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?
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.