Georgetown One Stop will see it.

Here’s the letter from Val Valdez of Beebe: “As you know, there has been a devastating flood at the White River. Many homes have been inundated with water. There is also a business there called One Stop, where you can get a delicious plate of catfish. Upon visiting there, the water was table high throughout the building. The proprietor is a stout, hardened woman that goes by the name of Joan. She desperately needs our help. She plans to open the restaurant once more to serve the public.

“Folks, if you enjoy going there and enjoy the fare, consider sending her some help. She is redoing the inside completely. Most, if not all, of the appliances have been destroyed by the high water. She would appreciate whatever you can do.

“I myself do like the fish, along with the closeness of the surroundings. I have seen employees from Searcy banks, companies and vans from churches there, and many more. Look to your heart if you will.”

The letter writer said donations could be sent to:

Georgetown One Stop

209 Main

Georgetown, AR 72143.

It’s Joanna, not Joan.

Joanna Taylor, to be exact.

She came to Georgetown in 1997, weary of living in the city of Little Rock and looking to start over following a divorce.

Her sister, Jeannie, had purchased the gas station and convenience store there, and Joanna went to work for her. Before long, Joanna was serving lunch and breakfast to the farmers who worked in the surrounding White River bottoms.

Word got out about the quality of the catfish Joanna purchased daily from commercial fishermen on the White River. Soon, dinner was added to the mix as people made the trip to Georgetown from Searcy and even as far away as Little Rock.

You once saw the term “White River catfish” on restaurant menus across the state. Now, however, the vast majority of the fish served in restaurants comes from fish farms or even out of the country.

Finding river-caught catfish in a restaurant is no longer an easy thing.

Before this spring’s record flood, the cost at the Georgetown One Stop was $9 for all you can eat. I’m sure Joanna could raise the price a buck or two after she reopens and still be busy.

Here’s how Tim Bousquet described the place in a 2004 Daily Citizen story: “Just before the pavement ends at the Georgetown boat ramp, there on the left sits what looks like an abandoned filling station. There’s no sign, and a sketchy patch of gravel may once have been a parking lot. A concrete slab serves as front stoop, and a rickety wooden door is entrance to an ancient metal shell of a building, the Georgetown One Stop.

“You have arrived. Have a seat and a pleasant woman — that’d be Joanna Taylor — will drop by with some iced tea. No need for a menu — the only choice here is sweetened or unsweetened tea, and it’s just assumed everyone wants catfish.

“While you’re waiting for your meal, you might strike up a conversation with some of the other customers. Like you, they likely come from somewhere else — Little Rock maybe, or Batesville, more than a few from Searcy — and are usually in a mood for a little chatting up.”

Joanna told the reporter she wouldn’t ever expand: “I couldn’t do this if I got any bigger. There’s not enough fresh fish in the river, so I’d have to use frozen fish like the chain restaurants. That would ruin everything.”

Here’s how David Koon put it in a glowing 2009 Arkansas Times review: “Half the joy of going to the One Stop is the decor. This is Real Arkansas at its finest: a low-ceilinged room with the kitchen so close you can literally hear the grease popping. In the dining room, every surface is covered with photographs of smiling visitors, some of them mugging with fish they’ve caught or deer they’ve killed. In the men’s restroom, a water heater squats in the corner, slowly sinking through the floor, and you have to hold the toilet lid up with your knee to keep it from slamming down.

“There is no menu at the Georgetown One Stop. Everybody gets the same thing. You go in, and sit down. Taylor appears from the kitchen, takes your drink order (get the sweet tea) and asks if you’re ready for some fish. After about 10 minutes, she reappears with manna: a big oval plate, covered from edge to edge in beautiful catfish fillets, a handful of fries and a hushpuppy or two. On the side: a bowl full of sliced onion and homemade tartar sauce. Best of all, if you manage to finish what you’ve been served, Taylor will keep bringing fish as long as you’re willing to eat it.

“And what catfish. I have eaten catfish all over the South — hot, cold, good, bad, muddy, bland, delicious and terrible — but this is the best ever: gorgeous, buttery morsels of pure white flesh, surrounded by the lightest imaginable cornmeal batter and just the right seasoning. Fries and hushpuppies, done in the same grease — amazing. But the fish at Georgetown One Stop is what truly will leave even someone who knows what good fish is supposed to taste like at a loss for words. For a foodie, it’s transcendent. For a catfish fanatic, it’s like coming home. After eating all I could, finally putting down my fork in surrender gave me a little pang of regret. There is nothing more that I can say. You must experience it for yourself.

“Yes, Virginia, Real Arkansas does exist. Just when I begin to doubt it — to believe that nobody cares about making great food anymore — I luck across someplace like the Georgetown One Stop. There is love there, my friend. Yes. There is love.”

I take it David liked the fish. And he’s right. It’s sublime.

For those who love rural Arkansas and historic places, the road trip to Georgetown is also fun. I wrote about it on this blog back in April of last year.

You pass through Kensett, the old lumber mill and railroad town that produced Congressman Wilbur Mills and baseball great Bill Dickey. You head southeast on Arkansas Highway 36 with the Little Red River on your left.

West Point, which was incorporated before the Civil War and was once a steamboat stop, has a boat ramp on the Little Red. The West Point Cemetery has been there for decades.

You pass a sign that says “Road Ends In 12 Miles.”

Georgetown is literally the end of the road — where Arkansas 36 runs into the White River.

There’s no bridge there. The Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad built a bridge spanning the river in 1908. The Great Flood of 1927 damaged the bridge, and it was never repaired. The railroad ceased serving Georgetown in 1946.

Some historians believe it to be the second settlement established by European explorers in what’s now Arkansas, surpassed only by Arkansas Post. That would make Georgetown the oldest existing town in the state since Arkansas Post is now a National Park Service site, not an active community.

French explorer Francis Francure received a land grant of 1,361 acres from the Spanish king in 1789 and settled in the area.

The 2010 census showed Georgetown with a population of 124 people, down from 126 in the 2000 census.

It might shrink a bit more after this year’s flood as people choose not to rebuild.

Prior to the flood, the Georgetown One Stop served fish from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. each Wednesday through Saturday.

Let’s hope Joanna keeps going.

If you want to help her out, you have the address now.

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Olden Murry and the amazing Mike Trimble

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

During my stint as political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the best sentence I ever read was written by Mike Trimble.

It was so good, in fact, that I don’t remember how it ended.

It was 1993 and Trimble, who had earned the reputation of being one of the state’s great storytellers at the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Times magazine, had been enlisted to help me with the newspaper’s first shot at putting together a package on the Best 10 and Worst 10 state legislators.

In his introduction to the package — which took up almost an entire section — Trimble wrote this about the Arkansas House of Representatives: “In the House, where the shallow end runs the length of the pool, …”

Like I said, I don’t even remember how the sentence ended.

In yesterday’s Southern Fried post about Murry’s, the famous east Arkansas catfish joint that was once at DeValls Bluff but is now on U.S. Highway 70 between Hazen and Carlisle, I noted that writer John Egerton had quoted Trimble in his 1987 book “Southern Food.”

Trimble had described the original Murry’s as a place that “appears at first glance to be a minor train derailment.”

I also noted in the previous post that Max Brantley and I had run into each other on a recent Saturday night at Murry’s. In the post Max wrote on his Arkansas Blog, he included a link to a transcript of a lengthy interview Ernie Dumas conducted with Trimble as part of the Gazette oral history project.

That project is part of the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas (in the way of full disclosure, I have the honor of being on the Pryor Center board).

The Gazette published its final issue in October 1991, and the oral history project began in 2000 with funding from the Patterson family of Little Rock, the Arkansas owners of the newspaper prior to its purchase by the Gannett Corp.

Former Gazette and New York Times reporter Roy Reed was the project director for the Pryor Center.

In the interview with Dumas, Trimble was asked about a Gazette feature story he did on catfish cook Olden Murry.

A former Gazette reporter who had left the newspaper to work for the office of Disability Determination for Social Security read the story and filed a complaint against Murry.

“Olden Murry had worked for the Corps of Engineers on a snagboat for a time and had an injury to his arm,” Trimble said. “He was mangled in a winch, I think, and as a result had been getting a disability payment for several years. In getting Mr. Murry’s history, he told me about that. … And I reported this and also reported the long hours he put in at this restaurant.”

Trimble received a call from the former reporter who was now working for the government. He was informed that Murry had been drawing full disability for years.

In an attempt to protect Murry, Trimble told the caller: “To be perfectly honest, I was real drunk when I went out there. I’ve got to admit I was real drunk when I was talking to him, and I don’t know if any of that stuff is right.”

Indeed, Murry’s has long been known as a brown-bag restaurant, in the tradition of a lot of the old restaurants across the river in the Mississippi Delta.

Fortunately for Olden Murry, the deputy U.S. attorney was a fan of the restaurant. So was U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers.

The Social Security bureaucrats were informed that Murry had no money saved. In other words, it would be a waste of time to go after him.

Dumas said in the interview: “He hired all of his kinfolks down there, and I don’t think he ever finished a week with a penny.”

According to Dumas, the Social Security Administration was told, “‘The restaurant is yours. You can have it. It’s yours. Just tell us when you want to take possession.’ And Murry would just leave. And they finally just said the hell with it and dropped the whole thing. And he didn’t get any more benefits.”

Once things were resolved, the deputy U.S. attorney rented a bus and took a group to DeValls Bluff for a feast of fried catfish, fried crappie, turnip greens and black-eyed peas.

It reportedly was quite a night.

Olden Murry is gone, but Becky and Stanley Young carry on his legacy nightly at one of Arkansas’ best restaurants.

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Arkansas’ best fried catfish?

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

We live in a state blessed with restaurants that know how to fry catfish correctly.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, it was difficult to find good fried catfish in a restaurant. They just didn’t know how to cook it the right way.

But Arkansas offers a bonanza of catfish dining opportunities.

To name a few: I can head to the northeast and visit the Georgetown One Stop at Georgetown (now that the water level of the White River has dropped and the community is no longer an island), partake of the buffet at Dondie’s White River Princess on the banks of the White River in Des Arc or venture to Who Dat’s in Bald Knob.

I can head to the southwest and visit The Fish Net near Arkadelphia or go down to the far southwest corner of our state and out in the woods for the perfectly fried catfish at Spruell’s Cafe at Doddridge.

Heading a bit to the south from Little Rock, I can find my way to Dorey’s at Leola, Leon’s at Pine Bluff and the Catfish Kitchen at Dumas.

In the far northern part of the state, there’s Fred’s Fish House at Mammoth Spring.

Here in Little Rock, my favorite is the Lassis Inn.

Heading west on Interstate 40, I can make the stop at The Fish House in Conway or the Catfish “N” on the banks of the Arkansas River at Dardanelle.

Heading east on Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis, I can order fine fried catfish at Nick’s in Carlisle and Gene’s in Brinkley.

In between those two stops is some of the best fried catfish anywhere. Not just in Arkansas but anywhere. It’s the catfish cooked up by Stanley Young at Murry’s on U.S. Highway 70 between Hazen and Carlisle.

I began patronizing the original Murry’s in DeValls Bluff when I was a child. My grandparents lived at Des Arc, and we would often make a “road trip” from the Prairie County seat in the north to the Prairie County seat in the south in order to eat catfish at Murry’s or barbecue at Craig’s.

When I was in my 20s, there were times when I would load up the car with hungry friends for a trip to DeValls Bluff. We would eat a pork sandwich at Craig’s (medium sauce; I can’t handle the hot there) for an appetizer and then make the short drive over to Murry’s for the catfish.

I miss that rabbit warren of trailers that housed the original location, though I always had the feeling when eating there that a grease fire in the kitchen would quickly incinerate us all.

While the current location doesn’t have the ambiance of the old place, the food is as good as ever. And Becky Young is the best hostess you’ll find anywhere.

I always see someone I know at Murry’s.

On a Saturday earlier this month, I went to Memphis to watch the pros golf at the St. Jude Classic. I was accompanied by my 14-year-old son and one of his friends. Hot and hungry, we decided to stop at Murry’s on the way home.

We had just ordered when in walked Little Rock journalist and political provocateur Max Brantley and Judge Ellen Brantley along with an eclectic group of friends.

Max later would write in his Arkansas Blog: “The crowd wasn’t as big as the throng a few miles west at Nick’s in Carlisle, but I don’t know why. Boss Stanley Young has been frying catfish for 41 years, following in a half century of Olden Murry’s footsteps.”

Max included a link to John Egerton’s classic book “Southern Food.” I happen to have a copy of the book, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1987, sitting on my desk.

Here’s what Egerton, with whom I was privileged to have dinner last year at Ashley’s, wrote back then: “Our catfish finale was on a side street in the little town of DeValls Bluff, where we stopped, as Mike Trimble wrote in the Arkansas Gazette, ‘at what appears at first glance to be a minor train derailment.’ Actually, it is Murry’s Cafe, a rambling catacomb of interconnected coaches, trailers and prefabricated rooms. Olden Murry has been frying fish for the faithful there for about 20 years, before which he was a riverboat cook on the Mississippi. On the wall inside the cafe is a photograph of U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. It is autographed to Olden Murry, ‘the best cook in Arkansas.’ With generous allowances for political overstatement, Bumpers may have been right on target.

“Here is a man with 45 years of cooking experience whose reputation is secure, not only for the catfish he prepares but for the steaks, chicken, quail, frog legs, barbecue, shrimp, oysters and veal. He makes his own meal-based and flour-based batters and breading to dredge his seafoods and meats in, and he keeps the formulas to himself. He buys catfish both from fishermen on the nearby White River and from commercial processors. He completely empties and refills his deep-fat fryers with fresh cooking oil at least twice a week — a sure sign of devotion to quality — and he cooks his fish quickly at high temperatures, the better to seal in flavor and produce a crisp, crunchy crust. ‘I go by looking at the fish and listening to the grease to tell when it’s done,’ Murry said. ‘Every batch is different, so you have to pay attention.’ No automatic timers or fixed temperature controls for him.

“There is no sign of any kind outside Murry’s Cafe, and there are none out on the highway, but it is not at all unusual for 200 or more people to show up there on any given night, many of them having driven 60 miles from Little Rock. Most of the people who work at Murry’s are members of his family, including a majority of his seven children. Murry’s is a home-folks kind of place — the same staff serving consistently fine food to mostly regular customers in plain and unpretentious surroundings. It seems to be an invincible combination.

“The day Ann and I stopped there, it was four o’clock in the afternoon, and Olden Murry was just about to open for business. A fisherman who called himself Catfish John was there with 100 pounds of dressed fresh White River catfish, and soon he and Murry consummated a deal for them. Then the veteran chef heated his fresh oil to just the right temperature, rolled some of Catfish John’s finest fillets in the secret batter and fried them for us. The plates he brought to our table were like advertising pictures — the crisp golden fish, long slivers of french fries, a mound of creamy coleslaw, a ring of fresh onion, a length of dill pickle, a pepperoncini pepper, a wedge of lemon, a smoking-hot corn cake that looked and tasted like a hushpuppy’s rich first cousin. Everthing was artistically arranged, prepared to perfection and delicious. Olden Murry, a Rembrandt of the kitchen, had just completed another masterpiece.”

A Rembrandt of the kitchen.

I like that.

I daresay Stanley Young also is a Rembrandt of the kitchen.

Egerton wrote that Olden Murry cooked far more than catfish.

So does Stanley. My son, Evan, had the frog legs on our most recent trip there and pronounced them the best he has ever had.

Max wrote on his blog how his host declared that Stanley has the best chicken fried steak in the state and some of the best steaks.

I’ve had both the steaks and the chicken fried steak at Murry’s. Yes, they’re good.

As always, we began our meal that Saturday night with an order of Stanley’s onion rings as an appetizer. Max wrote that they come out “crisp and stay crisp, with fat hunks of sweet, moist onion inside the crackly coat.”

Looking for an evening road trip now that summer has arrived?

You would be wise to head over to Murry’s one night. Stay off the interstate. Take U.S. 70 the entire way — much slower and much more relaxing — so you can enjoy the cypress trees in Hills Lake, the giant pecan trees on the Pulaski-Lonoke county line, the Anderson minnow ponds, the fields of rice and soybeans and the downtowns of Lonoke and Carlisle.

Maybe I’ll see you there.

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A Civil War excursion to south Arkansas

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

It’s getting warmer outside and the wild plum trees are blooming. In other words, it’s time for a road trip through the pine woods of south Arkansas.

I happen to love both Civil War history and driving through rural Arkansas.

If you’re like me, this will make for a fun day: Drive to the site of three battles in the Red River Campaign — Poison Spring near Camden, Marks’ Mills near Fordyce and Jenkins’ Ferry near Sheridan.

You’ll need to make this excursion on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday since the eating is an important part of the overall experience.

The three battlefields are maintained by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. All three of these small parks are quiet spots with few visitors. That means they’re nice places to reflect on the past as we begin the Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration. There are interpretive panels at each battlefield.

Start your day by driving to Camden. Poison Spring is about 10 miles west of the city on Arkansas Highway 76.

Here’s how the state parks website at www.arkansasstateparks.com explains what happened here: “In the spring of 1864, three Civil War battles took place in south-central Arkansas that were part of the Union Army’s Red River Campaign. … The first battle occurred near Camden at Poison Spring on April 18 when Confederate troops captured a supply train and scattered Union forces.

“Arkansas was split in half with Union troops occupying Little Rock, Fort Smith and every town north of the Arkansas River. Confederates were encamped from Monticello to Camden, Washington and beyond. Plans for an elaborate Union offensive were hatched during the winter in Washington, D.C., in order to capture the last Rebel stronghold of the west — Texas. Standing in their way was Shreveport, believed to be the front door to Texas. Thus began what would become known as the Red River Campaign.”

Almost 12,000 men, 800 wagons, 30 pieces of artillery and about 12,000 horses left Little Rock and headed to Camden. Under the command of Gen. Frederick Steele, the Union forces moved slowly due to heavy spring rains and mud. Supplies became dangerously low.

The Union troops arrived in Camden on April 15. There was no fighting since Confederate troops had withdrawn from the city on the banks of the Ouachita River.

On April 17, Steele received bad news. The Union troops that were supposed to bring him supplies from Louisiana had retreated. Meanwhile, Confederate forces had moved or destroyed a nearby stockpile of corn Steele had heard about.

Steele sent a force of 500 black infantrymen, 195 cavalry troops and an artillery detachment to obtain supplies. A scout for Confederate Gen. John Marmaduke noticed the wagon train. Marmaduke suggested to Confederate Gen. Sterling Price that an ambush was in order.

This is how the state parks website describes the action: “During the night, the Union wagon train was reinforced by 400 soldiers Steele sent from Camden, as approximately 1,500 Confederates prepared to attack the Union troops from both sides of the blocked road. The attack on April 18 began near a place the locals called Poison Spring. When the battle ended, the Union force of more than 1,100 had been reduced to 800. Another 80 Union troops were killed as they clawed their way back to Camden through the bottomlands. Fewer than 20 Confederates were killed in the victory that kept much-needed supplies from enemy hands.”

After you’ve finished your visit to Poison Spring, drive east to Fordyce. Arrive in time for lunch at Klappenbach Bakery (closed on Sundays and Mondays). Norman and Lee Klappenbach moved their now-famous bakery to Fordyce from Walla Walla, Wash., in 1975. They expanded the operation in 1988 to open a sandwich shop.

There are sandwiches, salads and a variety of soups and quiches on the lunch menu. I usually go for the turkey club sandwich with a cup of soup. Save room for homemade pie. After lunch, load up on breads and pastries from the bakery to take home with you.

Next, head to Marks’ Mills. The site is southeast of Fordyce at the junction of Arkansas Highways 8 and 97.

John Marks had established a sawmill and a gristmill at this location in 1834. The battle on the old Camden-Pine Bluff road took place on April 25, 1864.

A group of 150 wagons loaded with supplies had made it to Camden from Pine Bluff on April 20. Steele then sent those wagons, along with 60 more, back north toward Pine Bluff for additional supplies. He included an escort force of 1,200 men and six artillery pieces.

The state parks website picks it up from here: “As the Union wagon train slowly made its way to Pine Bluff through virtually impassable mud on April 25, Confederate Gen. Kirby Smith assembled an attack force of several thousand men, who intercepted the train at Marks’ Mills. The overwhelmed Northerners were once again surrounded on all sides but managed to fight back for several hours. This time, there was no escape. Nearly all Union survivors were captured.

“After this devastating blow, Gen. Steele abandoned all intentions of marching to Shreveport on his way to capture Texas. He began to plan his retreat from Camden back to Little Rock. The only escape route he knew was the Military Road that ran north through Princeton and Jenkins’ Ferry, the final section of the Red River Campaign.”

Once you’ve finished visiting Marks’ Mills, you should head north. The next stop is at Jenkins’ Ferry, which is 13 miles south of Sheridan on Arkansas Highway 46.

Derek Allen Clements describes what happened here for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net): “Steele slipped out of Camden the night of April 26, marching toward Little Rock. Arriving at Jenkins’ Ferry in the Saline River bottoms on April 29, Steele began building a pontoon bridge. Confederate cavalry engaged the rear guard, halting as darkness fell and re-engaging at dawn. The Confederate divisions from Louisiana began arriving April 30 to join Price’s command. The federal rear guard took a strong position, anchoring its flanks between a flooded creek and swampy woodland. The Confederates assaulted the federal line piecemeal, failing to break it. By 12:30 p.m., Smith ended the assault, and Steele slipped across the river. He arrived May 2 in Little Rock, and his part of the campaign, also known as the Camden Expedition, was over.”

After leaving Jenkins’ Ferry, you must end your day by partaking of the all-you-can-eat catfish buffet at Dorey’s near Leola on Grant County Road 5. You can obtain directions by going to the website at www.doreycatering.com.

Dorey’s raises its own fish, so it doesn’t come any fresher. The buffet operates from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. each Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

In one long day, you will have:

– Made a peaceful drive on numerous highways in the Gulf Coastal Plain region of Arkansas.

– Visited the sites of three Civil War battles.

– Had a great lunch.

– Loaded up on bakery items to take home.

– Filled up at supper on some of the best catfish in Arkansas.

It’s a fine way to spend a spring day.

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