Archive for the ‘Barbecue’ Category

El Dorado to Camden

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

SECOND IN A SERIES

A few oil wells are visible as we make our way north out of El Dorado on Arkansas Highway 7.

By 1925, there were almost 3,500 wells in Union County pumping 69 million barrels of oil. Production declined significantly by the late 1930s.

We’re on a divided, four-lane portion of the highway. It’s easy to speed on this stretch, which passes near Norphlet and touches the outskirts of Smackover.

There are small, rolling hills and millions of pine trees.

“The forested hills of Union County were thinly populated until after the Civil War and Reconstruction,” Steven Teske writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The railroad industry, combined with the timber industry, brought new life to the area. The St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway built a line running from Gurdon through El Dorado that was completed in January 1891. Norphlet was one of several depots created along the railway. The timber industry was prominent in the settlement of Norphlet for the first 30 years of its existence.

“The town was reportedly named for Nauphlet Goodwin, but the name Nauphlet was misspelled as Norphlet by the Postal Department when the town’s post office was created in 1891. Norphlet was actually the third name selected for the small settlement. Its post office was first designated Haymos and then Jess before becoming Norphlet, all in the same year.”

The oil boom changed everything.

Employees of Oil Operators Trust struck a pocket of natural gas on May 14, 1922. The gas began to escape at a rate of 65 million to 75 million cubic feet per day.

“Efforts to cap the hole were ineffective, and on the morning of May 16, the gas ignited, shooting flames more than 300 feet into the air and creating a crater at least 450 feet across and 75 feet deep,” Teske writes. “The explosion and fire, which demolished the oil derrick, sent fragments of shale up to 10 miles away from Norphlet. A second well, drilled a few weeks later in an effort to reduce the fuel supply of the fire, also caught fire and created a second crater. But the oil industry continued to thrive in Union County as the Smackover Field was successfully tapped in other locations.

“Many oil workers came to Norphlet and the other communities of the area, and hotels, taverns and other businesses quickly arose. Prostitution and gambling were prevalent, and law enforcement only gradually began to establish order in the region. … The population fluctuated at first but became more stable when the MacMillan Oil Refinery was established in the city. The oil refinery closed in 1987. The property was bought by Nor-Ark Industrial Corp. but was abandoned in 1991. Oil had contaminated surrounding waters, leading the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the site through its national Superfund program. The cleanup was completed in 1997.”

And what about that crater from 1922?

It’s filled with water and surrounded by a fence. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

Norphlet’s population fell from 1,063 residents in the 1930 census to 459 in 1960. It was back up to 844 by 2010 with many residents driving into El Dorado for work.

Nearby Smackover, meanwhile, fell from 2,544 residents in the 1930 census to 1,865 in the 2010 census.

The Smackover Field, which covers 68 square miles, led the nation in oil output in 1925.

“The name Smackover is possibly derived from chemin couvert (meaning covered way), though later histories attribute the name to an 18th-century French description of the north and south-central areas of Union and Ouachita counties dubbed sumac couvert, meaning covered with sumac,” writes local historian Don Lambert.

Prior to the discovery of oil, the economy in this area of the state was dominated by cotton farming and a timber industry that moved in to clear the virgin forests.

A post office designated as Smackover opened in 1879 about five miles from the town’s current location. An unincorporated town named Henderson City sprung up along the railroad that ran from Camden to Alexandria, La. The Smackover post office moved there, and the community became known as Smackover.

“By 1908, Sidney Albert Umsted operated a large sawmill and logging venture two miles north of town,” Lambert writes. “He believed that oil lay beneath the earth’s surface in the region. Few paid attention, but Umsted quietly went about buying land and leasing what was not for sale. An economic blockbuster was about to alter the destiny of a town and its people. In July 1922, Umsted’s wildcat well reached a depth of 2,066 feet. Abruptly, a rumble came from deep beneath the earth’s surface. The crew stepped away, listening. Suddenly, a thick black column of oil burst forth and spurted high above the earth.

“Within six months, 1,000 wells had been drilled with a success rate of 92 percent. The little town had increased from a mere 90 people to 25,000, and its uncommon name would quickly attain national attention. Smackover was officially incorporated on Nov. 3, 1922. Lawlessness was so rampant that, among the 25 petitioners on the incorporation document, none was willing to hold public office. Later that month, the town saw a multi-day riot of unbridled violence. The town’s population steadily declined as oil companies and their employees moved away when more lucrative oil discoveries were made in Texas and Oklahoma. About 100 independent oil companies replaced the 12 major petroleum corporations in this period.”

The population dropped from 25,000 to 2,500, and an environmental disaster was left behind.

Exploration and drilling increased again during World War II due to heavy demand. The oil industry is still active here, though most operators are small.

Umsted, known as the “Father of the Smackover Oil Field,” had been born in Texas in 1876. His father abandoned the family, and his mother moved her children back to her native Chidester in Ouachita County when Sid Umsted was a boy. She remarried when her son was 8, and the family headed to north Louisiana and settled on a farm near Bernice. Umsted worked in sawmills across north Louiana as a teenager. He owned a sawmill near Homer by the time he was 22 and later moved his operations to Junction City on the Arkansas-Louisiana line. He moved farther north to the Smackover area in 1905.

“His mill served as the primary source of employment in an otherwise undeveloped economic area,” Don Lambert and John Ragsdale write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He immediately purchased and leased several hundred acres of land north into Ouachita County with the bulk of it situated in what’s now recognized as the Standard-Umsted/Snow Hill locale. In 1919, oil was discovered in northern Louisiana. Umsted was familiar with the area and recognized that his Arkansas land embodied surface characteristics similar to the acreage that spawned the prolific Homer oil field. By 1921, successful oil discoveries were made in the El Dorado region only 12 miles south of Smackover. Umsted quickly organized an exploration venture that included four partners from Camden — W.W. Brown, T.J. Gaughan, J.D. Reynolds and J.C. Usery, who shared a half-interest with the V.K.F. Oil Co. of Shreveport, which agreed to drill one well for a small share.”

The July 1922 gusher and subsequent discoveries made Umsted and his partners wealthy.

The area around Umsted’s sawmill was purchased in 1923 by the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey. A small community still goes by the unusual name of Standard-Umsted. Now a millionaire, Umsted built a mansion in Camden in 1924 that still stands. In October 1925, a train on which Umsted was riding derailed in Mississippi. He died Nov. 3, 1925, in a Memphis hospital at the age of just 49.

As we drive along Highway 7 talking about the area’s fascinating history, I want to know more about that November 1922 Smackover riot.

Nancy Snell Griffith writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “A hooded and robed cleanup committee — possibly members of the Ku Klux Klan or some related group — rode through the Smackover oil fields in order to drive away ‘undesirable’ people such as saloon owners and gamblers. The vigilantes killed at least one person, shot at others and destroyed buildings. There were widespread reports of floggings and even cases of people being tarred and feathered.

“This multi-day riot mirrored other vigilante actions in the newly established oil fields in Arkansas. The previous February, the citizens of El Dorado had formed a Law Enforcement League for the same purpose. … On Nov. 27, more than 200 masked and robed men drove through Smackover in cars, carrying signs that warned ‘gamblers and others of the lawless element’ to leave the area within 24 hours.”

The incident received nationwide attention. The New York Times reported that the Nov. 24 murder of a worker named Ed Cox had led to the events. The Arkansas Gazette reported that there also was a murder the next night of a driller named Cotton Parsons outside a bar in the Smackover Field settlement of Patagonia.

Some newspapers ran sensational reports that couldn’t be verified.

The Seattle Star said that “2,000 bootleggers, dive keepers and gamblers are aligned against the vigilantes in a skirmish, which first flared last night and raged for hours.”

The Washington Times reported that a mob of 200 “white-robed and masked men” had taken on gamblers and oil workers in “one of the most spectacular engagements ever noted in this section.”

Some newspapers reported incorrectly that as many as 75 people had been killed or wounded. The New York Times later reported that one man had been killed with four injured and five tarred and feathered.

One thing is clear. Large numbers of the so-called undesirables began leaving the area after these events.

“By Nov. 30, about 1,100 had departed by train from nearby Camden,” Griffith writes. “Although there were rumors that they were gathering in Union County to seek their revenge, Ouachita County authorities assured residents that there would be no more trouble. On Dec. 1, the Arkansas Gazette reported that Sheriff Ed Harper had returned to Camden after touring the oil fields. He found no sign of further trouble and reported that ‘the undesirable element seems to have been thoroughly cleaned out.’

“Smackover constable Hampton Lewis and local bank cashier O.B. Gordon ‘deplored the publicity given the raids, merely a repetition of events which had occurred in all new oil fields.'”

The Arkansas Gazette finally reported that the only death that could be attributed to the vigilantes was that of E.J. Wood at a settlement known as Ouachita City.

Griffith writes: “Unmasked members of the vigilance committee approached what they believed to be a gambling house, supposedly owned by Wood and Slim Sanders. Upon their arrival, Wood ran out the door. Committee members told him to halt, and he was shot when he refused. Wood was initially reported tarred and feathered, but this was later proven false. The house itself was burned down by the committee. According to recently elected sheriff J.B. Newton, all reports of a pitched battle, tarring and feathering and burned buildings were highly exaggerated; most of the gunshots had been fired into the air, and Sanders’ building had been torn down.”

The New York Times said that at least 400 of the reported 2,000 vigilantes were on the payroll of oil companies. Other sources said the size of the vigilante group was only about 200.

Griffith writes: “No one was ever arrested for the murder of E.J. Wood. The coroner’s jury met and found that he had died at the hands of persons unknown.”

Our trip along Highway 7 takes us right by one of the best places to learn more about this colorful period in south Arkansas history, the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources. In 1975, area civic leaders and legislators began campaigning for a museum. In 1977, the Arkansas Legislature levied a tax on oil production in Arkansas to fund construction of a museum. Two years later, the Legislature levied a tax on brine, from which bromine is extracted. Bromine is used for making pesticides, flame retardants, medicines and other products.

The project gained additional momentum in 1980 when Jack Turner of El Dorado donated 19 acres near Smackover for the museum. The Arkansas Oil and Brine Museum opened in May 1986. It was renamed the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in 1997.

The museum is operated by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, which describes it this way: “The 25,000-square-foot exhibition center includes vintage photographs; an auditorium that features two videos; a Center of the Earth exhibit that visitors enter through a circular corridor depicting rock strata in the earth; a geologic time scale and fossil exhibit explaining how oil is formed; metal-cast and life-size roughnecks working an oil derrick; exhibits on family life in the oil fields; dozens of vintage automobile gasoline pumps and petroleum company signs; exhibits on life in the area before the boom; and exhibits on modern drilling techniques.

“A high-tech elevator takes visitors through time from a Jurassic period sea floor to the Industrial Revolution. An adjoining exhibit focuses on the evolution of oil consumption from 1922 through modern times. From this exhibit, visitors can peer from a replica of the Rogerson Hotel’s second-floor veranda overlooking a re-created, boom-era street scene in Smackover. The scene, which can also be explored on the first floor, includes numerous storefronts, a jail, a newspaper office, mannequins in period dress and vintage automobiles.

“Outside, the center’s Oilfield Park features operating examples of the oil-producing technology employed from the 1920s through today. The park contains a 112-foot wooden derrick similar to the one at the original Busey No. 1 Well in El Dorado. For those wanting to see an active oil field, the museum’s staff has prepared maps for either six- or 15-mile driving tours of the Smackover Field that reveal remnants of early production such as salt flats. The field is located just north of the museum.”

As we drive north, we cross into Ouachita County, passing through the community of Elliott on our way to Camden on the Ouachita River.

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Arkansas now has a Food Hall of Fame

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

Dressed in her Sunday best, Rhoda Adams sat in the lobby of the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock’s River Market District on a stormy Tuesday night, flanked by Lake Village Mayor JoAnne Bush and former state Rep. Sam Angel.

Bush and Angel had made sure that the lady commonly known as Miss Rhoda, who doesn’t get out of southeast Arkansas much these days, was in the capital city for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame’s first induction ceremony.

The Food Hall of Fame, a project of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, was about to induct three restaurants from a list of 12 finalists, and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales of Lake Village was on that list.

Arkansans nominated 59 restaurants in the inaugural year. A committee of food experts narrowed the list down to Bruno’s Little Italy of Little Rock, Craig’s Bar-B-Q of DeValls Bluff, Doe’s Eat Place of Little Rock, Feltner’s Whatta-Burger of Russellville, Franke’s Cafeteria of Little Rock, Jones Bar-B-Q Diner of Marianna, the Kream Kastle of Blytheville, the Lassis Inn of Little Rock, McClard’s Bar-B-Q of Hot Springs, Neal’s Café of Springdale, Rhoda’s and Sims Bar-B-Que of Little Rock.

Adams’ restaurant was one of the three inducted, and she made her way to the stage to receive her award from Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The other two restaurants in the inaugural class are the Lassis Inn and Jones Bar-B-Q Diner. The three establishments specialize in tamales and country-style plate lunches (which Adams serves), fried fish and barbecue — staples of the Arkansas diet, especially in the Delta.

All three restaurants happen to be owned by African-Americans, a powerful symbol of how food can bring people together in a state that too often during its history was divided along racial lines.

People come from across the Delta — not only Arkansas but also Louisiana and Mississippi — to eat with Adams. She has been serving her special blend of tamales for more than 40 years, often selling them out of the back of her car along U.S. Highway 65 in Dumas, McGehee and other southeast Arkansas cities. Private planes have been known to land in Lake Village, shuttling executives from Little Rock for lunch at Rhoda’s.

Adams, 78, was hesitant to get into the business of making tamales. She once told a reporter: “My husband’s auntie asked me about us doing it, but I never wanted to do any hot tamales. We started doing about 25 dozen a day. I kind of liked it, but I didn’t like it without a machine.”

Her husband eventually bought her a machine to craft the tamales. Adams is one of 15 children. She has almost 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Adams also treats those who love her cooking like family, regaling them with stories as they eat lunch.

The famous food writer Michael Stern once noted: “Beyond tamales, the menu is a full roster of great, soulful regional specialties. For fried chicken or pigs feet, barbecue or catfish dinner, you won’t do better for miles around. Early one morning, Rhoda made us a breakfast of bacon and eggs with biscuits on the side. Even this simple meal tasted especially wonderful. Rhoda is one of those gifted cooks who makes everything she touches something special. We’ve always considered Arkansas one of America’s top seven pie states (along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Texas and Maine). Rhoda’s pies are proof. She makes small individual ones. … Her sweet potato and pecan pie are world class.”

Next up, the Lassis Inn.

In a small wooden building near where Roosevelt Road passes under Interstate 30 in Little Rock, Elihue Washington Jr. cooks some of the state’s best fried fish (catfish and buffalo) at the Lassis Inn. The restaurant’s roots date back to 1905 when Joe Watson began selling sandwiches out of his house. He later added fish to the menu, and sales soared.

In 1931, Watson literally moved the building that housed his business to East 27th Street and named it the Lassis Inn. In 1957, the building had to be moved back 12 feet to allow room for the construction of what’s now Interstate 30.

Washington bought the business in 1990 and has been there almost every day since, cooking some of this state’s best buffalo ribs, catfish steaks and catfish filets. The Lassis Inn also has a fine selection of songs on its jukebox, though the sign on the wall notes that there’s “no dancing.”

Then there’s the barbecue shrine at Marianna.

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner has been a part of the Delta food culture for more than a century. The folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance believe it might be the oldest continuously operated black-owned restaurant in the South.

Current owner James Harold Jones says it started with his grandfather’s uncle. His grandfather and father continued the family tradition of slow-smoking pork over hickory, and Jones’ father moved to the current location in 1964. The methods for cooking the barbecue, preparing the slaw and mixing the sauce haven’t changed in more than a century. In 2012, the James Beard Foundation honored Jones Bar-B-Q Diner as one of its American Classics, making it the first Arkansas restaurant to earn a coveted Beard Award.

The award hangs on the wall adjacent to the counter where Jones stands to take orders.

The finely chopped pork, which is smoked just behind the small dining room, comes with a vinegar-based sauce and a mustard-based slaw. It’s served between two pieces of white bread rather than on buns.

The only change in the tiny cinderblock room since the award was presented almost five years ago is that Jones added a guestbook to record the many states from which barbecue aficionados hail. Jones only smokes so much meat each day. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and that’s often before 10 a.m. Some customers making the barbecue pilgrimage to Marianna now arrive as early as 7 a.m. to buy meat by the pound.

The first three Food Hall of Fame restaurants in Arkansas — Rhoda’s Hot Tamales, Lassis Inn and Jones Bar-B-Q Diner — tell us a lot about the culture of a state that has never received the national attention it deserves when it comes to its cuisine.

I can’t imagine a better trio for the inaugural induction class. And I have no doubt that this year’s other nine finalists will be inducted in the years ahead. They also are fine representatives of who we are as Arkansans.

Bruno’s, which is now on Main Street in Little Rock, has its roots in Italy, specifically Naples. Four brothers came to this country from Naples more than a century ago. They brought their style of cooking and baking to New York and Chicago.

One of the brothers was named Giovanni. His son Vincent (better known as Jimmy) was stationed at Camp Robinson during World War II. Jimmy Bruno returned to the state after the war and opened his Little Italy Café in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. Bruno was as good an entertainer as he was a chef. He would spin pizza dough and toss it high into the air to the delight of his customers. He was known to sing loudly in the kitchen. The restaurant has been in several locations through the years, but the recipes remain the same.

Doe’s, meanwhile, was the brainchild of entrepreneur George Eldridge. It opened in 1988. Eldridge, a pilot, had been flying friends for years to the original Doe’s in Greenville, Miss., for steaks and tamales. He paid the Signa family for the rights to use the Doe’s name in Little Rock.

The Little Rock Doe’s became more famous than the original in 1992. That’s because key staffers for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign began hanging out there on a nightly basis, and the media followed, turning out stories about Lucille Robinson’s work in the kitchen. One of the many photos on the walls of the restaurant features Eldridge and Robinson at Clinton’s presidential inauguration in January 1993.

Cafeterias once were far more common in the state than they are now, and Franke’s helped pioneer the concept in 1924. C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Capitol Avenue in Little Rock in 1919 and built a large bakery on Third Street three years later. His fleet of bakery trucks could be seen across the city as the drivers made home deliveries.

The cafeteria opened downtown near the city’s major department stores and became a favorite of those who worked in the stores and those who shopped downtown. Franke’s, which now has two locations in Little Rock, once had locations in other Arkansas cities. You can still get the cafeteria’s well-known eggplant casserole and egg custard pie.

The other Little Rock restaurant on the list, Sims, dates back to 1937 when Allen and Amelia Sims opened their establishment. After working at the 33rd Street location for many years, Ron Settlers took over the restaurant and expanded the concept to multiple locations. Sims has been featured on numerous television programs and in national magazines through the years.

In Russellville, Feltner’s Whatta-Burger is not to be confused with that Texas-based chain. Bob Feltner once owned the Wonder-Burger near the Arkansas Tech University campus but decided to move over to the Arkansas Avenue portion of Arkansas Highway 7 so he could take advantage of the heavier traffic. Customers have been lining up for the burgers and generous portions of fries there since Thanksgiving Day 1967. The Whatta-Burger has served several generations of Arkansas Tech students along with thousands of people making the trip to and from Fayetteville for University of Arkansas athletic events.

In Springdale, Neal’s Café has been a fixture since 1944. Housed in a distinctive pink building, it’s the place where politicians and business leaders gather for breakfast and where others go for dinners of country cooking such as pan-fried chicken and homemade pies. Neal’s is the type of place that once was common across Arkansas — a gathering spot that brings people together for lively conversations. Arkansas is worse off for the demise of such locally owned businesses. Thank goodness Neal’s is still going strong.

The Kream Kastle opened in July 1952 in the then-booming cotton center of Blytheville when Steven Johns began selling hot dogs out of a small building with only window service. One early ad for the Kream Kastle read: “Take home a sack of six for $1.”

In 1955, Johns added a barbecue pit. The drive-in restaurant is now best known for its pork barbecue sandwiches, referred to in Blytheville as “pig sandwiches.” The restaurant is operated by Johns’ daughter, Suzanne Johns Wallace, and her husband, Jeff Wallace.

The Kream Kastle ranks high on my list of favorite barbecue places in the state, as does Craig’s in DeValls Bluff. In 1947, Lawrence Craig and his brother Wes opened Craig Brothers Café in that community along the White River. Lawrence Craig had learned to cook on a boat on the Mississippi River, and word of his skill at producing fine barbecue soon had people traveling to Craig’s from as far away as Little Rock to the west and Memphis to the east.

As far as national notoriety, McClard’s just might be the most famous Arkansas restaurant of them all. Bill Clinton grew up nearby, and the national media produced a number of stories on McClard’s during Clinton’s eight years as president.

The McClard family was running a tourist court in the 1920s that also included a gas station and a small diner specializing in barbecued goat. A guest at the tourist court was unable to pay his bill but offered instead the recipe for what he claimed was the world’s best barbecue sauce. The family accepted the recipe in lieu of cash payment, made a few changes to it through the years and ended up with a restaurant where waits for seats are common even during the middle of the afternoon. A fourth generation of the McClard family is now working at the restaurant, which is sure to be a future inductee into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.

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Rex’s Rankings: The playoffs continue

Monday, November 14th, 2016

A number of the state’s top teams received byes in the first round of the high school football playoffs.

There were a few upsets (such as Watson Chapel over Sylvan Hills in Class 5A) but not many.

This week, it gets serious.

Here are the updated rankings as we enter the second week of the playoffs:

Overall

  1. Fayetteville
  2. Greenwood
  3. North Little Rock
  4. Pulaski Academy
  5. Bentonville
  6. Wynne
  7. Springdale Har-Ber
  8. Fort Smith Northside
  9. Pine Bluff
  10. Warren

Class 7A

  1. Fayetteville
  2. North Little Rock
  3. Bentonville
  4. Springdale Har-Ber
  5. Fort Smith Northside

Class 6A

  1. Greenwood
  2. Pine Bluff
  3. Jonesboro
  4. Russellville
  5. Benton

Class 5A

  1. Pulaski Academy
  2. Wynne
  3. Little Rock McClellan
  4. Alma
  5. Batesville

Class 4A

  1. Warren
  2. Nashville
  3. Robinson
  4. Prairie Grove
  5. Pea Ridge

Class 3A

  1. Prescott
  2. Charleston
  3. Glen Rose
  4. Bald Knob
  5. Fordyce

Class 2A

  1. England
  2. Danville
  3. Des Arc
  4. Hampton
  5. Mount Ida

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The Most Southern City on Earth

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

In 1992, historian James Cobb’s book on the Mississippi Delta came out.

The title: “The Most Southern Place on Earth.”

Having spent four years as one of the two presidential appointees to the Delta Regional Authority, I have no doubt that Cobb got it right.

The city at the heart of the Delta — the place that serves as a regional hub for east Arkansas, north Mississippi, west Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel — is Memphis.

That must make Memphis the Most Southern City on Earth.

Thousands of Arkansans will descend on Memphis next week to watch the University of Arkansas football team play Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. Many of them — especially those from the northwest part of our state — will have no idea of the strong ties between the Bluff City and eastern Arkansas.

For decades, those who lived in the eastern half of the state read Memphis newspapers.

They listened to Memphis radio stations.

They watched Memphis television stations.

They went to Memphis to eat out and have a good time.

They went to Memphis to visit the doctor.

They went to Memphis to do their Christmas shopping.

A friend who grew up in the Arkansas Delta was fond of saying, “We thought that when you died, you went to Memphis.”

The connections between east Arkansas and Memphis have frayed some in recent decades.

As the newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat heated up in the 1980s, people who once had subscribed to The Commercial Appeal from Memphis began getting one of the Little Rock newspapers since subscription prices were steeply discounted.

Cable television opened up new worlds.

The perception became that Memphis was a dangerous, crime-ridden place. People in small towns in the northeast quadrant of Arkansas who once had driven to Memphis to go to the doctor and shop now went to Jonesboro to do those things. As a result, Jonesboro prospered as a regional center.

The late Willie Morris, who’s among my favorite writers, joked that the two most important cities in Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans.

In some ways, despite the growth of Jonesboro, Memphis remains the most important city for east Arkansas.

It was 1935 when writer David Cohn from Greenville, Miss., penned these words: “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepheard’s, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby … ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta.”

Those words still ring true. I can’t count the number of famous people I’ve seen in the Peabody lobby through the years.

Razorback fans will hang out there in force next week, turning that ornate lobby into an Arkansas family reunion.

Julia Reed, the talented New Orleans-based writer who grew up at Greenville, describes the Peabody as a “legendary hotel where my great-grandfather stayed when he came to town to get hot-towel shaves and meet his cotton broker — and where he once dropped a pint of contraband liquor (this was when Tennessee was still, supposedly, dry) on the marble floor of the grand lobby. The doorman swept up the glass so fast no one was the wiser, and the current staff remains now as attentive.”

Reed went on note that the Delta “probably doesn’t officially begin at the Peabody’s address on Union Street, but there is no mistake that Memphis was the Delta’s spiritual capital and the Peabody its clubhouse. Jackson, our actual state capital, was two hours south of my hometown of Greenville, and therefore an hour closer, but we never even thought of going there. Like the bluesmen before us, we headed north, following the river on old Highway 1, before cutting over to the blues highway, U.S. 61, that takes you almost directly downtown.

“To us, the difference between the two cities could be summed up with a line from Peter Taylor’s excellent novel ‘A Summons to Memphis,’ with Jackson standing in for Nashville: ‘Nashville … is a city of schools and churches and Memphis is — well, Memphis is something else again. Memphis is a place of steamboats and cotton gins, of card playing and hotel society.’

“We knew exactly where we’d rather be, and we made the three-hour trek to Memphis with astonishing regularity. We went for school clothes and allergy shots, the Ice Capades and trips to the zoo. We saw movies, got our hair cut, ate barbecue. When we felt especially festive, we’d go just for dinner at the late lamented Justine’s, a justifiably famous Frenchish restaurant in a gorgeous old mansion, where we’d eat lump crabmeat swathed in hollandaise sauce and run into everybody we knew.”

The first Peabody Hotel was built by Robert Campbell Brinkley in 1869. He named it in honor of philanthropist George Peabody. The two men had met several years earlier on a ship bound for England. Brinkley’s reason for going to England was to find financing for a railroad linking Little Rock and Memphis. Brinkley later gave the hotel to his daughter, Anna Overton Brinkley, and her fiancé, Robert Snowden, as a wedding gift.

The Snowden family would have a connection to the hotel for the next 96 years (in addition to developing the Horseshoe Plantation across the river in Arkansas and building a home on Horseshoe Lake).

“The hotel was magnificent,” a history of the Peabody states at www.historic-memphis.com. “It had 75 gas-lit rooms with private bathrooms, a first-class dining room, shops, entertainment, a large and beautiful lobby and a grand ballroom, where lavish balls were held. It was the place to see and been seen. The hotel was highly successful. Guests paid $3 to $4 for a room with meals included in the price. … After the turn of the century, the Peabody constructed a $350,000 addition at the back. It was an all-steel structure, the first of its kind in Memphis. But it wasn’t enough. In 1923, hotel management decided it was time for a new and larger building and closed the Main Street Peabody. They had negotiated with Lowenstein’s, who wanted to take over the corner and build a grand new department store.

“A block away at Second and Union, a new, bigger and better Peabody was scheduled to open within two years. Construction began on the new Peabody within a month after the old Peabody on Main closed. The new hotel was designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager with a plan for 625 rooms with baths. … The cost in 1925 was $5 million. For the 1925 opening of the Peabody, 1,200 preview party invitations were sent to the who’s who of the South. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be seen at Second and Union during the event. Once again the hotel established a reputation as the center of social life for the entire region. The grand new Peabody saw a steady stream of the wealthy and prominent congregate to dine and dance. It was the largest and most elegant hotel in the South.”

The story then picks up in the early 1950s: “During the 1950s, a nationwide move to the suburbs began. Memphians were no longer shopping regularly on Main Street, and downtown Memphis began to feel the pain. The Peabody was no exception. The hotel had many vacancies, and the restaurants were almost empty. The building was beginning to be in need of repairs, and by 1953 it was known that the Peabody was for sale. There were two bidders. … The hotel went to the Alsonett Hotel Group.

“It soon became obvious that the hotel would never be the same. Alsonett set aside tradition in favor of economy. Cost-cutting practices were evident everywhere. Downgrading was the name of the game. And any profits were used to upgrade Alsonett properties elsewhere. The profitable convention business completely disappeared. The hotel faced huge debts and was unable to get financing. In 1965, the grand old Peabody was forced into foreclosure.

“The auction began in December 1965. Robert B. Snowden placed the winning bid. Within 48 hours, he sold the Peabody to the Sheraton chain. … Snowden knew that Sheraton was going to improve the hotel. And Sheraton assured Memphis that all Peabody traditions would remain the same and set about restoring the old building. But they neglected to mention there would be a name change. For the next nine years, the hotel would be called the Sheraton-Peabody. Memphians felt this was better than nothing.

“Sheraton really tried. Unfortunately the steady decline of downtown Memphis continued, at a much faster pace after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In December 1973, Sheraton-Peabody closed the doors and posted a for-sale sign. … The Peabody had a short reprieve in 1974 when a group of Alabama investors reopened the hotel. But it was doomed to failure and by April 1, 1975, this group was forced to declare bankruptcy, and the Peabody was put up for public auction by the county.”

Belz Enterprises bought the hotel for $400,000 in July 1975. Six years and $25 million later, it reopened and has been going strong ever since.

A number of those Razorback fans next week will leave the Peabody lobby, cross the street and walk down the ally to Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous for ribs. Though it has become fashionable for foodies to turn their noses up at the Rendezvous for being too touristy, it remains a Memphis landmark.

Vergos cleaned up a basement below his diner in 1948, discovered a coal chute and decided that it would give him a vent, allowing him to smoke ribs in addition to serving sandwiches. Vergos was a major force in the revival of downtown Memphis. When he died, the city’s mayor described him as an “icon for saving downtown.” His three children continue to run the restaurant.

The famous Peabody ducks even have an Arkansas connection.

Frank Schutt, the hotel’s general manager from 1925-56, and one of his friends had been duck hunting in east Arkansas one day in 1932. They had too much to drink that evening at the hotel and put their live decoys (which were allowed in those days) in the lobby fountain.

The guests loved it.

Schutt decided to train mallards to walk into the fountain each morning and exit the lobby each evening. The daily tradition continues.

Have fun in Memphis next week, Hog fans.

The Most Southern City on Earth has a knack for welcoming visitors from Arkansas.

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Arkansas Delta food tour: Part Two

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

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

It was quiet at Dyess on Good Friday afternoon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to get back to Little Rock.

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

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The great Arkansas Delta food tour

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In between all of the eating, we managed to:

— Walk around the former company town of Wilson

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

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

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

— Check out the beautiful Poinsett County Courthouse at Harrisburg

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

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

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

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

He owns citrus groves in Florida.

He owns five banks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The restaurant in Wilson reopened on Dec. 20.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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