Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

The decline and fall of Brennan’s

Monday, July 1st, 2013

My love of New Orleans is such that I had determined at a young age that if I ever got married, the honeymoon would be in the Crescent City.

Fortunately, I was able to convince Melissa of just such a honeymoon in the fall of 1989.

We ate our way across the city for a week. While the restaurant is viewed by some as a place for tourists, the famous breakfast at Brennan’s was de rigueur.

Through the years, I would take Gov. Mike Huckabee and other friends to their first breakfasts at Brennan’s. Melissa and I took our two sons there following Sunday morning mass at St. Louis Cathedral. Hurricane Katrina hit just two weeks later.

It’s hard for me to believe that the restaurant closed last week as a long-running family feud continues to play out.

“The thing that gets me most about it is that when the brothers took over from their aunts and uncles in 1973, Brennan’s was the most profitable restaurant in the world,” Tom Fitzmorris writes in his online New Orleans Menu Daily. “It has never done badly. A waiter told me that the place had a thousand people on the reservation books for this past weekend. At its lofty prices (the highest in town, except perhaps for tasting menus at places like Stella!), open seven days a week from morning through night, Brennan’s was a money machine. What the hell happened?”

The current management of the restaurant was evicted from the Royal Street property at 2:15 p.m. last Thursday by the corporation that had purchased the building at auction in May. The most recent manager of the restaurant was Owen “Pip” Brennan Jr., the son of founder Owen Brennan Sr.

It was learned Friday that one of Pip’s cousins, Ralph Brennan, is a partner in the company that now owns the property.

Ralph Brennan said in a statement: “The closure of Brennan’s restaurant is regrettable and sad but could have been averted many times over the past two years. For the last two years, I have been in repeated contact with my cousins in an effort to help avert the financial crisis that Brennan’s Inc. finds itself in today. Several offers to inject capital into the company were made and rejected.”

Ralph Brennan said that he and business partner Terry White “look forward to bringing the building back into commerce soon.”

Employees weren’t informed of the impending closure. Some arrived late Thursday in uniform to find the doors locked and everything turned off, even the gas light out front.

The restaurant’s roots date back to 1943 when Owen Brennan Sr. bought the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. He opened Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carre three years later. The elder Brennan died suddenly at age 45. Following his death, the family moved the restaurant to 417 Royal St. in the 1950s and renamed it Brennan’s.

Owen Brennan Sr.’s sons — Ted, Pip and Jimmy — would run the restaurant. Jimmy Brennan died in 2010.

In early June, Pip overthrew Ted as manager in a contentious shareholder vote. Ted and daughter Bridget Brennan Tyrrell had run the restaurant since 2006, when they had ousted Pip.

Are you following all of this? It’s, at best, byzantine.

On Friday evening, Ted Brennan issued a statement saying that if he and Bridget had not been ousted, they might have been able to avoid eviction.

“Despite the defamatory statements made by others about my family’s management, we have built this restaurant from the ground up since Katrina, only for their encroachment eight years later,” Ted Brennan said. “Times have been tough, but we always put our employees first. We are sick that the staff was not told of the eviction notice Pip and his sons received. Our efforts to communicate with our employees the past three weeks have been prohibited by Pip and his agents.”

An April 26 board meeting at the restaurant, orchestrated by Pip Brennan to unseat his brother and niece, ended when the police were called.

The shareholder meeting last month at which Pip and his sons — Blake and Clark — took over was held in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan. The late Jimmy Brennan’s daughters and Pip Brennan combined their votes to unseat Ted Brennan as Brennan Inc.’s board president and restaurant manager.

The Brennan family tree is a large one.

“In the years before all of this legal action, the Brennan brothers were suing their cousin Dickie Brennan over whether he had the right to use his name on his steakhouse,” Fitzmorris writes. “It was another eruption of the long-running feud between the Brennans on Royal Street and the Brennans of all the other restaurants (including, confusingly enough, Brennan’s in Houston).

“The expense of litigating that matter was not insubstantial and that may have triggered the cash issues at Brennan’s. It’s one of many ironies that have come to light.”

And what about cousin Ralph Brennan, who already owns five restaurants in the New Orleans area?

“Ralph’s presence in this mix give a good idea of where all this is headed,” Fitzmorris writes. “Ralph is not only an astute restaurateur but a well-trained businessman. He was a CPA before joining the family’s restaurant business. And unless more surprises come out, there shortly will be a new restaurant in the superb location that has been Brennan’s since 1955.

“In order to go on, Pip and Ted Brennan will now have to find a new location pronto or somehow make a deal with the building’s owners. They also have to come to an understanding between themselves. None of this will be easy.”

Fitzmorris, who does a three-hour daily radio show on food (only in New Orleans would that much radio time be devoted to food), says this could be the restaurant story of the decade in New Orleans.

Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for Ralph Brennan, was asked by The Times-Picayune if Ralph planned to reopen Brennan’s.

The spokesman answered: “Not the same restaurant. But it’s safe to say that a new restaurant is high on the list of possibilities.”

He said the eviction gives “the new ownership a clean opportunity to create a profitable, productive enterprise that continues to do justice to that iconic location.”

I head to New Orleans early next month. I had hoped to dine in the famous pink building on Royal Street one morning, enjoying oysters Benedict and bananas Foster.

The courts aren’t known for acting quickly. I have a feeling that breakfast will have to be eaten elsewhere.

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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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A trip to The Tamale Factory

Monday, March 4th, 2013

It was, in so many ways, a trip back in time.

We exited Interstate 40 at Hazen on that Friday afternoon and headed north on Arkansas Highway 11 to Des Arc.

How many times had I made the trip on this section of highway through the years to visit my grandparents at Des Arc? It would be impossible to count them.

Dad, who died two years ago yesterday, would be at the wheel of the big Oldsmobile. Mom would be in the passenger seat up front. My sister and I would be in the back. Having been raised in the pine woods of south Arkansas, I was intrigued by the huge fields and the views that seemed to stretch for miles to the horizon.

Then, as now, the Delta and Grand Prairie were places apart.

We knew what awaited us in Des Arc — great cooking by my grandmother, Bess Rex Caskey, in the old family home on Erwin Street; a visit to the chicken yard to gather eggs each morning with my grandfather, W.J. Caskey; a walk across the street to check his post office box, a stop in the Farmers and Merchants Bank and then a stroll down Main Street, where the Caskey Funeral Home and the Caskey Hardware Store had once been located.

If it were summer, we might go down to Haley’s Fish Market to buy catfish that had been hauled that morning out of the White River, frying them for supper that evening. My grandfather would ask if they had any “fiddlers,” small catfish that he liked to fry whole.

If it were winter, Dad might take me along for a duck hunt.

I was in the company of three of Arkansas’ most noted storytellers on that recent Friday afternoon. Don Tilton, Paul Berry and Mary Berry had graciously invited me to tag along for dinner at The Tamale Family, the restaurant that Mary’s cousin George Eldridge has operated since November in a barn on the family farm at Gregory in Woodruff County.

As we headed up Highway 11 between Hazen and Des Arc, we passed the familiar landmarks — the Wattensaw Bayou, where we would sometimes hunt ducks; the Darrell Saul Farm, where I had attended political fundraising events in my earlier life as a politico; the headquarters for the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area, which had once been a club called Riverwood where we would go to swim; the cemetery where we buried my grandfather on a hot summer day and my grandmother on a cold winter day; the Presbyterian Church, which is being turned into a library; the offices of the White River Journal, one of this state’s best weekly newspapers, which has been in the Walls family for decades; the building my grandfather built to house his hardware store, a structure that still stands and still is home to a hardware store.

My grandfather sold his businesses to Willis Eddins who, in turn, sold them to Billy Garth. They remain in the Garth family.

Just across the street from that building is the Prairie County Courthouse, where my grandfather served terms as county assessor, county clerk and county judge. Though the man I called Pam-Pa had last held elective office in 1941, I loved it when people would still refer to him as Judge Caskey. It made me feel like he was important.

With Don — who’s known by his friends as Tilco — at the wheel, we crossed the White River bridge, looking to our right at that always magnificent view of the courthouse and downtown Des Arc. The current bridge is far safer than its predecessor, but it doesn’t have the character of what was known by locals as the Swinging Bridge. The massive suspension bridge, which was in operation from 1928-70, indeed would sway when trucks crossed it.

Whenever horses crossed the bridge, owners had to put covers over their heads and lead them. They refused to cross otherwise.

Here are a few of the comments posted about the Swinging Bridge on a website about bridges:

– “I lived east of the river and grew up crossing the bridge every day. We called it rattletrap bridge because of the sounds the boards made as the car went across. … It was terrifying to cross on those few boards on a school bus. When I started driving, I drove to school across the bridge every day. One day it was raining, and I lost control on the way up to the center of the bridge. My car fishtailed and hit the rails on the side three times before coming to rest. I remember the feeling of knowing I wasn’t going to make it. I’m now almost 60 years old, and I still dream about it and wake up shivering.”

– “I had such a love-hate relationship with the wonderful Swinging Bridge. One time, my dad had to back down past the huge curve in the bridge to let another car pass. I was so scared I got in the floorboard. As I grew older, my friends and I would walk the bridge on Sunday afternoons. Boards were always missing, and I never got close to the sides.”

– “I grew up in this area and walked and rode across this bridge countless times. It never occurred to me to be scared. It was just the bridge we had to cross to get to Des Arc. I remember riding in trailers filled with cotton, being pulled by a tractor and feeling the swing of the bridge. I’m not sure I would do that today if I could.”

– “I rode in a school bus for 11 years across the bridge every day. Sometimes we had to wait for someone to back down to one of the wide sections, and then sometimes we had to back up in the school bus ourselves. I don’t remember being afraid, but after I married, my husband was terrified to cross it.”

East of the river, there are large fields and pecan orchards. As we head east on Arkansas Highway 38, we pass the road that my dad and I would turn down to fish on Spring Lake and Horn Lake, both White River oxbows.

On the Prairie County-Woodruff County line, we reach the community of Little Dixie and turn left onto Arkansas Highway 33, passing through Dixie on our way to Gregory (yes, there’s both a Dixie and a Little Dixie).

The Eldridge family home, built in 1910, has been beautifully restored.

Also cleaned up and restored is the Eldridge family cemetery, the final resting place of family patriarch Rolfe Eldridge, who was born in November 1807 and died in April 1859. Mary Eldridge Berry gave me a tour of the cemetery just as the sun was setting. Paul went inside the restaurant (the barn is between the family home and the cemetery) to secure a table from George.

Anyone who knows George, the owner of the Little Rock outpost of Doe’s Eat Place, understands that he has the golden touch when it comes to restaurants. It was George who first talked Charles and “Little Doe” Signa in Greenville, Miss., into letting him use the Doe’s name and menu in a location other than the original on Nelson Street in Greenville.

Doe’s Eat Place locations now can been found throughout the region, but George was the first to take the concept out of Greenville. Due to a politician named Bill Clinton, the Little Rock location soon became more famous than the Greenville original. That’s because presidential campaign staffers such as James Carville and George Stephanopoulos would hang out there on a nightly basis.

The national political media followed and began writing about the place. The back room at Doe’s was where P.J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson and William Greider conducted the interview of Clinton for a September 1992 edition of Rolling Stone.

Was it O’Rourke or Thompson who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on?

In November 1992, People published a story on George and his chief cook, Lucille Robinson. The following January, George escorted Robinson to one of the inaugural balls in Washington. An Annie Leibovitz portrait of the pair is among the photos that hang on the walls of the Little Rock restaurant.

If you like the food at Doe’s, you’ll like the food at The Tamale Factory. The menus are similar.

One thing about Delta residents is that they don’t mind driving a long distance for a good meal on a Friday or Saturday. Since it opened in November, The Tamale Factory has been pulling them in from as far away as Little Rock, Memphis and Jonesboro. Reservations are recommended.

On the other side of the barn that houses the restaurant, George keeps his quarter horses in a well-appointed stable. He introduced us to the horses and his three cats (cats are a tradition in horse barns). He also opened a pen that was filled with goats.

There’s also a show ring where George occasionally rolls the dirt, puts down a wooden dance floor and brings in a band from Memphis. Oh how I would love to be back in Gregory on one of those nights.

Roots run deep in this part of Arkansas. Like other east Arkansas counties, Prairie and Woodruff counties have bled population for decades.

Prairie County has only half the population it had in 1920, falling from 17,447 that year to 8,715 in the 2010 census.

Woodruff County has just a third of the population it had in 1920, dropping from 21,527 that year to 7,260 in 2010. Those who remain, though, are a proud people with a strong sense of history and place. They are also people who know how to have a good time, as we saw on this night at The Tamale Factory.

Prairie County has two county seats — Des Arc and DeValls Bluff — and a rich history.

“European exploration of the area began as early as the late 17th century,” Marilyn Hambrick Sickel writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “While the area became occupied by both the Spanish and French, the county remained vital to trade expeditions. … French traders traveled up and down the White River in the early 1700s. Bear oil and skins, abundant in this area at the time, were sought-after commodities in the New Orleans markets. The rivers were the highways of this early era. Early maps identify the White River as Eau Blanche and Riv Blanche. Des Arc was the earliest settlement. Creoles named Watts and East are credited as being Des Arc’s first residents, arriving around 1810.”

Sickel writes that Des Arc was “a flourishing river town prior to the Civil War. Timber for homes was plentiful. Fish and game were abundant, and the population grew rapidly. Selling wood to power the steamboats and rafting timber along the river were viable occupations. The Butterfield Overland Mail route in the late 1850s was key in the development of Des Arc. The city, depending on how wet the roads were or how low the river was, had the fortune of being on the direct route from Memphis to Fort Smith.”

Because it was so swampy, Woodruff County wasn’t settled as early as Prairie County.

Woodruff County was established during the Civil War in November 1862. When Arkansas was no longer part of the Confederacy, it was approved again as a county in 1865. It was named after William Woodruff, the founder of the Arkansas Gazette at Arkansas Post in 1819 (the newspaper moved to Little Rock along with the territorial capital in 1821).

“In the years after the Civil War, Woodruff County prospered with wood and agriculture industries,” Paula Harmon Barnett writes in the online encyclopedia. “Sawmills and woodworking factories thrived, making use of the many acres of timber in the county. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroads began to move into the county, and towns sprang up around them, increasing the county’s population each year and greatly improving the economy. Cotton, corn, oats and hay thrved in the fertile, well-watered soil, and the two rivers in the county by which to ship products (the White and Cache) added to the area’s prosperity.”

The county’s population grew each decade from the 1870 census to the 1930 census. It has fallen each decade since then.

There’s a haunting beauty to the Delta and the Grand Prairie in late winter and early spring. History hangs heavily here. Come early to Gregory, taking time to walk through the Eldridge family cemetery and maybe even going to the historic area of Augusta Memorial Park, where there also are Eldridges buried.

Yes, come early and stay late, letting your tamales and steak digest while convincing George to tell stories about the politicians, musicians and other colorful characters he has known.

Spring is beginning in Arkansas, and with it the desire for Friday and Saturday road trips. The drive to Gregory is a trip back in time with good food awaiting at your final destination.

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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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Bessemer’s Bright Star

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Through the years, I’ve tried to visit as many iconic Southern restaurants as possible.

One place that had long been on my restaurant bucket list was the Bright Star in downtown Bessemer. It’s Alabama’s oldest restaurant.

Last Friday night, I was able to finally eat there. In a previous post, I wrote of how important college football road trips have become to me. Finding great restaurants is an integral part of any football road trip worth its salt.

Realizing months ago that Ouachita Baptist University would be playing a September game in Tuscaloosa, I made it a point of planning a Friday night trip to the Bright Star,  which was founded by Greeks in 1907.

Ouachita athletic director David Sharp and I were staying in nearby Hoover. We headed to Bessemer — just 10 miles away — shortly before 6 p.m. and parked on the street in an old downtown that has seen its better days.

As we approached the Bright Star, a tall gentleman in a suit, who was standing on the sidewalk outside, asked a question.

“Are you coming to dinner?” he said.

“Yes sir,” I quickly replied.

“Is this your first time at the Bright Star?” he asked.

“It sure is,” I said.

Then, without mentioning the next day’s football game (the real reason we were in Alabama), I added: “We drove all the way from Arkansas just to eat here.”

Yes, I used to work in politics.

He opened a door that said “Exit Only” and invited us inside. I looked left toward the lobby and could see that there was a wait. The man took us directly to a booth up front and told us to sit down.

Before a waitress could bring the menus, he had brought us two cups of the best seafood gumbo I’ve ever had outside of Louisiana.

“On the house for our friends from Arkansas,” he said.

I soon learned that the man we had had the good fortune of running into on the sidewalk was none other than Jimmy Koikos, the oldest of the two brothers who now own the Bright Star. We later met his younger brother, Nicky.

Gene Stallings, who was the head football coach at the University of Alabama from 1990-96, wrote this in a book published in 2007 by the University of Alabama Press in honor of the Bright Star’s 100th anniversary: “Every once in a while — possibly only once in a lifetime — if we are really lucky we will run across a restaurant that is truly special. I’ve had the privilege of eating at five-star restaurants in Europe as well as here in the United States, and without question my favorite restaurant in the world is the Bright Star in Bessemer.

“The restaurant stands on its own, but the story of a young man from Greece who had very little money and could not speak English making his way to Alabama and starting a restaurant that has thrived for more than 100 years is a heartwarming one. His struggles, his love for his restaurant and his love for the people of Alabama and his family is one you’ll not soon forget.”

Bill and Pete Koikos immigrated from Greece in 1923 and two years later purchased an ownership interest in the restaurant from its founder, Tom Bonduris. Jimmy and Nicky Koikos have owned and operated the business since 1966.

It started as a 25-seat cafe. It now seats 330 people.

There’s a tradition of quality Greek-owned restaurants in the South. Birmingham natives can run down the list from that area. In addition to the The Bright Star, there’s The Fish Market, Gus’s Hot Dogs, Niki’s Downtown, Niki’s West, Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs, The Smoke House, Yanni’s and Zoe’s.

The Southern Foodways Alliance has devoted a section of its website (www.southernfoodways.org) to interviews with people at these restaurants.

“It is written that the first immigrant from Greece, George Cassimus, arrived in Birmingham in the late 19th century, had a brief stint as a fireman and then turned to the resturant business,” the SFA website notes. “His Fish Lunch House, which opened in 1902, may or may not be the first Greek-owned restaurant in town, but it was certainly a starting point — and perhaps even an inspiration — for the multitude of Greek-owned restaurants that have fed generations of hungry folks in Birmingham since.

“The names of these restaurants create an interesting kind of foodways genealogy. Greek immigration and restaurant history can be traced through a place like Gus’s Hot Dogs, which was started by a man named Gus, then owned by Aleck and now run by George — all Greeks who saw opportunity in the Magic City.

“Whether it’s souvlaki or hot dogs, baklava or peanut butter pie, Greeks in Birmingham have perfectly melded their own food traditions with those of the Deep South.”

Take Niki’s West. Gus Hontzas came to this country from Greece and ended up in Jackson, Miss., where his uncle, John Hontzas, had a restaurant called John’s. The Hontzas family opened Niki’s Downtown in 1951 at Birmingham. Niki’s West opened six years later, and Gus moved to Birmingham to run it. He died in 2001. His sons, Pete and Teddie, took over Niki’s West.

An article at the website www.seriouseats.com noted: “The cafeteria line at Niki’s West is legendary. Mid-morning you can find folks in line, piling their plates high with some of the freshest and most colorful vegetables in Birmingham. And if the cafeteria line isn’t your style, they also have an a la carte menu where you’ll find even more fresh seafood, steaks and a few traditional Greek dishes.”

Jackson, Miss., also has a strong restaurant tradition.

When I was going to Mississippi’s capital on a regular basis as part of my work for the Delta Regional Authority, I loved to eat downtown at the Mayflower Cafe and the Elite.

The Mayflower, long a hangout for Mississippi politicians, has been open since 1935 and is known for its seafood.

The Elite, which has been around since 1947, is also known for seafood along with its yeast rolls. There are also broiled steaks, hamburger steaks smothered in onions, homemade soups and enchiladas.

When dining in Jackson, you must have what’s known locally as comeback sauce. You use it as a salad dressing. You dip your crackers in it. You dip fries and onion rings in it.

Comeback sauce, sort of a mix of thousand island dressing and remoulade sauce, became popular in the 1940s at the Mayflower and the Greek-owned restaurants operated by the Dennery family in Jackson. The Rotisserie, which was owned by Alex Dennery and was in the Five Points area of Jackson, simply called it house dressing. The Mayflower’s comeback sauce has a touch of celery that the others don’t have.

We digress.

Let’s get back east to Bessemer and the Bright Star.

Bessemer, long a steel town, was founded in 1887 by Henry F. Debardeleben. He came to the Birmingham area at age 30 and acquired a controlling interest in the Red Mountain Iron & Coal Co., which was later renamed the Eureka Mining Co.

Bessemer came to life after Debardeleben bought 4,040 acres about 13 miles southwest of Birmingham. He planned to build eight furnaces and add two railroad outlets. The original name of the city was Brooklyn, but Debardeleben renamed it in honor of Sir Henry Bessemer, the British scientist who was a pioneer in the process of making steel.

By 1890, Bessemer was the fourth-largest city in Alabama.

Bessemer had 33,428 residents in the 1970 census. Since then, it has fallen to 27,456. Ore mining ended as supplies were exhausted, leading to economic decline.

Iron ore once was mined in the hills just to the southeast of the city, coal was mined to the north and to the west, and there also were significant deposits of limestone.

By the time the Bright Star was founded, Bessemer was served by five railroads and downtown sidewalks were busy 24 hours a day. The Bright Star started in 1907 as a small cafe with only a horseshoe-shaped bar. It outgrew three locations and moved to its present location in 1914. There are still original ceiling fans, tile floors and marbled walls. There also are murals painted decades ago by an itinerant European artist.

Seafood is brought from the Gulf Coast daily. After our complimentary cups of gumbo, David and I shared the cold shrimp platter as an appetizer. We both decided on a Greek salad followed by the restaurant’s specialty — snapper broiled Greek style. This is a red snapper fillet broiled with olive oil, lemon sauce, oregano and other seasonings.

There’s no state — not even Texas — in which college football consumes a higher percentage of the populace than Alabama. Though the Bright Star has both Alabama and Auburn memorabilia on its walls, Crimson Tide fans far outnumbered Tiger fans. Almost 50 percent of those dining there last Friday night (with an afternoon game scheduled for Tuscaloosa the next afternoon) had on some type of Alabama shirt, jacket or button.

In addition to being Gene Stallings’ favorite restaurant in the world, the Bright Star was a favorite haunt of Paul “Bear” Bryant. Both Nicky and Jimmy Koikos graduated from the University of Alabama and remain Crimson Tide fans.

After dinner, Jimmy took us to the back of the restaurant to see the somewhat hidden “Bryant Booth,” where the coach would hang out, eat, drink and smoke. It features a painting of Bryant and is reserved weeks in advance on game weekends.

The waitresses all wear either Alabama or Auburn jerseys on the night before football games.

The man in the booth next to us, obviously a regular who eats lunch and dinner at the Bright Star several times a week, told us of his plans for a party at his Tuscaloosa condo the next day. He attends both home and road games, meaning he’s likely already in Fayetteville as I write this.

In the book published for the Bright Star’s centennial, Jimmy Koikos had these memories of Bryant: “Daddy wasn’t a big football fan, but I was always interested in the sport. When I was a junior in high school, I remember going to Mobile to see Coach Bryant’s first game. Later, I went to Memphis to see his last game. I followed him through his entire career. The man knew exactly what to say and when to say it. He was a master at motivating people.

“I remember one Monday night in the 1970s before our expansion, I got a telephone call from a man who wanted to make reservations for two for dinner. I told him that since it was a Monday evening, we would not be full. He could just come by at his convenience.

“He again told me that he wanted to reserve a private booth for two people. I told him that our booths are reserved for eight or more guests, but to just come by, ask for Jimmy and I would be glad to accommodate him.

“He proceeded to tell me that he wanted a private booth for two with a television.

“I said, ‘Sir, may I ask who is requesting a private booth for two people with a television?’

“He said, ‘This is Bear Bryant.’

“I said, ‘You got it, Coach.’ I ran home, took my mother’s television set out of her house, returned to the restaurant and set it up in a private booth in the back. Coach Bryant wanted to come for dinner and watch Monday Night Football.

“I also remember driving by one night when I wasn’t working and seeing a huge crowd. I thought, ‘Wow, Nicky’s really got a crowd in there tonight.’ But I wondered why the television was being played so loudly that I could hear it out in the street. I went inside and turned the set down and asked why it was so loud. Someone said it was because Coach Bryant wanted it loud. I walked right back over there and turned it up again. Coach and Mrs. Bryant and several of their friends were eating there that night.

“Another time, I walked out onto the practice field in Tuscaloosa to watch the team work out. Coach was sitting on a golf cart. It was really hot that day. I said, ‘Coach, how are you?’ He looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here? Every time I see you I get hungry.’

“He was a wonderful coach and a real motivator. It was a real pleasure to talk to a man like that. I came to understand that if you run a business the way he ran a football team, you’d have a pretty successful business.”

After last week’s visit, I can assure you that’s exactly how Jimmy and Nicky Koikos run their business.

Long live the Bright Star.

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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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The perfect Arkansas summer meal

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

The website www.delish.com, which is owned by the giant Hearst Corp., recently had a feature it titled “All-American Eats: Must-Try Foods from the 50 States.”

The editors at the website chose one ingredient or dish to represent each of the 50 states.

What did they choose to represent Arkansas?

Chocolate gravy.

That’s right. Chocolate gravy.

I had two grandmothers who were great Southern cooks. Both lived and cooked into their 90s, and neither ever prepared chocolate gravy.

I conducted an informal poll on my Facebook page, and the majority of those who responded had never had chocolate gravy when they were growing up.

Yet here’s what the folks at Delish wrote about Arkansas: “Chocolate gravy (a thickened chocolate sauce) is a common accompaniment for biscuits in the South. It’s a breakfast staple in Arkansas. It is thought that recipes for the decadent Southern treat were developed using chocolate pudding as a base in the 19th century. While there is no documentation about the addition of biscuits to the mix, it makes sense that a common baked good was grabbed at some point to dip in the chocolate gravy — and thus a breakfast tradition was born.”

“A breakfast staple in Arkansas.” Come on.

Had they said cream gravy or even redeye gravy, I would have given them a pass.

Too often I see editors in places like New York and Chicago coming up with what they think those of us in Arkansas should be eating and drinking as opposed to what we’re actually eating and drinking.

A couple of other examples are sweet tea and fried green tomatoes, both of which have become “trendy” in Arkansas restaurants but neither of which I was raised on.

When I was growing up in Arkansas, if you wanted your tea sweet, you took a spoon and put sugar in it. It wasn’t automatically brewed that way.

Yes, my grandmothers fried about everything — potatoes, okra, squash. But we were much more likely to have fried green apples (I could use a dish of those right now) than fried green tomatoes. If the green tomatoes fell off the vine early, they were put in the windowsill to ripen.

Sweet tea and fried green tomatoes are more of a product of the Deep South than of Arkansas. Again, though, we have folks who weren’t born and raised here (along with misguided Arkansas young people under the age of 50) incorrectly defining Arkansas cuisine.

Go ahead and have your chocolate gravy, sweet tea and fried green tomatoes. Frankly, I like all three. Just don’t try to tell me they’re Arkansas staples.

That brings me to the July issue of Arkansas Life magazine, which is a feast for the eyes that features beautiful food photography and stories on Arkansas food.

The editors at the magazine were nice enough to ask me to come up with my perfect Arkansas summer meal. I chose fried crappie and bream. Neither fish would have made the Delish list since I doubt the Yankee editors could correctly pronounce crappie or bream.

Here’s what I wrote for an Arkansas audience: “I’ve never been asked one of those High Profile-style questions about ‘what would you have for your last meal?’ But I’ve given the subject some serious thought and come to the conclusion that my last meal needs to occur in the summer since both Arkansas streams and gardens figure into the equation.

“Here goes: My last meal would consist of freshly caught pan fish (bream, crappie or a combination of both), fried potatoes with a bit of onion, slices of cornbread slathered in butter and the following items straight from an Arkansas garden: sliced tomatoes, green onions, sliced bell peppers and sliced cucumbers.

“The fish must be pan fried, not deep fried, and should be consumed the day it’s caught if possible. Also, it’s best if the vegetables are gathered from the garden on the same day. Wash it down with lots of iced tea. You really shouldn’t have room for dessert, but if you insist, it needs to be summer wild berry cobbler using either blackberries or dewberries. You should have the chigger bites to prove you actually picked those berries.

“Some of my fondest childhood memories are of days spent at the small cabin that was owned by my grandparents on Lake Norrell, a Benton city water supply lake that covers 280 acres in northern Saline County. It’s the lake where I learned to fish, frog gig, swim and water ski. Mornings were spent ‘perch jerking’ on the dock out front with my grandmother, using cane poles from cane my grandfather had cut. The bait consisted of either the red wigglers my grandfather raised in his worm bed (I got the duty of pouring the kitchen scraps and coffee grounds in that bed) or the catalpa worms gathered from the giant catalpa tree out back. Mam-Maw, as I called her, cleaned whatever we caught (‘If it’s big enough to bite, it’s big enough to eat,’ she would say) and pan fried the fish for lunch. I’ve never had better meals.

“My father also loved to fry the fish he caught. When he died last spring, we decided to hold a fish fry at the church following the memorial service. There was no way to catch the number of bream and crappie needed to feed that throng (my dad was a popular guy), so we catered catfish from Dorey’s in Leola. Still, I have to believe my late father, grandmother and grandfather would have appreciated the gesture.”

That’s my ultimate summer meal in Arkansas.

What’s yours?

When you pick up the magazine, you’ll see the photo that accompanied my short piece. I had warned the editors at Arkansas Life that Arkansans are savvy and that they shouldn’t try to pass off a piece of fried catfish in a photo as either crappie or bream.

Alas, I had to give up a bag of my precious crappie for the photo shoot.

In thinking about what I would rate second on my list of Arkansas summer meals, I came up with this: A bacon and tomato sandwich (no lettuce for me) using Arkansas tomatoes and high-quality bacon. Wash it down with a cold glass of milk and have half an Arkansas cantaloupe for dessert. And, yes, I put salt on my cantaloupe. The same goes for watermelons and grapefruit.

You’ll recognize the common denominator in both of my meals: Arkansas tomatoes.

Paul Greenberg writes his annual ode to the Bradley County Pink.

In a note last month to Paul and me, Bob Nolan of El Dorado wrote lovingly of the tomatoes being picked daily from his garden: “They are not Bradley Pink, of which you rhapsodize so eloquently. They are more pedestrian Early Girls and Celebrities, which I selected with great care and attention for early harvest. … I violated my self-imposed, long-entrenched rule of planting, in that I planted two weeks before Good Friday,

“The Lord, in his mercifulness, did not smite my garden down, and quite the contrary, has blessed it with abandance. I must admit, after only two weeks of having these home-grown delicacies daily, I still swoon with the indescribable aroma, flavor, texture and shape of these beauties. I almost forget, during the bleak winter months, the nuances of these gifts from the earth, but it comes quickly back to me with my first slice and then taste.”

I agree with all of that.

You can have your chocolate gravy.

I’ll take one of those tomatoes.

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Elk Festival time in Jasper

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

The invitation proved irresistible.

Rhonda Watkins of Jasper asked me to judge the homemade pie competition to be held in conjunction with the 15th annual Buffalo River Elk Festival. The competition would take place on a Saturday morning with proceeds from the auction of the pies going to the Single Parent Scholarship Fund.

Coupled with a chance to spend the weekend at businessman Bubba Lloyd’s luxurious private retreat, the Black Bear Lodge, this was an invitation that went on my calendar many weeks ago.

I pulled off Interstate 40 in Russellville late Friday afternoon and began the climb north on Arkansas Highway 7 — past the empty buildings of what once was the tourist trap Booger Hollow, past the Rotary Ann overlook operated by the U.S. Forest Service and past the Cliff House just south of Jasper (which has a small inn, a restaurant and a gift shop), its parking lot crowded with diners.

As I rolled down the mountain into downtown Jasper, it was clear that the town was filled with visitors. Craftsmen and other vendors crowded the grounds of the Newton County Courthouse and music could be heard playing in the background.

With 8,330 residents in the 2010 census (down from 12,538 in 1900), Newton County is among the state’s smallest counties in terms of population.

Only six counties have fewer residents.

Three are in the pine woods of south Arkansas — Calhoun County with 5,368; Lafayette County with 7,645; and Dallas County with 8,116.

Two are in the Delta — Woodruff County with 7,260 and Monroe County with 8,149.

One is next door to Newton County in the Ozarks — Searcy County with 8,195.

Newton County is one of the state’s most isolated, scenic places. The area was made part of Carroll County in 1833, and white settlers began to move in as the Indians moved out. Jasper appeared on maps as early as 1840, though the city wasn’t incorporated until 1896.

The Legislature created Newton County in December 1842, naming it after Thomas Willoughby Newton, a U.S. marshal who was elected to Congress after the resignation of Archibald Yell. Jasper became the county seat in 1843.

In the 1860 census, there were just 24 slaves in the county (farming was limited to fields along the Buffalo and Little Buffalo rivers), and Union sentiment was strong, even after Arkansas joined the Confederacy.

James Vanderpool of Jasper was a Union hero. Meanwhile, former Newton County sheriff John Cecil was a guerrilla leader for the Confederacy. Cecil was known for his twin pearl-handled pistols.

“Farming changed little in the county after Reconstruction,” C.J. Miller writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Smaller farms were prevalent, while larger farms existed near the rivers. Potatoes, apples and peaches supplemented the main crop, corn. Cotton provided the cash crop for the Buffalo River valley. Lumber camps developed.

“Whether for added income or personal use, the production of moonshine made use of the surplus corn. A legend was born as ‘Beaver Jim’ Villines became known for his trapping ability. Visitors went to Marble Falls and Tom Thumb Spring for the water’s healing power.”

Villines remains a common name in the county. Yes, Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines comes from that stock of hearty mountain settlers.

Oak was harvested for stave bolts, and cedar was harvested for pencils. There was even zinc and lead mining in the early 1900s. Ponca, in fact, was established on land owned by Ponca City Mining Co. of Oklahoma.

Still, change was slow to come to Newton County. Highway 7 between Jasper and Harrison wasn’t paved until 1951. The current courthouse was built in 1942 as a Works Progress Administration project.

There were high hopes when the Dogpatch USA amusement park opened in 1968, but the isolated location resulted in the park’s ultimate demise. It closed for good in 1993. Its ruins can still be seen along Highway 7 north of Jasper.

The Buffalo became the country’s first national river on March 1, 1972. The signing of the bill by President Nixon followed decades of sometimes bitter debates and political battles.

The state earlier had operated two parks along the river, Buffalo River State Park (established in 1938 as a Civilian Conservation Corps project) and Lost Valley State Park (established in 1966).

Following congressional passage of the Flood Control Act of 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified two sites for potential dams on the Buffalo — one near its mouth with the White River and one just upstream from Gilbert in Searcy County.

The pro-dam Buffalo River Improvement Association was led by James Tudor of Marshall in Searcy County. The anti-dam Ozark Society was led by Dr. Neil Compton of Bentonville. The battle for the Buffalo even received national media attention when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas floated the river.

In December 1965, Gov. Orval Faubus, a Madison County native, informed the Corps that he wouldn’t support a dam on the river. Efforts to keep the river flowing freely received yet another boost when Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt of Harrison defeated Democratic Rep. James Trimble in 1966. Trimble had supported damming the Buffalo.

Hammerschmidt joined forces with the state’s two Democratic senators, John L. McClellan and J. William Fulbright, in pushing to make the Buffalo a national river.

A park superintendent, a chief ranger and a secretary set up temporary headquarters in Harrison in 1972. National Park Service staff members eventually were divided into three management districts. For years, federal employees have dealt with residents still angry about land they had to sell to the government.

The Buffalo National River, though, has become a tremendous success from a tourism standpoint with more than 800,000 visitors per year to its 94,293 acres. As Jimmy Driftwood sang, the Buffalo is “Arkansas’ gift to the nation, America’s gift to the world.”

Other attractions have developed in the county. From the spacious back deck of Bubba’s Black Bear Lodge, I can look down on the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, which draws visitors from across the country for its horseback riding, outdoor cookouts, rock climbing and other activities.

The owners of this well-known dude ranch, Barry and Amy Johnson, met when they were working at a Wyoming ranch while enrolled at Brigham Young University. The involvement of the couple’s four children — Cameron, Cody, Sierra and Creed — make it a true family operation.

In addition to its superb rock climbing opportunities, Horseshoe Canyon is adding one of the longest zip lines in the country.

Bubba and I were in downtown Jasper by 9 a.m. Saturday for the pie judging. I took bites of 24 homemade pies — blackberry, blueberry, pecan, plum, lemon, chocolate, apple, egg custard, strawberry, peach and more. It was tough work, but somebody had to do it.

After the pie auction, we headed west out of Jasper on Arkansas Highway 74. We stopped briefly at the commuity of Low Gap to visit with noted chef Nick Bottini, who now operates the Low Gap Cafe in an old general store along with his wife Marie. Bottini once operated an upscale restaurant in Harrison. He’s open at Low Gap from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. each Wednesday and Thursday, from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. each Friday and Saturday and from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. each Sunday.

We took a right on Arkansas Highway 43 and stepped into the beautiful new headquarters of Mike Mills’ Buffalo Outdoor Center at Ponca. Mills, who has long been among the state’s leading tourism entrepreneurs, offers everything from cabins to a lodge for family reunions and corporate retreats. Visitors can also book canoe trips and visit the zip line.

In May, Mills added what’s known as the Big Ol’ Swing. Built with 65-foot pine poles outfitted with a cable system, riders are secured into a harness and then launched.

Mills, a Hendrix College graduate, served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1969-71. He managed the Lost Valley Lodge in Ponca from 1974-76 and in 1976 began Buffalo Outdoor Center as a canoe rental operation on the upper Buffalo.

After leaving Ponca, we took a left onto Arkansas Highway 103 and followed it into Carroll County, where the road intersects with U.S. Highway 412 at Osage. In a building that was constructed in 1901, Newt Lale continues to operate Osage Clayworks. Lale has been a potter for three decades, and his pottery is in demand across the Ozarks.

We then drove east on Highway 412 for a late lunch at the Top Rock in Alpena. The evening was spent back on the Jasper square for the final night of the Elk Festival, including the much-anticipated 7 p.m. drawing by Arkansas Game & Fish Commission officials for elk hunting permits.

I visited with a college buddy from Ouachita Baptist University, Rodney Slinkard. The guy we called Slink was a heck of a college football player three decades ago. He now lives on the Buffalo River at Gilbert, where he paints Ozark Mountain scenes. Rodney had his art for sale both days of the festival.

The Ozark Cafe has been on the Jasper square since 1909. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Last year, the website www.newyork.grubstreet.com did a feature called “50 State Dinners: Food Treks Worth Taking This Summer.” The Ozark was picked as the location in Arkansas.

On Saturday, the Ozark closed at 5 p.m. to allow its employees a chance to enjoy the Elk Festival. So we wandered down the street to the Boardwalk Cafe, known for using buffalo, elk, locally grown produce and locally baked bread.

Owners Joseph and Janet Morgan also operate the adjacent Arkansas House, which has two suites on the ground floor and three rooms on the second floor. The dinner menu Saturday at the Boardwalk featured a number of elk dishes. I had elk gumbo with locally grown okra. It was excellent.

The Buffalo River Elk Festival concluded with fireworks over the Jasper square, beginning at 10 p.m. Saturday. By then, I had returned to Bubba’s Black Bear Lodge and was prepared to turn in for the night. Full of homemade pie and elk, I slept well after a long day.

Sunday dawned clear and hot. Looking down through the mountains toward Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, I enjoyed ham, eggs and biscuits and coffee before heading south on Highway 7.

I have no doubt that Newton County will beckon again.

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Arkansas’ barbecue mecca

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

What town has more good barbecue restaurants than any other place in the state?

I would say Blytheville.

For quality smoked pork per capita, the Mississippi County city is this state’s barbecue mecca.

Arkansas’ cotton capital has suffered economically with the outmigration of sharecroppers and the closure of Eaker Air Force Base, but barbecue restaurants continue to proliferate.

It’s a tradition in Blytheville.

In a history of barbecue in the Mid-South, food historian Robert Moss of Charleston, S.C., writes: “In Blytheville, Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in a log cabin in 1923, later moving the restaurant to a rock building, and finally to Sixth Street in the 1950s. … It operated as a drive-in with curb service during the 1950s and 1960s but later scaled back to just a regular family-style restaurant.”

A visit to Blytheville requires a stop at the Dixie Pig, which is a direct descendant of that log cabin where the Halsell family began serving food in 1923. The Dixie Pig has hundreds of loyal patrons who drive in from all over northeast Arkansas, the Missouri Bootheel and Memphis. It’s also a regular stop for people traveling up and down Interstate 55.

Here’s how the Arkansas Times describes it: “The Dixie Pig has been selling barbecue in Blytheville for almost 90 years, and in that time it has come close to perfecting the chopped pork sandwich. They call it the ’pig sandwich’ — also available the ‘large pig’ — and serve it wrapped in wax paper, sans plate, with chopped cabbage and a heap of dry, hickory-smoked chopped pork inside a thin bun.

“The sauce, a fiery, thin blend of pepper and vinegar, is in repurposed ketchup bottles on the table. Don’t miss the holes punched in the cap and twist it off for a pour. The sauce spills out quickly and is best when used in moderation. Fries and onion rings are both homemade and some of the best we’ve ever had, particularly the fries, which tasted double fried.”

Lindsey Millar of the Times writes that in the “interminable drive I’m regularly forced to make up I-55 to visit the in-laws, one stop — geographically positioned just far enough away that, if we leave around 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m., we hit right when my belly is calling for lunch — makes the trip almost bearable.”

That stop is the Dixie Pig.

“I’ll never drive through Blytheville without stopping again,” Millar writes.

In 2009, a book was published with this intriguing title: “America’s Best BBQ: 100 Recipes from America’s Best Smokehouses, Pits, Shacks, Rib Joints, Roadhouses and Restaurants.”

One of the co-authors of that book, Paul Kirk from the Kansas City area, declared that the Dixie Pig has the best barbecue in the country.

That’s right, in the country.

Jennifer Biggs, who writes about food for The Commercial Appeal at Memphis, headed to the Dixie Pig soon after the book was released. She said she had been told to order the ‘pig salad” with blue cheese dressing.

Here’s part of what she wrote: “I ended up buying a container of the dressing and a container of the hot vinegar sauce to bring home. Folks in Blytheville buy the dressing, which is made in-house and includes chopped green olives, to serve at parties as a dip.

“The salad is simple: Iceberg lettuce, a wedge or two of tomato, dressing on the side. First I doused the chopped meat — smoky, tender, with a few bits of bark — with the hot vinegar sauce and poured on a little blue cheese. Then a lot. Spicy. Tangy. Smoky. Creamy. And all on top of crisp lettuce (don’t even think about arugula or baby mesclun here; iceberg is the perfect foil). That was one fine salad.

“The ‘pig sandwich’ was a bit perplexing, though. The meat, again, was fine. Chopped (I was later told I could have had it sliced, which I would have preferred), sufficiently smoky and with a few bits of bark. It was the slaw that surprised me.

“In Memphis, we can passionately discuss the merits of first, whether to put slaw on your sandwich and second, the merits of a mayo-based slaw vs. one of mustard or vinegar. At the Dixie Pig, that’s no issue. It was just cabbage, dressed with just a smidge of vinegar. And I do mean a smidge; it wasn’t even wet. Adding the hot vinegar sauce greatly improved it.

“The onion rings were about as good as they come, though. Freshly cut, battered and fried in-house, they come to the table crisp and hot. The batter is light without being crumbly — there’s probably a little bit of egg in it – and the onions are sliced medium to thin. I couldn’t resist hitting a few of them with a dash of the vinegar sauce, and I do recommend the combination.”

Biggs also enjoyed the customers in the restaurant.

She wrote: “A table of older men were out to solve the problems of the world, and I’ve always been a sucker for these coffee klatches of ‘wrinkled roosters,’ which is what I call them because the first men’s coffee group I wrote about was officially named The Wrinkled Roosters and met every morning at a now-closed restaurant in Hernando, Miss. … There’s a camaraderie you generally find only in institutions, which is what the Dixie Pig is.”

She quoted Dr. Charles E. Campbell, who was stopping in for a cup of coffee while she was there, as saying: “I can’t make it through a week without a ‘pig sandwich.’ I think it’s the best barbecue you can get anywhere.”

Obviously, Paul Kirk agrees.

The thing about Blytheville, however, is that there are other choices. A lot of choices, in fact.

There are two locations of Penn’s Barbeque, operated independently by brothers. Unfortunately, it appears the original location is about to be replaced by a Dollar General store.

My chief Blytheville barbecue correspondent thinks the best barbecue in town can be found at Benny Bob’s on East Main Street.

Others swear by the pork sandwich at the Kream Kastle on North Division Street, a Blytheville institution that serves a variety of other dishes.

“I grew up in Blytheville, and when I return a barbecue sandwich topped with slaw is always satisfying,” one Little Rock resident says while extolling the virtues of the Kream Kastle. “Solid onion rings as well. Probably your best bet in Blytheville.”

There’s also Yank’s Famous Barbeque on East Main Street and Johnny’s BBQ on South Lake Street.

I’m even told of a man who split from Yank’s and now sells barbecue off a grill behind a barber shop. Now that’s a true Delta experience. I need to give it a try. I think this place is known as Benny’s (not to be confused with Benny Bob’s).

“Yes, it’s confusing,” my correspondent admits. “We have a whole bunch of barbecue for a town this size.”

You’re telling me!

Finally, I want to try this barbecue location as described by the chief correspondent: “There’s a place here that may have some of the best barbecued pork I’ve ever tasted. It’s located in a travel trailer parked in front of Hays Supermarket. I don’t think the stand has an official name. He has been there for a decade or so, and the locals just refer to it as Old Hays Barbecue.”

Though Blytheville’s population has dropped from 20,798 in the 1960 census to 15,620 in the 2010 census, the town is still filled with fascinating places thanks to its rich history.

“Mississippi County has long held its place as the No. 1 cotton-producing county in Arkansas, and Blytheville sits near 10 cotton gins,” Rigel Keffer writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “One of the largest cotton gins in North America lies on Blytheville’s western edge.

“The Ritz, Blytheville’s civic center since 1981, originated in the early 1900s and has seen several owners, fires, name changes, expansions and renovations throughout its decades on Main Street. A popular stop for famous vaudeville performers traveling from Memphis to St. Louis in the early 20th century, the Ritz later became one of the first theaters in Arkansas to present talking pictures. The Ritz was fully renovated in 1950-51 and hosted a television lounge where many Blytheville residents got their first glimpse of the new medium.

“Blytheville lies along Highway 61 of blues music fame. Generations of blues musicians passed through Blytheville as they traveled from Memphis north toward St. Louis and Chicago. The 1932 Greyhound bus station at 109 North Fifth St. is one of the few surviving art deco Greyhound bus stations in the United States.”

I mentioned the barbecue trailer in front of Hays Supermarket. The store has its own colorful history. Russell Hays and his wife Mae Hays opened the store on Jan. 1, 1935.

The company website states: “When employees or others speak of the big store, the flagship store is the one they are referring to, even though it has not been the biggest for many years. Town and country folks from all walks of life filled the aisles, and on Saturdays it was a meeting place for the country people.

“What began as a general mercantile store has evolved into a full self-service supermarket. In the 1950s and 1960s, the ladies’ ready-to-wear was as fine a selection as you could find in a town this size. There were many fashion shows held in the store. One disgruntled competitor told a salesman once, ‘At Hays, you’re likely to find a smoked ham and silk dress hanging on the same rack.’”

A Hays store on the square in nearby Hayti, Mo., opened in 1948. A store was purchased in Caruthersville, Mo., in 1973. There were additions in Wynne in 1977 and West Helena in 1981. A second Wynne store was added in 1986, and a second Blytheville location was added in 1987.

Five more stores were purchased in 2001 — two in Jonesboro, two in Paragould and one in Walnut Ridge.

I need to plan a couple of days in Blytheville soon, eating my way across the city.

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The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

I’ve found a book for my December reading pleasure that fits my interests perfectly.

I love New Orleans.

I love Hot Springs.

I love food.

I love thoroughbred racing.

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, was hanging out at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., when he came across a copy of “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak” by Randy Fertel. The book was released earlier this year by the University Press of Mississippi.

Skip invited Randy to be a part of the Clinton School’s lecture series, and the author showed up on the final night of November to speak. I’ve been engrossed in his book ever since.

My friend John T. Edge, who heads the Southern Foodways Alliance over at Ole Miss, described the book this way: “His mother was the ‘first lady of American restaurants.’ His father was ‘odd, self-centered and nuts.’ Randy Fertel leverages a raucous New Orleans upbringing, in which Salvador Dali and Edwin Edwards play bit parts, to tell the story of an uncommon American family, defined, in equal measure, by bold swagger and humbling vulnerabilities.”

Randy’s mother is the Ruth in the Ruth’s Chris chain of upscale steak houses.

His father launched a quixotic campaign for mayor of New Orleans in 1969 on the promise that he would get a gorilla for the Audubon Zoo. He received only about 300 votes.

The photo on the book’s dust jacket shows Randy’s parents during a visit to Hot Springs. The year was 1948. My father graduated from college in Arkadelphia that year. My parents were frequent visitors to Hot Springs. For all I know, they unknowingly crossed paths with the Fertels on Central Avenue.

On a visit to Hershey, Pa., this summer, I learned that Milton Hershey honeymooned in Hot Springs. It was once quite the destination for young couples.

Here’s how the first chapter of the book begins: “If we could return to the moment captured in a 1948 photo, this couple, Mom and Dad, Ruth and Rodney, might catch our eye as they stride down Central Avenue in Hot Springs, Ark. In full sunlight, Ruth holds the crook of Rodney’s right arm and gazes at the camera with self-assurance and an easy smile. While women behind her clutch their bags tight, she carries a handbag by its strap. She wears heels with bows.

“That sunny day in Hot Springs, an unseen ornate gold barrette tooled in her initials — RUF — holds her hair swept back from her high brow. The barrette is a gift from her husband, whose family is in the trade — pawnshops.

“His face in shadow and wearing sunglasses, not unaware of the camera himself, her husband gazes at her with fondness and regard. Rodney sports a tie with bold ovals and in his right hand he carries a folded paper, probably the Daily Racing Form. He wears his shirtsleeves rolled. His left arm swings forward with a watch on his wrist, the first of many gold Rolexes, and a cigarette in the tips of his fingers — he has yet to give them up.”

Ruth was 21 when that photo was taken.

Rodney was 27.

A decade later, Ruth was speeding down Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans on her way to the Fair Grounds (she was the first licensed female thoroughbred trainer in Louisiana) when she was pulled over by police officer Salvador J. “Joe” DeMatteo.

Soon, Ruth and Joe were an item.

By May 1958, Ruth and Rodney were separated.

Ruth married Joe in 1964.

“Joe was dark and wiry, a man’s man, a grunt who had survived the Italian campaign in World War II, a motorcycle cop, small plane pilot and gas station owner,” Randy writes. ”Like him, Mom began to smoke filterless cigarettes, Pall Malls. In Joe’s presence, I heard curse words from my mother’s mouth for the first time. Surely not her first, they bothered me and I imagined Joe was their cause.”

Randy, who has a doctorate from Harvard, has taught English at Harvard, Tulane, LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and the University of New Orleans. He’s a lover of food and fine wine who once was the marketing director for the Ruth’s Chris chain.

A March 2007 New York Times feature on his wedding to Bernadette Murray began this way: “The chatter among the 175 guests gathered under the live oaks of Audubon Park in New Orleans for the wedding of Bernadette Murray and Randy Fertel was upbeat but also circumspect. They gushed about the setting and marveled about the beauty of the bride. And barely a word about the tough times the couple had just been through.

“Less measured were the bride’s grade-school-age nephews: ‘Don’t tell,’ one said in a stage whisper. ‘Aunt Bernadette is wearing a wig!’

“Aunt Bernadette has been wearing a wig since shortly after she began treatment in May 2005 for acute myeloid leukemia, several months after Ms. Murray began dating Mr. Fertel.

“Early on, Ms. Murray tried to let Mr. Fertel off the hook, telling him that she didn’t expect him to endure what appeared to be a long illness. Mr. Fertel responded by returning to the hospital with a big diamond ring in a blue Tiffany box.”

Randy, who was 56 at the time of the wedding, met his wife in late 2004 when he was working at the New School in New York as an adjunct instructor who specialized in the literature of the Vietnam War. They met through a dating website. She’s eight years younger.

In an October story for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Judy Walker wrote: “The eccentric streak in Rodney Fertel ran deep. In the Rampart Street community of Orthodox Jews, where the Fertels owned a pawnshop and property, the Fertels were by any measure an unusual family. Rodney Fertel’s mother, Annie, shoplifted so regularly that store detectives in D.H. Holmes and Maison Blanche were detailed to follow her around; later, her accountant would quietly pay her debts. Family members also sued each other repeatedly.”

Randy told the newspaper writer: “My dad enjoyed a grudge. My family left a trail. They were litigious people; that was very helpful” in researching the book.

Randy ends the foreward of his own book this way: “The Empress of Steak reserved all the glory for herself. Her appetite for winning excluded everyone, even her offspring. Nearly all the key players in the global empire of Ruth’s Chris Steak House ended up suing her, to get what they felt they deserved. I must confess that I was among them.”

When Ruth saw a for-sale ad for a steak house at 1100 Broad St. in New Orleans, she took it as a good sign that the restaurant had been established on her birthday — Feb. 5, 1927.

She bought Chris’ Steak House in 1965 after borrowing $22,000. Almost a dozen years later, fire destroyed the original restaurant. She reopened a few blocks away at the intersection of Broad and Orleans and called the place Ruth’s Chris. It became the top political hangout in New Orleans.

Ruth sold the chain in 1999. In 2002, she died of cancer. By then, there were more than 80 restaurants in the chain.

In her will, Ruth made Randy the president of the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation. Among its projects, the foundation is working to establish the Fertel Culinary Arts Center at Nicholls State University. Randy put his own money into the Fertel Foundation, which focuses on education and the arts.

As someone who has long been fascinated with the history of Hot Springs, I’m drawn back to the first of the book and Randy’s description of the Spa City: “In this year, 1948, Hot Springs is a wide-open town, dominated by the Southern Club, a gambling house in operation since 1893. In Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel is only two years old and ‘the Strip’ still but a dream. The mineral baths and the gambling tables draw Rodney and Ruth here from their home in New Orleans for long stays. Rodney enjoys independent means inherited from his pawnbroker grandparents: no job pulls him home.

“The horses bring them, too. In 1948, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans celebrates its diamond jubilee, 75 years of continuous thoroughbred racing. Hot Springs’ Oaklawn Park is almost as old. This very summer, Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, Huey’s brother and inveterate gambler, comes to Hot Springs ‘for his arthritis.’ Gov. Long begins his day with the Daily Racing Form and the tout sheets. He helped the mob install slots throughout Louisiana; they let him know when the fix is in. Ruth and Rodney Fertel share Gov. Long’s taste for racehorses. In a few years, Ruth will earn her throughbred trainer’s license.”

In one photo from that 1948 visit, there’s a sign for a Hot Springs restaurant. Randy writes of the sign: “Hammons, no apostrophe. Sea Food, two words. Inside a sign promises One Day Out of the Ocean, meaning one day up from the Louisiana bayous where Ruth was born. Rodney prefers Hammons to the Arlington’s grand dining room with its organ and white-gloved black waiters and where, at age 13, I develop a taste for watercress salad and cornbread sticks slathered in butter and honey.”

Rodney would live for a time in Hot Springs at 359 Whittington Ave.

Randy said he once asked Ruth why she married Rodney.

She replied: “He had horses. I was a country girl and a tomboy. I was at LSU. Your dad owned a stable. When I first met him, I thought he was a stable boy. We ran off and got married, honeymooned in Hot Springs, then took a trip around the world.”

Randy writes: “Which means my first sibling rivals were racehorses. Later Dad would add two gorillas to the list and Mom a restaurant.”

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