Archive for the ‘Barbecue’ Category

The pig sandwich

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

I determined long ago that the quickest way to the heart of an Arkansan is directly through the stomach.

Invariably, when I write about food, I get more comments than about any other subject.

Such was the case recently when I delved into the history of the Kream Kastle at Blytheville. The comments poured in.

Earlier on this blog I had declared Blytheville as the barbecue capital of Arkansas. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: For quality smoked pork per capita, no other Arkansas city comes close.

What’s your favorite Blytheville barbecue joint?

The venerable Dixie Pig?

The Kream Kastle?

Penn’s?

Or is it one of the other barbecue places around town such as Yank’s?

The impetus for my newspaper column was a 34-page paper written by Revis Edmonds, an adjunct history professor at Arkansas State University-Newport who’s pursuing a doctorate in heritage studies on ASU’s Jonesboro campus. The title of the paper is “The Kream Kastle and its Place in Blytheville’s Barbecue Mecca.”

I revealed in the column that Paul Austin, the director of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and I had made a barbecue pilgrimage to Blytheville earlier this year and eaten lunch three times that day.

In Blytheville, the distinctive barbecue — finely chopped with a vinegar-based sauce (and the sandwiches automatically come with slaw unless you say otherwise) – is the basis for what’s known as the pig sandwich.

Our first pig sandwich that day was at the Kream Kastle, a drive-in restaurant. We ate in the car.

The second stop was the Dixie Pig, where we ate inside.

The third stop was the drive-through window at Penn’s. Again, we ate in the car.

Three pig sandwiches. All jumbo.

I have to share with you what one of Paul’s boyhood friends, who lived for a time in Dell, wrote.

“It was then that I was first introduced to the Kream Kastle pig sandwich,” he said of his family’s move to Dell. “In the mid-1960s to early 1970s, it was called a white pig because only the light-colored meat went into the sandwich. Then, as now, the only sauce was the seasoned vinegar they still use.

“Those sandwiches were the nearest thing to heaven on earth to me and caused me to embark on my lifelong quest to find a better pulled pork. Everywhere I go, without fail, I search out locals to point me to the best in town.

“I’ve sampled ‘the best’ from every section of this country, from large cities to crossroads, and of every regional variety. I’ve tasted whatever appeared similar in several European countries and in South America. Some of the samples were outstanding, many were pretty darn good, but I swear nothing has ever touched the Kream Kastle.

“There was a lapse of nearly two decades in which distance deprived me of contact with the pinnacle of pulled pork. Then, several years ago after a relative’s funeral at Manila, I traveled to Blytheville just to see if my brain’s record of that tender, smoky burst of flavorful sinew could possibly still exist.

“The waitress came to my car window. I asked for the white pig. I knew better than to try to custom order. You take it as it is prepared. I waited expectantly but tentatively.

“I was astounded as the first chunk of beautiful white pork fell onto my tongue. That succulence that I remembered flooded my taste buds and opened the gates of grateful salivary glands.

“Stop. I can’t go on. I have work to do and am very nearly abandoning it in favor of an absent afternoon en route to the Kream Kastle.

“Having gone on like this, it’s only fair that I also opine about the other establishments you recently visited, the Dixie Pig and Penn’s. Both were flourishing during my experiences in and around Blytheville. Both produced, and I hope still do, wonderful pulled pork. So wonderful, in fact, that the creations of either likely surpass the best I’ve tasted elsewhere. But my personal ranking back then was Kream Kastle with Dixie Pig and Penn’s in a dead-heat second.

“Can any other location on earth surpass Blytheville for the tastiest, tenderest, smokiest, most succulent pulled pork? I doubt it, though I’ve not been everywhere. Blytheville residents, as do most locals, take their treasure for granted. It’s all they’ve ever known so the idea of being the world’s best doesn’t cross their consciousness. But they are missing a marketing gold mine and a place in porcine history.

“I hope you will forgive the superlatives, but as you can see, I’m a true believer.”

It seems there are a lot of true believers when it comes to the Blytheville pig sandwich.

In his paper, Edmonds delves into the history of Blytheville and its barbecue traditions. Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in a log cabin in 1923. He later moved the restaurant to a rock building and later to Sixth Street in the 1950s.

“The forerunner of the iconic Dixie Pig, it symbolized the economic and social pinnacle of Blytheville’s history in the 1960s when the community boasted a growing population, a major Air Force base, a seemingly solid industrial base led by Bush Brothers & Co., a booming retail sector and an agricultural industry that still clothed and fed the world,” Edmonds writes. “Founded in 1879 by Methodist clergyman Henry T. Blythe, Blytheville grew quickly due to an abundance of timberland. The city was incorporated in 1889. The first era of growth came because of the massive harvesting of lumber to rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The lumber industry and its attendant businesses, such as the railroad, brough a proliferation of sawmills and, to put it mildly, a rowdy crowd.”

At one point, Chicago Mill & Lumber Co. owned 70,000 acres of timberland in northeast Arkansas and operated a huge mill at Blytheville. The Delta hardwood forests weren’t replanted, however. Instead, the land was drained and the production of cotton began to dominate the economy.

An Air Force base was established at Blytheville in 1942 and reactivated in the early 1950s. At its peak during the Cold War, the base employed almost 3,500 military personnel and 700 civilians. When the base closed in 1991, the Blytheville area lost thousands of residents with an estimated loss of $46 million in personal income.

The population of Mississippi County decreased 3.7 percent between 1970 and 1980, decreased another 3.9 percent during the 1980s, decreased a depressing 20.2 percent during the 1990s and then decreased another 14.5 percent during the first decade of this century.

“There’s no denying that the decline, when it came, hit retail concerns like the food service industry hard,” Edmonds writes. “When the Kream Kastle was established in 1952, Blytheville had come off a 1950 census that reflected a 52.4 percent increase in population over the 1940 census. This would remain relatively stable for most of the first two decades of the business’ existence.”

Like other Delta communities, Blytheville had a rich ethnic mix.

Huddy Cohen, who was Jewish, recalled that “middle and upper-class whites belonged to the Blytheville Country Club, where women golfers lunched on chicken salad-stuffed tomatoes and deviled eggs and couples gathered on Saturday nights to enjoy seafood Newburg and broiled steaks. There were black-owned soul food restaurants like the Dew Drop Inn on Ash Street, which paralleled the white Main Street in Blytheville, but we never ate there. Their world was divided from ours by the legacy of Jim Crow.”

Blacks and whites alike learned to enjoy the Blytheville style of barbecue. Despite the population decline, the barbecue joints hang on.

Edmonds describes the people of Blytheville this way: “Far from a place whose people wallow in despair and who lament that Blytheville’s as well as Mississippi County’s best days are in the past, they mostly share the sentiments of Jeff Wallace when he simply stated that ‘Blytheville will come back. It has before.’ Outsiders do not have to understand what makes this community and its hangouts persevere. All it takes is the loyalty and faith of its own people, come what may.”

Long live the Blytheville pig sandwich.

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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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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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What is Arkansas barbecue?

Friday, April 27th, 2012

So how does one define Arkansas barbecue?

When I took on the task of writing the online introduction for the Arkansas portion of the Southern BBQ Trail (www.southernbbqtrail.com), I came to the conclusion that there are too many cultural influences and styles of barbecue in this state to come up with a single definition.

“Arkansas is a fringe state, not solely a part of any one region,” I wrote. “It’s a state that’s mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. Northwest Arkansas is far different from southeast Arkansas. Northeast Arkansas doesn’t have much in common with southwest Arkansas.”

I concluded that we’re a state of contradictions that regularly confounds outsiders.

The introduction ended liked this: “Define Arkansas barbecue, you say? Impossible. Just hush your mouth and eat, the Arkansan will tell you.”

In preparing their book “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked,” James Veteto and Ted Maclin met at one of this state’s most famous barbecue establishments, Craig’s in DeValls Bluff, in June 2009.

Here’s how they described the experience: “Driving with the windows down along old Highway 70, the smell of wood smoke let us both know that we were close. Craig’s is a small white clapboard building from the 1940s with red trim and two entrances, a legacy of the restaurant’s segregated past.

“As Maclin pulled into the parking lot with his nine-month-old daughter, the scent of smoke and the crunch of white gravel under his tires awoke memories of his own childhood. Once inside, they found a table near the door (one of only a few in the restaurant), and when Veteto arrived the conversation turned almost immediately to barbecue — the spiciness of the sauce, sliced versus chopped pork, wet versus dry ribs — intertwined with discussion of the history of this restaurant.

“Craig’s is a sit-down restaurant, but not in the sense of fine linens and hors d’oeuvres. In fact, the walls of the establishment can only be described as worn and perhaps a little dirty, but not in an unsanitary way. The short menu is at the back of the room above a counter just outside of the kitchen.

“There is no cash register in sight, and every once in a while an African-American waitress emerges from the kitchen to take orders and money, deliver food to hungry customers or bring back change from beyond.

“By listening closely when the kitchen door flips open or while visiting the bathroom, one can usually hear the gentle beats and inspired singing of soul or gospel music. While we were there as many people ordered food to go as stayed to eat inside. A woman took our order at the table rather than having us order at the counter — as is common at many fast-food restaurants. And make no mistake — though the food arrived on paper plates rendered translucent by the grease, this was no fast food.”

In a chapter of “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked” that’s devoted to the history of barbecue in the Mid-South, South Carolina-based food historian Robert Moss describes another of this state’s historic barbecue joints, McClard’s in Hot Springs.

“Barbecue was perfect for roadside stands,” he writes. “All the operator needed was some hickory wood and a pit dug in the ground. The cooked meat was simply wrapped in brown paper or placed between slices of bread, so it was cheap and easy to serve. At first, most roadside barbecue stands were seasonal operations and sold food for take-away only. Often, proprietors of other roadside businesses like gas stations or general stores started selling barbecue as a sideline, and some found the sideline pursuit more profitable than the original enterprise.

“McClard’s, the legendary barbecue joint in Hot Springs, is a classic example. Alex and Gladys McClard owned the Westside Tourist Court near Hot Springs National Park. In 1928, they added a barbecue pit so they could sell slow-cooked goat, beef and pork to their guests. According to the McClard family, the fourth generation of which still operates the restaurant today, Alex and Gladys acquired a secret sauce recipe from a tourist court resident who couldn’t pay the $10 he owed for two months’ lodging.

“Fueled by that distinctive red sauce, which has a tomato-paste base and plenty of fiery pepper, barbecue sales took off, and before long the McClards were selling to non-lodgers as well. It was the era of Prohibition, and their barbecue attracted the business of some of the country’s most notorious gangsters, including Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lanksy and Al Capone, who ran bootlegging operations out of Hot Springs.

“In 1942, McClard’s moved into a whitewashed stucco building. For many years, it operated as a drive-in, complete with carhops and a jukebox that broadcast over an AM band so diners could listen to music in their cars. The carhops are now gone, and goat is no longer on the menu. But McClard’s sliced beef, sliced pork and pork ribs are favorites of both local residents and visiting celebrities, including former President Bill Clinton, who lived just down the road as a boy.”

Moss writes that Arkansas’ barbecue tradition goes back almost two centuries.

“As in Tennessee, barbecues arrived in Arkansas and Mississippi with the very first settlers,” he says. “In 1821, just a year after it was created and 15 years before Arkansas was admitted to statehood, Phillips County held its first Fourth of July celebration where ‘several beeves were roasted whole and served in barbecue style.’ The description of Josiah H. Shinn, who chronicled the event in his 1908 history of Arkansas, suggests that a little whiskey might have been present as well.”

Shinn wrote: “The Phillips County barbecue was held near a spring in the neighborhood, where a fine quality of Kentucky mint had taken hold, though why the mint patch should be immortalized I cannot say. There must have been some beverage of very strong parts, though of this the record is silent.”

W.B.R. Horner, a Virginia native and early east Arkansas settler, presided over the Phillips County barbecue until his death in 1838.

“It didn’t take long for politicians to recognize that community barbecues, with their unparalleled power to pull people together from all over a county, were ideal platforms for electioneering,” Moss writes. “Campaign barbecues became commonplace in the 1830s, and as they grew larger and became more frequent they were increasingly put on not by the candidates themselves but by groups of supporters, who arranged the venue, purchased the food and drink and advertised the events in newspapers. Such activities were part of the early formation of political parties in Southern states, and barbecues became an important forum for political discourse in the region.”

An 1840 story in the Arkansas Star, during the presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison, noted that the Tippecanoe Club of Little Rock had adopted a resolution to give “a free barbecue to the people of Pulaski County and as many others from the adjoining counties as can conveniently attend.”

A reporter for the Arkansas Intelligencer described an 1846 Fourth of July barbecue near Frog Bayou in northwest Arkansas this way: “The noble steer was immolated at this sacrifice — lambs, shoats and poultry sent up their quotas to this patriotic feast.”

Barbecues in Arkansas in those days often included a mixture of beef, pork, sheep, goats, chickens, deer, wild turkeys and squirrels.

It’s no easy task to settle on a single style of Arkansas barbecue. But, as you can see, the tradition of barbecue in this state is a long, rich one.

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The Arkansas BBQ Trail

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

The Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization based at Ole Miss that does much to shine a spotlight on Southern food, has launched its Arkansas BBQ Trail, a collection of oral histories.

Arkansas is part of the larger Southern BBQ Trail, which can be found at www.southernbbqtrail.com.

I was honored to be asked by the folks at SFA to write the introduction for our state. I’m in good company.

Other introductions were written by Jake York for Alabama, Tom Freeland for Mississippi, John Shelton Reed for North Carolina, Robb Walsh for Texas and James Veteto and Ted Maclin for Tennessee — great Southern writers and thinkers all.

Veteto and Maclin are the men responsible for the book mentioned in the previous Southern Fried blog post — “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked.”

Arkansas is the sixth state for which there are oral histories. The Southern BBQ Trail is a work in progress, so other interviews will be transcribed over time.

For now, these Arkansas interviews are featured on the site:

– Kyle McClard of McClard’s Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs

– Robert Craig of Craig’s Bar-B-Q in DeValls Bluff

– Chris Dunkel of Stubby’s Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs

– Chris Newman of The Rack Pack competitive team and catering operation in Jonesboro

– Jim, Nora and Barry Vaughn of J&N Barbecue in Bono

– Carolyn Johnson of Big Johnson’s (a restaurant) and Little Johnson’s (a barbecue trailer) in Wynne

McClard’s and Craig’s are the two most famous barbecue joints in the state.

Stubby’s is also well known (I walked over there for ribs after watching the Rebel Stakes earlier this spring).

The others are not as well known, but the Southern BBQ Trail seeks to shine a light on all types of pitmasters and barbecue establishments.

Let’s take them one at a time.

The website says of McClard’s: “McClard’s Bar-B-Q was founded in 1928 by Gladys and Alex McClard, who started their business by smoking goats, not hogs. Gradually, goat was phased out, and pork, as well as beef, made the menu.”

I hate it that goat was phased out. I love to partake of cabrito when I visit my wife’s relatives in far south Texas.

“Kyle McClard, pitmaster and Gladys and Alex’s great-grandson, represents the fourth generation to work in the family business in Hot Springs,” the website states.

Interviewed in the building on Albert Pike that has housed the restaurant since 1942, Kyle McClard said of the sauce: “They think it not too — too spicy; it’s not too vinegary. It doesn’t have very much of a vinegary taste to it. The recipe is actually still locked in a safe in a bank downtown.”

The website says of Craig’s: “Robert Craig is carrying on the tradition that was started by his father, Lawrence Craig, a former cook on a Mississippi River boat, and his uncle Wes. The Craigs opened Craig Brothers Cafe in the segregated South of 1947.

“Three generations have supplied many satisfied customers with a variety of smoked meats, most notably smoked and sliced pork sandwiches slathered with a sauce made with hints of apple and bell pepper. Their signature sauce was developed over the kitchen table of the Craig family home.”

Robert Craig told the interviewer: “My mom was just in the kitchen one day, putting a little bit of this and putting a little bit of that together. And my dad said, ‘Well yeah; it tastes all right.’ And so he obviously introduced it to the public, and it has been skyrocketing ever since.”

The website notes that Robert Craig has been working at the restaurant alongside U.S. Highway 70 “from the age of three or four. Eventually, he went to college, but in 1997, Robert accompanied his father to the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, where Lawrence Craig’s barbecue was being celebrated as a Delta tradition.

“Today, Robert oversees the operation of Craig’s in partnership with his cousin, as well as long-time family friends, the Sirats.”

The website says of Stubby’s on Central Avenue in Hot Springs: “In 1952, Richard Stubblefield Sr. opened Stubby’s Bar-B-Q. In 1976, the Dunkel family moved from New York to Arkansas. A year later, they purchased Stubby’s Bar-B-Q.

“Chris Dunkel has been a part of the team at Stubby’s ever since, doing everything from waiting tables and working the pit to making Stubby’s distinct sugary-sweet sauce.”

Dunkel described Stubby’s barbecue this way in an interview: “It’s a meld between Tennessee and Texas because you have both the beef influence and the pork influence. And, of course, we do it better than both states, so they come here to enjoy it.”

The website states: “Chris’ business sense coupled with the restaurant’s prime location across from the Oaklawn racetrack has ensured a long and successful run. The restaurant was rebuilt after a pit fire in 2007 but has enjoyed continued success.

“They make a sweet tomato-and-vinegar sauce that they serve with beef, pork, ham, ribs and chicken. Specialties of the house include pit-smoked potatoes and pots of beans.”

Newman’s Rack Pack at Jonesboro will cater almost any type of event.

The website states: “Chris Newman has been raising hogs his entire life. He grew up on a farm in the southern Missouri Ozarks where his parents parlayed their experience raising quality pork into a thriving business with Newman Farms heritage Berkshire hogs.

“Chris still helps with the family business, although his time is mostly spent in Jonesboro, where he is co-conspirator in the Rack Pack, an award-winning barbecue team and catering company.

“Chris brings with him an understanding of where the food he produces comes from and how the different ways of raising and slaughtering hogs can affect his end result. His experiences have offered a unique perspective on barbecue that includes everything from the hoof on the ground to the sandwich on the plate.”

Newman told an interviewer: “When you grow up on a hog farm, you’re always exposed to barbecue, I guess. So that’s been a lifelong thing for me.”

If you love rural barbecue joints as much as I do, the photo on the website of J&N Barbecue at Bono — a shack with the wood piled at the side of the building — will make you hungry just looking at it.

“After suffering a back injury, Jim Vaughn made the shift from mechanic to barbecue pitmaster and opened J&N with his wife, Nora, in 1996,” the website states. “The couple had provided smoked meats and sides for community gatherings for years, so opening a restaurant didn’t seem like too much of a jump. Their small red-and-white trailer has been serving the greater Jonesboro community ever since.

“Barry Vaughn is Jim and Nora’s grandson and the third generation to work at J&N. Barry does most of the barbecuing these days, smoking everything from ribs to butts. He also smokes wild game — turkey, deer and even raccoons — for local hunters. Jim and Nora have attended coon suppers all their lives, so it wasn’t long before smoked raccoon became a J&N tradition.”

Vaughn said of his grandparents in an interview last year: “This is all they do. They eat and live barbecue. They’re here six days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., so there ain’t much life other than barbecue for them.”

The website says of Big Johnson’s and Little Johnson’s at Wynne: “It was 1972 when Carolyn Johnson, a farm wife, decided that she wanted to work outside the home. She answered an ad in the paper that brought her to Chuck’s Barbecue in Wynne, and within a couple of years, she and her late husband purchased what is now called Big Johnson’s. The family always worked the restaurant. She recalls that two generations have napped on the chest freezer in the back.

“In 2003, Carolyn suffered grease burns on a large part of her body while working at the restaurant. Her employees doused her with yellow mustard to help with the burns until medical help arrived.

“She was out of service for two years. Today, Carolyn has taken a back seat, and her son and grandchildren run the day-to-day operation of not only Big Johnson’s but also a Johnson’s Fish House and Diner and the barbecue trailer, Little Johnson’s.”

She told an interviewer last year, “We make our own barbecue sauce and then for the hot, hot barbecue sauce we add cayenne red pepper to it. … We make our own slaw. It has mustard and mayonnaise, black pepper, sugar and that’s it.”

Go to the Southern BBQ Trail website if you want hours of enjoyable reading. Just be prepared to get hungry in the process.

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“The Slaw and the Slow Cooked”

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

I’ve referred earlier on the Southern Fried blog to a wonderful book published last year by the Vanderbilt University Press with the intriguing title “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture and Barbecue in the Mid-South.”

The book is a collection of essays. Those essays approach the subject of barbecue in this region from an almost academic standpoint.

When I say “academic standpoint,” I don’t mean to imply that the writing is boring.

It’s anything but.

What the essays do have are plenty of footnotes and references to guide the reader who wants to learn as much as possible about the Mid-South barbecue culture.

“Indeed, barbecue is not merely the process or the paraphernalia of grilling, or the meaty burnt ends that result, but a choreographed dance, from woodlot to smokehouse to mixing bowl to platter to picnic table, bar, roadside diner or juke joint,” Gary Paul Nabhan writes in the book’s foreward.

Nabhan is the author of two dozen books on various scientific and literary subjects.

“Prospective barbecue aficionados are selected early by their fathers, mothers, aunts or uncles and nurtured for many years, until their predilection for a certain balance of smoke, sour, sweet and meat is finely honed,” Nabhan writes. “They may not be able to verbally describe how to reach that perfect balance, but they definitely know when it has been achieved or when some gargantuan effort seems to have missed the mark. Satisfaction with barbecue is a lot like pregnancy — either you are or you aren’t.

“Someone recently wondered aloud to me, ‘Why in the world would anthropologists and historians, linguists and ethnozoologists, theologians and evolutionary biologists be consumed by the topic of barbecue?’ What other American food and its preparation are so strongly linked to the distinctive identities of so many American cultures?

“We are what and where we eat, but we are also how we prepare our most beloved foods. And who we prepare it with. And who we eat it with. And who we leave out beyond the smokehouse, who longingly wishes they were in there with us, no matter how stifling hot and claustrophobically congested it may be. No other American food is imbued with such symbolism, such smoke, such spirit.”

I agree.

There is a spirit there.

Because I hail from south Arkansas, my favorite essay in this collection is by Justin Nolan, who grew up in El Dorado and went on to earn his doctorate and become an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas.

Nolan’s essay is titled “Piney Woods Traditions at the Crossroads: Barbecue and Regional Identity in South Arkansas and North Louisiana.”

He begins his piece by describing a visit to Karl Brummett’s store just off U.S. Highway 82 on the eastern outskirts of El Dorado.

“Down from the hills of the Ozarks comes the native son,” Brummett says to Nolan.

“Yessir!” Nolan replies. “And thanks for taking time out for a local boy.”

Brummett says modestly, “Now, I know very ltitle about barbecue, but I’ll tell you what I do know.”

“In a sense, Brummett is right, of course,” Nolan writes. “Few people claim to know much of anything about barbecue down here in southern Arkansas, where I was born and raised. Partly this is because the region is known a bit more for its Louisiana-based flavors and soul food — neither of which, however, excludes barbecue, it might be noted.

“El Dorado, my hometown of 22,000, occupies the center point of Union County’s broad, gently rolling pine forests. Driving south from Fayetteville, the swift blue-green streams of the upcountry had given way to the flooded forests and gumbo backwaters of the low country somewhere near Gurdon.”

Nolan notes that his career has long been inspired by the great cultural anthropologist Charles E. Thomas, “who depicted the slow burn of cultural loss and modernization in ‘Jelly Roll,’ his ethnographic account of an African-American community in a small rural mill town north of El Dorado.”

The mill town to which Nolan refers is Calion.

The book, first published in 1986, has just been reissued by the University of Arkansas Press.

Residents of Jelly Roll lived in houses owned by the Calion Lumber Co. Thomas, who was a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis for 17 years, returned to his family’s Calion Lumber Co. in 1975 and has run the company ever since.

The UA Press spring catalog says the book combines Thomas’ “unique perspective as both an academician and the grandson of the sawmill’s founder. Thomas conducted extensive interviews covering three generations among the 84 households forming the community.”

Like Thomas, Nolan understands the region and its people.

“My father’s parents and their relatives have deep roots here, and my mother became an acculturated insider after moving to El Dorado in 1957,” he writes. ”My mission, as an anthropologist, was clear — I would revisit these Pine Woods, with hopes of discovering something perhaps unseen in ordinary life, something meaningful about social relationships through a binding food tradition we celebrate and fancy ourselves to have mastered. That tradition, of course, is barbecue.”

He comments on the similarities between those who live in north Louisiana and those who live in south Arkansas.

“Folks in north Louisiana, just 15 miles south, share a cultural affinity with south Arkansas,” Nolan writes. “A cultural connectivity can be seen in the culinary traditions, which erase the boundaries, momentarily, betwixt the cup and lip.”

While I’ve long believed that the Delta has this state’s strongest barbecue tradition, Nolan points out that the barbecue tradition in the Piney Woods runs ”deep and wide, and like a fair number of culinary mainstays originating in these rolling pinelands, it yields much more than a flavor; it brings forth stories of kinship, solidarity and survival.”

He outlines how the Piney Woods are a crossroads, “a place in the world where black and white people have coexisted for many decades, where social boundaries exist mainly in the background of everyday life, where class lines are more evident in neighborhood architecture than social convention, and where Southeastern and Southwestern cultural traits interpenetrate to form a mosaic that’s just subtle enough to overlook unless you’re seeking to describe it.”

Nolan adds: “The Piney Woods, in some ways, constitute an ambivalent Southern culture. While clearly Southern, this country is neither upcountry nor coastal, neither Eastern nor Western. Aspects of many different ethnic and regional groups are visible among the colorful threads of its history and tapestry. Like the famous watery bayous of south-central Louisiana’s Cajun country, the Piney Woods are a swirl of peoples whose memories make up an amalgam, stroked by Southern history, seasoned through hard times, change, chance and choice.”

Nolan says Brummett is known throughout south Arkansas and north Louisiana for his brisket, pork ribs and smoked sausages. While barbecue in the Delta is always pork, you can see the “crossroads” influence with Nolan’s mention of brisket and smoked sausages. Those are barbecue staples more commonly associated with Texas.

Nolan quoted one pitmaster as saying, “You can tell you’re in timber country straightaway. All you gotta do is see what meats they serve. Mostly oak-smoked, hickory too, sweet sauce but not that sweet, I tell you, and don’t let the slaw trip you up. Most folks aren’t inclined to put slaw on the sandwich bread, and it’s sometimes creamy — and then other times, it’ll pucker you right up. Keeps you on your toes, I guess you’d say.”

Like I said, a crossroads.

Nolan says the region’s barbecue can be viewed as a “blend of Texas and Eastern styles, and as such it is decidedly different from neighboring regions. While I cannot claim the mandate to judge my home region’s slow-smoked flavor, no self-respecting resident would deny that it’s delicious.

“Like other regions of the American South, a culinary pride of place is alive and well along the Arkansas-Louisiana border. Typical barbecue menus in the Piney Woods showcase beef brisket, sliced or chopped; smoked pork, sliced or chopped; sliced pork tenderloin; pulled pork shoulder; pork ribs (beef ribs are served at home mainly); pork sausage; and smoked chicken.”

An elderly pitmaster near Magnolia explained it this way: “It’s a melting pot here. Black, white, east, west: everything comes together in our barbecue. You got the Cajun spices and sweet ribbon cane from Louisiana, a hint of vinegar from the east, the sweet tomato sauce — that’s ours!

“The beef brisket’s so popular around here and chili notes that I suspect must come from Texas, along with their pinto beans. We’re pretty tolerant around here. In fact, I think we’ve been adopting a bit of this and that from each other all along.”

Nolan concludes: “Piney Woods barbecue is perhaps undiscovered by the outside world, but for these long-timers, that’s just as well. While Piney Woods barbecue may not ring a bell in the mind of American food geographers, its hallmark feature is its inclusiveness, it’s shape-shifting habit of incorporating neighboring flavors from the Southeast, Louisiana and Texas.”

It’s the barbecue I was raised on.

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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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A Beard Award for Jones Bar-B-Q

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

The James Beard Awards are to the food industry what the Pulitzer Prizes are to journalism, the Academy Awards are to the film industry, the Emmy Awards are to television, the Tony Awards are to the theater and the Grammy Awards are to music.

That brings us to a nondescript place in a residential area at 219 W. Louisiana St. in the Arkansas Delta town of Marianna.

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, owned by James and Betty Jones, has been selected by the James Beard Foundation of New York as one of five America’s Classics Award honorees for 2012.

Foodies nationwide can tell you that this is big.

Really big.

Most Arkansans have never heard of the restaurant, but they’ll know about it now.

The America’s Classics Award is given to restaurants with “timeless appeal that are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community.”

The Jones family will be honored Monday, May 7, when the annual awards dinner is held at the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York.

“Every year, the presentation of our five America’s Classics Awards are favorite moments at our ceremony,” says Susan Ungaro, the James Beard Foundation president. “Attendees at our awards love meeting these folks and hearing their stories because they represent the diverse heritage, heart and community of our country’s national cuisine. James Beard would have loved visiting them all.”

Beard, who died in 1985, was a cookbook author and teacher who educated generations of chefs and other foodies. A Portland native, Beard published the first of his 20 books in 1940.

Julia Child once said of Beard: “Through the years, he gradually became not only the leading culinary figure in the country but the dean of American cuisine.”

He established the James Beard Cooking School in 1955 and for the next three decades taught men and women how to cook.

The James Beard Foundation website describes him as a “tireless traveler, bringing his message of good food, honestly prepared with fresh, wholesome, American ingredients, to a country just becoming aware of its own culinary heritage.”

I have no doubt that Mr. Beard would have enjoyed visiting Jones Bar-B-Q Diner.

Here’s how the Beard Foundation describes the place: “Some incarnation of Jones Bar-B-Q Diner has been open since at least the 1910s. Walter Jones was the founder and first pitmaster. He lived in a dogtrot house perched nearby. From the back porch, he served barbecue on Fridays and Saturdays.

“Hubert Jones, the son of Walter Jones and the father of present-day proprietor James Jones, recalled the family’s initial barbecue setup as a ‘hole in the ground, some iron pipes and a piece of fence wire, and two pieces of tin.’

“Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, one of the oldest African-American-owned restaurants in America, remains true to those roots. James Jones, the grandson of Walter Jones, tends the pits. His cooking apparatus is still elemental. And the pork shoulder, hacked into savory bits and served on white bread with a spritz of vinegary sauce, is as smoky as ever.”

Here’s the rest of the story of a James Beard Award coming to Marianna: Several years ago, when I became active in the Southern Foodways Alliance, I got to know John T. Edge, the alliance director and nationally known food writer who’s based on the Ole Miss campus. I urged John T. to spend more time on the west side of the Mississippi River. I’ve long considered the barbecue culture of the Arkansas Delta to be far superior to that of the Mississippi Delta, and I told him that.

Jones Bar-B-Q was among the places that I, along with other Arkansans, urged John T. to try.

The Beard Award for Jones Bar-B-Q never would have happened without the persistence of John T. Edge.

He drove over from Oxford to visit the restaurant and discovered that James Jones is a man of few words. John T. came back again and again, finally wearing down Mr. Jones enough that he had the material for an Oxford American article titled “In Through the Back Door.”

The article itself was nominated for a Beard Award.

Here’s how it started: “A white man clutching a brown paper bag stands in the dirt-and-gravel lot that fronts Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in the Arkansas Delta town of Marianna. Grease splotches the bag, a stain that envelops the bottom and flares up the sides.

“The man appears to be 60, maybe 70. His face is wide and jowly. His hair is thin and comb-raked. He wears brown pants, a white shirt and a baby blue windbreaker. He could have left a couple of minutes ago, could have jumped in his pickup and driven away, eating a barbecue sandwich from a foil wrapper, fighting the collapse of the two slices of white bread that contain, for the moment, a mound of hickoried and sauced ham and shoulder.

“But the man lingers. The grease spreads.

“He stares across the neighborhood. At rusted-out and busted-up trailer homes. At carbon-smudged chimneys that stand where clapboard bungalows once stood. At bottle-strewn ditches, flush with crabgrass and bull thistle.

“The man is no barbecue pilgrim, questing for lost tribes and forgotten temples in this once-prosperous cotton kingdom. He’s likely a native.”

And here’s how the Oxford American story ends: “And that is why, not 30 minutes after an old white man stood in the parking lot, bag in hand, he was replaced by a younger white man, bearing his own burden, gripping his own bag, a similar stigmata of grease defining the barbecue within. That man, I might as well tell you, looked a lot like me.”

You can find John T.’s story reprinted in a wonderful collection titled “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture & Barbecue in the Mid-South.”

The collection, which also contains a piece by Justin Nolan of El Dorado on the barbecue culture of south Arkansas and north Louisiana, was published last year by the Vanderbilt University Press.

John T. also wrote about Jones Bar-B-Q in a story in Saveur. James Jones told him: “My father would sell the meat in town at this place they had. They called it the Hole in the Wall. That’s what it was. Just a window in a wall where they sold meat from a washtub.”

John T. wrote: “Jones’ story is similar to many I’ve heard from pitmasters around the South: For their ancestors, barbecue was an opportunity — a way to leverage equity and muscle to build successful businesses. By the late 1930s, as new roads stretched across the South and community barbecue traditions begat city commerce, young entrepreneurs began selling sandwiches from roadside shebangs. And in a leap that would give a lexicographer whiplash, a vocation that had been built largely on the labor of enslaved African-Americans began referring to its best practitioners as pitmasters. … Race has always been a subtext of barbecue. In much of the South, blacks traditionally did the pit-cooking while whites supervised.”

Here’s a tip if you’re planning a pilgrimage to Marianna to get a sandwich: Get there early.

“Mr. Jones is there early in the mornings and leaves early in the afternoon,” says Kim Williams, a travel writer for the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. “If you want barbecue, you get it in the morning.”

Mr. Jones usually arrives by 7:30 a.m. each Monday through Saturday. Kim lists the closing time as 2 p.m., but if he runs out of barbecue, he’s gone much earlier. I’ve arrived at the noon hour and found the place locked tight.

Remember, no buns. Just white bread. Without or without slaw. No sides.

“I grew up on Jones,” Kim says. “I can only eat barbecue on white bread.”

A lot of people buy Mr. Jones’ barbecue by the pound.

“I actually prefer it without bread,” Kim says. “The slaw, which is basically the only slaw I will eat, is mustard based, I guess, because it’s yellow. The sauce is vinegar based and relatively thin. I’m craving it now. It’s only four blocks from my house.”

A James Beard Award for Jones Bar-B-Diner? How about that!

It’s indeed an American classic.

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Culinary tourism down South

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

I wish Arkansas would do more to capitalize on the fact that more Americans than ever before are using their spare time for culinary tourism.

Alabama, for instance, centered its tourism development efforts around food for a full year.

I tend to get the most feedback on this blog when I write about food. Someway, somehow, we should find ways to direct more people to the small, out-of-the way barbecue joints, catfish restaurants and meat-and-three palaces that add so much to the fabric of our state.

Once you’ve done your fieldwork in Arkansas, you can take off across the rest of the South. The Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss will help guide you.

I mentioned in an earlier post that oral histories from Arkansas soon will be added to the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Southern BBQ Trail at www.southernbbqtrail.com.

There already are oral histories posted on the site for Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama.

Jake York writes in his introduction of the Southern BBQ Trail: “The whole-hog style that developed along the Atlantic seaboard has drifted into western Tennessee, and the Piedmont style, with some variations, can be uncovered in northeast Alabama and, with American-style coleslaw, in Memphis. Mustard-based barbecue, though still centered in South Carolina, can be found as well in Georgia and eastern Alabama, where one can also find an orange sauce that combines mustard and tomato-based sauces, as if to say, ‘Does one really have to choose?’

“Of course, Kentucky has its barbecue mutton and its burgoo, which resembles Georgia’s own Brunswick stew, a traditional barbecue accompaniment. In Texas, German settlers in a cattle-friendly land developed barbecue sausage and the holy brisket, where today Mexican influence directs the emergence of barbacoa and other delicacies. And in that far edge of the South, Kansas City, half Missouri and half Kansas, it has all come together, as it has come together now in so many cities across the South and across the United States.

“But there are still new barbecue plates being dreamed up by the hungry and the resourceful. How about north Alabama’s white-sauce chicken, northwest Mississippi’s taste for goat or the barbecued gator that turns up in Louisiana and Florida? Whatever it is, it is slow-cooked. If it’s done right, it’s smoked. Honestly, it could be anything, But, whatever it is, it better be damn good.”

Here’s a taste of the individual state introductions on the Southern BBQ Trail website:

Robb Walsh on Texas: “The pitmaster squints into the smoke as he opens the giant steel door. From your place in line, you watch him fork and flip the juicy, black beef briskets and sizzling pork loins. Your heart beats faster as he opens a steel door to reveal a dozen sausage rings hissing and spitting in the thick white cloud. Slowly, the sweet cloud of oak smoke makes its way to you, carrying with it the aroma of peppery beef, bacon-crisp pork and juicy garlic sausage.”

James Veteto and Ted Maclin on Tennessee: “In 1923 Calvin Coolidge assumed the presidency of the United States, Hank Williams was born in Alabama and Thomas Jefferson “Bozo” Williams opened Bozo’s Hot Pit Bar-B-Q in Mason, Tenn. Many years later, in the 1980s, Bozo’s the barbecue joint was engaged in a decade-long trademark battle with Bozo the Clown. The restaurant ultimately won, but only after the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Barbecue in Tennessee is serious business, with a long history that is intimately wrapped up in local identity and authenticity.”

John Shelton Reed on North Carolina: “When George Washington ‘went to Alexandria to a Barbecue and stayed all Night,’ as he wrote in his diary for May 27, 1769, he won eight shillings playing cards and probably ate meat from a whole hog, cooked for hours over hardwood coals, then chopped or ‘pulled.’ By the early 19th century at the latest, a sauce of vinegar and cayenne pepper (originally West Indian) was being sprinkled on the finished product. This ur-barbecue can be found to this day in eastern North Carolina and the adjoining regions of South Carolina and Virginia, virtually unchanged.”

Tom Freeland on Mississippi: “The earliest extant commercial establishments such as Abe’s in Clarksdale are from the 1920s, when good roads and inexpensive cars catalyzed American automobile culture. Mississippi barbecue is ethnically diverse — Abe’s was and is Lebanese owned, and Old Timer’s in Richland has a Greek proprietor.”

Jake York on Alabama: “It is only by cartography, law and convention that Alabama is a state. From within, it reads like a perverse anthology in which the Appalachians give us a taste of the Carolinas, the Tennessee River guides a northern influence, the pine barrens continue the work of Georgia, the Black Belt gestures toward Mississippi, the coast combines Florida and Mississippi, and the Wiregrass gives you a sense of another world entirely.”

The Southern Foodways Alliance describes its efforts this way: “Rather than establish origins, the Southern BBQ Trail seeks to collect stories about barbecue — the meat, the wood, the smoke and the people who have dedicated their lives to the craft of ‘cue. We share tales of pulled pork, barbecued brisket, homemade sausage, lamb ribs and even a few secrets about the sauce.

“For every different slab of ribs or handful of meat piled on a bun, there is a different story. Oral history interviews with pitmasters and purveyors across the South reveal the various ways in which barbecue traditions have evolved and how styles emerged, helping to explain the importance — and persistence — of the South’s barbecue tradition.”

Once you’ve spent a sufficient amount of time on the barbecue trail, the SFA offers these additional culinary trails:

– The Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail at www.tamaletrail.com: “Meet Elizabeth Scott of Scott’s Hot Tamales, who has been making and selling hot tamales for more than 50 years. … And learn how Sicilian immigrants factor into the Delta’s long history with these bundles of meat and masa.”

– The Southern Boudin Trail at www.southernboudintrail.com: “Visit T-Boy’s Slaughterhouse, one of the last of its kind, where the boudin is as fresh as it can get. Learn about the days when casings were stuffed using cow horns from Jimmy Guidry, the boudin maker at Don’s Specialty Meats. Meet Robert Cormier, co-owner of The Best Stop, who has traced his Cajun heritage back a handful of generations to family in Nova Scotia.”

– The Southern Gumbo Trail at www.southerngumbotrail.com: “Learn how to make a roux with Billy Grueber from Liuzza’s by the Track. Meet Lionel Key, an artisan whose uncle taught him to make file from sassafras leaves. And then visit the Olivier family for dinner, where you might find three different versions of gumbo on the table.”

Happy travels across the South. And bon appetit.

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The Shack’s barbecue

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

In an earlier post, we directed you to the research done by Raymond Merritt, Mabelvale High School class of 1960, at www.rrmerritt.com/mabelvale.

His website is filled with memories of life in Little Rock during the 1950s and 1960s.

Merritt includes a separate section on the legendary Shack, sure to please those who cherish their memories of eating barbecue there.

“In the 1940s, my family and many of yours often piled into the car on Saturday evening and drove to downtown Little Rock for a special treat,” he writes. “At 1600 W. Seventh, between Bishop and Marshall streets, right next to the Arkansas State Capitol building, was The Shack barbecue restaurant. We pulled into the gravel parking lot and parked the car. The restaurant was always too full to find a seat, so my dad went inside and bought the sandwiches (we preceded carhops, at least in Little Rock) and we, as did dozens of others, sat in the parking lot and ate dinner.

“In the 1950s, the state of Arkansas cleared all the businesses off the land abreast of the Capitol grounds to make way for the drive which now connects the Capitol Mall Circle to West Seventh, so The Shack closed. Many of you think you remember eating at The Shack in the mid-1950s, but you didn’t. The Shack is not listed in any Little Rock telephone directory from 1954 to 1958. It eventually reappeared at Third and Victory, where the aromas coming from the outdoor smoker easily overwhelmed the smell of spent diesel fuel coming from the Missouri Pacific depot a block to the north. The building was new, but the food was the same, so Little Rockians filled the now paved parking lot as they had once done.”

Merritt notes that after The Shack closed, recipes began to appear in various places for The Shack’s sauce. He says all of these recipes are different while claiming to be the original.

“A Shack barbecue sandwich consisted of meat, cabbage and sauce on a bun,” he writes. “This is a Memphis sandwich. Memphis is the Mecca of the ‘slaw on barbecue’ religion, and the farther away you get from Memphis, the less it is found until you cross into Texas on the west or the Carolinas on the east, where it disappears altogether.

“The meat had a pronounced hickory flavor because it was smoked in a smoker under a shed in back, surrounded by stacks of hickory wood. You could smell the hickory smoke for blocks around. Modern electric smoking ovens that use hickory sawdust for flavor produce bland meat compared to wood-fired smokers because sawdust doesn’t contain the amount of essential flavoring oils that a stick of wood does. When sawdust is produced, the wood cells are ruptured and much of the oil dissipates. Some restaurants don’t even pretend to smoke the meat. They bake it in an oven and depend on a heavy serving of sauce, maybe laced with liquid smoke, to provide the flavor.

“A Shack sandwich was not health food. The Shack cooked its meat in the days before the healthier lifestyle came into vogue and before the cattlemen and hog farmers started breeding leaner animals to accommodate it. A roast suitable for smoking in the ’50s was layered with fat that was trimmed off and discarded just before serving. The fat contributed to the tenderness so modern lower-fat meat is not as tender as what we ate in our youth.

“The sauce was Memphis style. There are a jillion barbecue sauce recipes, but most (especially the tomato-based ones) are all variations of three styles. … North Carolina style is heavy on vinegar, light on tomato, contains mustard. Eastern North Carolina omits tomato entirely. Memphis style is about equal vinegar and tomato with a hint of sweetness. Mustard is heresy in Memphis. Kansas City style is light on vinegar, heavy on tomato, heavy on sweetness. The first three ingredients in KC Masterpiece are corn syrup, tomato and molasses.

“The bun was a plain-Jane gummy bun, and it was slightly griddled, not enough to toast it but just enough to get it warm. I used to sit at the counter at Third and Victory and watch through the kitchen door as the cook tossed buns onto the griddle. The cabbage was very thinly sliced and undressed, and there was only enough of it to provide texture, not taste. The whole thing was wrapped in thin commercial waxed sandwich paper.

“Our memory of the experience is based upon that whole package. If you put authentic Shack sauce on tasteless meat with a poppy seed kaiser bun and a mound of dressed coleslaw, the resulting sandwich would rasp your taster (and you would blame the sauce). The question is not whether we have the actual sauce recipe but whether the recipe we have is close enough that in combination with the three other ingredients it will jog our memory enough to coax a smile.”

Go to Merritt’s website to see the various recipes he has collected and then decide which one you think is the most authentic.

Back in June, my friend Kane Webb wrote about The Shack for Sync.

“You’re standing outside a barbecue place. Any barbecue place. Anywhere,” he wrote. “Breathe deep. Ahhh. What do you smell? If you are ‘of a certain age,’ if you have more gray than not in your hair, if you grew up in these parts, you smell The Shack. Doesn’t matter where you actually are, doesn’t matter what kind of barbecue, just matters that the smoky, hickory air is smoky, hickory air. The past takes care of the rest.

“Smell may be the most powerful of the senses when it comes to evoking memories. A smell can transport you to a place, a day, a moment. Smell is a snapshot sense, stopping time in its tracks. So when a few generations of Arkansans smell barbecue, they inevitably, instinctively, return to The Shack.

“On this weekday afternoon at lunchtime, at Smokehouse BBQ in Conway, I breathe deep and find myself in the back seat of my father’s old station wagon. We are parked on the lot at Third and Victory, the last location of The Shack, after a forced move from West Seventh thanks to state government ‘progress,’ and we are dining on pork sandwiches, the wrapping paper unfolded and spread out on vinyl seats. Dueling sandwiches separate my sister and I in the back seat, while mom and dad eat theirs on laps up front. It is late evening. Hot. Summer. Windows rolled down, which lets the sandwich smell out but The Shack’s outdoor smoker smell in.”

There are a number of restaurants that claim to be direct descendants of The Shack. Smokehouse BBQ in Conway, which Kane mentioned, is one of them. So is Smitty’s in Conway. There’s also the Smoke Shack in Maumelle, Jo-Jo’s in Sherwood and H.B.’s in Little Rock.

Casey Slaughter opened The Shack in 1934. The last incarnation of the restaurant closed in 1988, soon after I had dined there with former Gov. Orval Faubus while working on a magazine profile of the aging politician.

After news of The Shack’s closing reached Los Angeles, Little Rock native Anne Fewell wrote this letter to the Arkansas Gazette: “My sister Carol broke it to me as gently as she could over the phone, but in that next second after she told me, a lifetime of memories swiftly sifted through a kaleidoscope of emotions from grief to outrage. … I told her if I’d known ahead of time, I would’ve flown to Little Rock and done something, even started a picket line, or, if it got down to it, pled with whoever to keep it alive. After we hung up, I recalled my first taste.”

Here’s how Kane put it: “When the shuttering of a barbecue place reaches the status of death of a loved one, you know it was more than a barbecue place.”

So here’s the question: Does The Shack have a real descendant? Which restaurant is it?

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