Archive for the ‘Pie’ Category

Into the Ozarks

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

Leaving the annual Johnson County Peach Festival, we headed up Arkansas Highway 103 toward Oark.

That road, which winds from the Arkansas River Valley into the Ozarks, can be an adventure. It contains some of the state’s most daunting switchback curves. I can’t imagine trying to drive it when it’s starting to snow or sleet in the winter.

Looking at the covered hillsides along this route, it’s hard to visualize a landscape here that once was denuded by timber companies that would cut the trees and move on, not bothering to replant.

“Throughout the Arkansas River Valley, Johnson County has the largest amount of timber,” Jennifer Koenig Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “However, the timber industry provided only a temporary respite of prosperity, eventually declining in the 1930s and leaving many people to seek better opportunities elsewhere. In some cases, towns disappeared because they functioned based on the prosperity and success of the lumber industry. Starting in the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service began buying up land that had been cleared and repopulating it in hopes of returning what was lumbered away.”

Johnson County’s population declined from 21,062 residents in the 1920 census to just 12,421 people by 1960.

Thousands of trees were planted during the Great Depression by the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps who were stationed at Camp Ozone, which was established in 1933. About 200 men lived at the camp.

On Dec. 18, 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt had signed a proclamation creating the Arkansas National Forest (now the Ouachita National Forest) on land south of the Arkansas River.

On March 6, 1908, he signed a proclamation creating the Ozark National Forest north of the Arkansas River, including large parts of Johnson County.

“The Ozark National Forest was the only major hardwood timberland under governmental protection at that time, and the forest would assist the furniture industry in northwest Arkansas as a renewable source of valuable hardwood,” Mary Wood writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The first forest headquarters was in Fort Smith. Samuel J. Record was the first forest supervisor, administering both the Arkansas (Ouachita) and Ozark national forests. Late in 1908, the Ozark National Forest received its own supervisor, David Fitton, who moved the headquarters to Harrison. In 1918, the headquarters moved to Russellville.

“Presidential proclamations increasing and decreasing the area of the Ozark National Forest occurred frequently during the early years. Three of the more significant changes were the executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt transferring the Magazine Ranger District from the Ouachita National Forest to the Ozark; the addition of the Henry R. Koen Experimental Forest on June 14, 1950; and the proclamation of President Dwight Eisenhower on Nov. 8, 1960, creating the St. Francis National Forest.”

We continued north on Highway 103 to where the Mulberry River flows. This tributary of the Arkansas River is one of our state’s most beautiful mountain streams.

“It flows generally southwest from its source and empties into the Arkansas River south of the city of Mulberry in Crawford County for a total length of approximately 70 miles,” Guy Lancaster writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Reportedly named for the number of mulberry trees growing in its vicinity, it is today well known among canoeists. The area around the Mulbery River has been the site of human habitation as far back as about 10,000 B.C. In historic times, the Osage Indians claimed much of this part of Arkansas, including the area drained by the Mulberry River, as their hunting grounds.

“The Cherokee settled in the area after leaving northeastern Arkansas and were formally given land in much of northwestern Arkansas in 1817, though they were later pressured to cede these lands in 1828. Permanent white settlement in the Mulberry River Valley began soon thereafter, mostly along the lower reaches of the river, near where it empties into the Arkansas River. The largest of these settlements was the community of Mulberry, which got its start after the completion of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad in 1876.”

Canoeists and kayakers are drawn to the Mulberry when the water is right like bugs to a lamp. Margaret and Harold Hedges once wrote in a magazine story: “It offers an infinite variety of faster water, slow water, roaring rapids, rock gardens, choppy chutes, twisty channels — all sandwiched between pools of deep milky water that is serene and beautiful.”

Paul Austin, his son Josh and I even crossed the footbridge across the upper Mulberry between Oark and Catalpa. A group of children who had been swimming there were headed back to the highway on the hot summer day. It was an idyllic scene, like something out of a movie.

At that point, we were in the middle of seeing if we could finish the huge burgers at both the Oark General Store and the Catalpa Café & General Store.

Josh and I succeeded. Paul was the wimp in the group, unable to finish the second burger.

Oark is the best known of the two establishments. But the food is just as good — maybe even better — at Catalpa. Highway 103 ends at Oark, but the pavement continues near the banks of Mulberry on what’s now a Johnson County road to Catalpa. You’ll see signs so you’ll know when to turn down a short gravel road to the Catalpa Café.

The breakfast menu there features everything from homemade biscuits to pancakes to a breakfast burrito. Eggs benedict is served on Sundays. Coffee is free with any order.

The burgers for lunch and dinner all contain a half of pound of beef. The Catalpa Burger has barbecue sauce, sautéed onions and pepper jack cheese. Dad’s Burger has fried jalapenos, pepper jack cheese and Sriracha sauce. The Bubblehead comes with bacon, pepper jack cheese and jalapenos. The Juicy Lucy, which I had, is a cheese-stuffed burger with sautéed mushrooms and onions.

There’s also pulled pork, smoked brisket, turkey and several daily specials. There are always several kinds of homemade pies, and they’ll sell you whole pies if you order them in advance.

The Oark General Store, which is popular with bikers, opened in 1890. Its menu also has a selection of half-pound burgers (such as the Angry Hornet with grilled jalapenos, bell pepper, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayonnaise).

Here’s how Michael Tilley described the place in a 2013 story for The City Wire: “Reagan and Brian Eisele are not who you would expect to find mixing up a special hushpuppy recipe or applying an egg wash to the top of a homemade pie. The couple, who married in April 2012, bought the historic Oark General Store on May 18, 2012. With little to no restaurant experience, they dug their entrepreneurial hooks into an unforgiving, low-margin business. The store first opened in 1890 to provide supplies for those intrepid souls who chose to scrap out a living in Oark, a town connected to the world then by a few rugged and often impassable logging trails. The building purchased by the Eiseles includes some of the original furnishings from that 1890 building. Today the store is a restaurant but does sell fuel and several food items.”

Tilley went on to tell how the couple met: “Reagan was a staffer for then-U.S. Rep. John Boozman, and Brian was a staffer with U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina. They were part of a tour to learn about the emerging energy industry in Azerbaijan. Although the energy reserves were abundant, the fledgling country had little in the way of modern pipeline and storage infrastructure when it became an independent country. The first major pipeline — the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan — opened in July 2006. Brian and Reagan and other congressional staffers ventured into the important geopolitical crossroads — the country is located between Russia and Iran — during February 2010. The tour period included Valentine’s Day. … The love blossomed, and Brian and Reagan visited each other’s families.

“Brian grew up in Aiken, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina in December 2005. Reagan grew up in Hartman in Johnson County and graduated from Arkansas Tech University in May 2006. During an April 2012 visit, Brian proposed to Reagan, and the wedding was planned for a site near Ponca in the scenic Boxley Valley. While Reagan was in Arkansas planning the wedding, she noticed a blurb about the Oark General Store.”

She had taken Brian there once for pie and coffee. She let him know it was for sale.

Brian told Tilley: “When I worked in Congress, I worked under and alongside some of the most hardworking and intelligent people. But at the end of the day, just because I was a lowly peon in the scheme of things, I never really felt any concrete achievement for myself. It was always for others.”

He wanted a business of his own. And he didn’t want to raise a family in the nation’s capital.

Brian’s parents helped finance the $170,000 purchase a few weeks after the couple was married in 2012.

Well-known Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson described the store this way: “The fantastic burgers from past incarnations are still there, great pies of half a dozen varieties are always in the case and there’s always a conversation going on within the walls, just like with those gentlemen of old who came to warm themselves around the stove with gossip and coffee.”

After eating at Catalpa and Oark, we took Arkansas Highway 215 from Oark until the road intersects with Arkansas Highway 23 (the Pig Trail) at Cass. If there’s a more scenic stretch of road in Arkansas, I don’t know what it is.

Highway 215 runs along the Mulberry for 18 miles between Oark and Cass and is more like a national parkway than a state highway with its scenic overlooks and interpretive panels.

In the November 2014 issue of Arkansas Highways magazine, Marilyn Collins wrote: “The flowing water of the Mulberry River offers an Ozark view not experienced by many. The river twists and turns around rock ledges, beneath scenic overlooks, and reveals the geological history and cultural heritage of Johnson and Franklin counties. … During the spring, water levels are high and challenge the most adventurous. Water calms during the summer months, providing a playground for visitors to swim, float, skip rocks and fish.”

Black bears often are seen in the area.

“People have strong attachments to the Mulberry River Valley landscape,” said Mary Brennan of the U.S. Forest Service. “While many people visit here to participate in recreational opportunities, others return as descendants of the pioneer families who settled here 100 years or more ago. Many people who live and work in this area today are third- and fourth-generation residents. People’s attachments to this landscape are very strong.”

Matt Pfeifler of the U.S. Forest Service is a third-generation Oark resident. He said: “The Mulberry River was an important part of my childhood and my family’s lives. … It’s important that people have opportunities to appreciate and experience this place.”

What’s known as the Mulberry River Interpretive Driving Trail is a partnership between the Forest Service, the Federal Highway Administration, the Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and the Cass Job Corps Center.

Spots along the route include:

— The Redding Recreation Area and Spy Rock Trailhead: There’s a canoe launch on the river here. The Spy Rock Trail, which can be accessed from the Redding campground, is an eight-mile loop that connects with the Ozark Highlands Trail. Signage at the Redding campground interprets historic settlements along the Mulberry River and the nearby Hill Cemetery.

— Indian Creek canoe launch: Signage at this site interprets the impact of the Civil War on the area.

— High Bank canoe launch — Signage here interprets prehistoric occupation of the region.

— Yale Store site — The store was located at the confluence of the Mulberry River and Little Mulberry Creek. Signage interprets the schools, churches and social life along the Mulberry River.

— Wolf Pen Recreation Area — There are campgrounds and picnic areas. Signage interprets the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Forest Service.

The road was busy on the day we made the trip from Oark to Cass since an event known as the Homegrown Music Festival was being held at Byrd’s Adventure Center on the banks of the river. Hundreds of people were camping at Byrd’s, which has an 800-acre area for camping and an extensive trail network for ATVs and motorcycles. There’s a heated shower house, covered picnic areas, stages, a general store and even a 2,500-foot grass airstrip for those wanting to travel to the area in small private planes.

Byrd’s offers canoe, kayak, raft and tube rentals on the Mulberry.

Once we hit Highway 23, we headed south toward Ozark. No trip along the Pig Trail, of course, would be complete without a stop at Turner Bend.

The first Turners moved to the area from Tennessee in about 1830. Elias Turner arrived in 1848, served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was a member of the Arkansas Legislature in the 1870s.

In 1900, the first bridge across the Mulberry River at this point was constructed. Eleven years later, William Eli Turner built a store at the south end of the original bridge. The years 1935-36 saw a new bridge built and the original store burn. The Turner family built another store just south of the current location. In 1939, Champ Turner (the son of William Eli Turner) married Flora Coleman and took over operation of the store. The store closed during World War II while Champ served in the Army. In 1946, Champ and Flora reopened the store. They continued to operate it until 1978 when Champ died of cancer.

Enter Brad Wimberly.

Wimberly bought the store from the Turner family in 1981, moved into the back and started renting canoes. He built the current facility in 1986-87 and expanded his operations through the years with campgrounds, cabin rentals and other improvements.

In August 2011, Wimberly threw a big celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the store and his 30th year of ownership.

Beth Turner, a granddaughter of Champ and Flora, told the state Department of Parks & Tourism in 2011: “Turner Bend for 100 years has kept that valley going. Grandma and Grandpa, they made that area a family. They were always there, and the light was always on.”

Beth Turner produced a documentary on the area titled “Ties That Bind.” She said her grandparents did everything from bandaging cuts to pulling cars out of ditches.

“The Turners raised three sons in half of their building while conducting business out of the other half,” Wimberly said in 2011. “In those days, the store was known as the home of Bubbles the myna bird. Apparently, Bubbles had a large vocabulary, some of it X-rated. Champ was something of a trader and had lots of old guns hanging from the wall inside the store. The public restroom was an outhouse sitting over a creek.”

Jill Rohrbach wrote in 2011: “Turner Bend was more than an outfitter or supply source. It was a social center, like an office water cooler. State politicians, including a young Bill Clinton, stopped by to shake hands and explain their positions to Champ, who would then pass the information on to people in the valley who visited the store. People, mostly from outside the region, began flocking to the Mulberry to canoe in the later 1960s after the guide book ‘The Mighty Mulberry’ was published.”

Wimberly said: “Champ did not have a gauge as such but could tell you how many steps were covered and whether the river was rising or falling.”

No all of the natives welcomed the visitors.

“Wimberly and his friends canoed the Mulberry often,” Rohrbach wrote. “He particularly remembers conversations with Champ during the 1976 and 1977 spring float seasons. ‘When we returned for a float trip in 1978, the store was closed,’ he says. ‘Champ was soon to pass on.’ The Turner family leased the store out for a couple of years before selling it.”

Wimberly said: “As the saying goes, fools rush in. I purchased the store in May 1981. Good thing I was only 26 since there were hardships and problems at every turn. I lived in the back of the old store like the Turners before me. The wiring was faulty, the water well was suspect, the roof was leaky and there was no insulation. It was so hot inside the store that I would step outside and hose myself down and then step in the cooler just to be able to stand it.”

Wimberly built a rock landing on the river in the fall of 1981. He married his wife Vien on the banks of the river.

“University of Arkansas students flew down the trail on Fridays and back up on Sundays,” Wimberly said. “Businessmen traveling to and from Little Rock would stop, going and coming back. Hog fans with their flags flying stopped on their way to games. Canoeing on the Mulberry grew in popularity.”

A new store was built adjacent to the old building in 1986.

“We had to build part of the new building, tear part of the old one down, build some more, tear the rest of the old building down, then complete the construction,” Wimberly told Rohrbach. “The whole process took about a year, and we never closed a day.”

When what’s now Interstate 49 opened in 1999, traffic slowed on Highway 23.

“I had naively thought that a lot of the regulars would continue to travel the Pig Trail since it is so much shorter than the interstate route, but I was wrong,” Wimberly said. “We lost all of the regular traffic. Students now attend the University of Arkansas and don’t even know what the Pig Trail is.”

Turner Bend lives on, though. The Mulberry has continued to increase in popularity as a float stream, and motorcyclists discovered the Pig Trail. There were several dozen motorcycles in the parking lot the day we were there. It remains an Arkansas classic.

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Mincemeat pie (and other Christmas treats)

Monday, December 21st, 2015

My father always insisted on a mincemeat pie for Christmas.

My wife, a south Texas native, had never heard of mincemeat until she met me.

Maybe it’s the English roots on my father’s side of the family that caused us to like mincemeat so much.

My wife is Hispanic, and tamales were the food item in her family that told you that Christmas was approaching. The first time I asked her to buy a mincemeat pie for Christmas, I was met with a blank stare.

“If you didn’t grow up with mincemeat, chances are you’re totally confused about what this food actually is,” Julie Thomson wrote for The Huffington Post. “From the sound of it, one would assume the meat was the main ingredient, but that would be entirely wrong. Well, almost entirely wrong.

“Mincemeat is (more often than not) just a mixture of chopped, boozy, spiced fruit that is widely popular in the United Kingdom. It is traditionally served around Christmas, often baked into pies. In order to understand how this spiced fruit recipe came to be called mincemeat, we have to take a look at history. Mincemeat was first created as a way of preserving meat — usually mutton — without having to salt or smoke it. It became a Christmas staple when the Crusaders returned home in the 12th century with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The three spices used in this recipe were symbolic of the gifts given to the baby Jesus by the Magi, therefore linking this recipe to Christmas. The spices contain antimicrobial properties that helped keep the meat through winter (and also probably masked any flavors of old meat). The meat used was normally finely chopped — also known as minced in cooking lingo — and that’s where this pastry got its name.

“By the 20th century, beef suet replaced the meat in most mincemeat, and the fruits (such as apples, dried raisins and candied citrus) took center stage — always with booze like brandy. These days sometimes even the suet is taken out and replaced with butter.”

Translated to modern English, here’s a recipe from the 16th century: “Pie filling of mutton or beef must be finely minced and seasoned with pepper and salt and a little saffron to color it. Add a good quantity of suet or marrow, a little vinegar, prunes, raisins and dates. Put in the fattest of the broth of salted beef. And if you want royal pastry, take butter and egg yolks and combine them with flour to make the paste.”

King Henry V of England served mincemeat pie at his coronation in 1413. Oliver Cromwell considered Christmas a pagan holiday, and traditional mincemeat pie was banned for a time. King Charles II restored Christmas as a holiday when he ascended the throne in 1660, and mincemeat pie returned to England.

Mincemeat remains popular in a number of former parts of the British empire such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

“Roasted leg of lamb tastes like Easter, turkey and dressing tastes like Thanksgiving and mincemeat pie tastes like Christmas, not just rich in flavor but in Christian tradition, Americana and history,” writes Lauren Fink. “This old world pie needs a revival in America, to the delight of our taste buds and historic sensibilities.”

I agree.

This will be my first Christmas without either of my parents (Dad died in the spring of 2011, but my mother continued to be a part of our Christmas celebrations; she died the week of Thanksgiving this year). My sister will be making a mincemeat pie for this Friday as we continue a family tradition.

As noted in an earlier Southern Fried blog post, a large fruitcake shipped from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, also will be on the table at our home. These cakes have been a Christmas tradition in our family for as long as I can remember.

Though it’s not a part of our family’s holiday menu, no Christmas ever approaches without me thinking of the Helena oyster loaf. That’s because I was a fan of Richard Allin, the Helena native who wrote columns for the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Allin, who died in October 2007 at age 77, would extol the virtues of the oyster loaf in print each December.

This was his recipe for an authentic Helena oyster loaf: “Slice the top from a long pullman loaf. Remove all the crumb from the loaf, leaving only a boat made of the crust. Brush melted butter generously over the inside of the loaf and on the inside of the top, and toast under the oven broiler until pleasantly browned. Roll oysters in cornmeal and fry until golden brown and crispy. Assemble lemon wedges, green olives with pits, tomato ketchup and mustard pickle.

“After the loaf is toasted and the oysters fried, place a layer of oysters in the bottom of the loaf. Put in two or three lemon wedges and as many olives. Repeat the process, adding from time to time some of the ketchup and the mustard pickle. Continue until the loaf is filled, and top the oysters off with more lemon wedges, olives, ketchup and mustard pickle. Add the latter two items with care. If you wish, you may add them after the loaf is sliced and served. But if you do, you are not making the Helena version of the oyster loaf.

“After the loaf is assembled, cap it with the buttered and toasted top and put it back in the oven to heat for a while. When ready to serve, slice it across in about two-inch-wide sections. A chilled white wine goes well. So does beer. This is a Christmas eve dish. If you eat it at any other time, you do so at your own risk.”

Mustard pickles are no longer easy to find. The recipe consists of cucumbers and onions pickled in a mustard sauce along with turmeric and celery seed.

“The tradition of eating the oyster loaf on Christmas eve got started, in my family at least, many years ago when my grandfather would stop by an old Helena restaurant-delicatessen and pick up a couple of these specialties,” Allin wrote. “In those days, that particular restaurant made its own bread, a type of which was the long pullman loaf, named, I suppose, because it had the same dimensions as the railroad car. By the time I was invited into the family, it had become the practice to make the oyster loaf at home, although still using the restaurant’s singular bread. It was more economical, and the homemade loaf was more generously treated. So many good traditions have passed. The restaurant no longer makes either oyster loaves or bread. About the best we can do in Helena these days is … well, never mind.

“The tradition of the oyster loaf perhaps came up the river from New Orleans. It is known there as the mediatrice, so named because it was frequently brought home by wayward husbands who wanted to make peace with their angry wives. In Helena, it was simply a seasonal food item. Other methods were used to restore family tranquility. By the time the oyster loaf had arrived in Helena from New Orleans, there had been a few changes in its structure. The New Orleans mediatrice was simply a hollowed-out, buttered and toasted loaf of French bread into which mealed and fried oysters were piled. The top was put back on, and the delicacy was then sliced into serving portions.”

I’m drawn to these six words written by Allin: “So many good traditions have passed.”

I’m a traditionalist, especially at Christmas.

That’s why there will be a mincemeat pie and a Corsicana fruitcake at our home Friday.

 

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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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My Christmas reading list

Friday, December 21st, 2012

If you’re out there scrambling for last-minute Christmas gifts, you should consider heading to your nearest independently owned bookstore and buy some books.

Books long have been among my favorite Christmas gifts.

I have two books I want to recommend for this Christmas. Both have been released this year, and both are written by erudite Arkansans.

Both of these authors were kind enough, in fact, to appear with Blake Eddins and me on Fresh Talk 93.3 FM in Little Rock this week to talk about their books.

The first book on my list is “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage” by Ruth Hawkins of Arkansas State University at Jonesboro.

The second book on my list is “Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State” by Little Rock food and travel writer Kat Robinson with photos by Grav Weldon.

Literature, history, food, Arkansas — all things I like. Whenever I take a break from reading one, I pick up the other.

Let’s start with Ruth’s book.

In 1996, Ruth was leading an eight-county effort to attain national scenic byway status for the Arkansas segment of Crowley’s Ridge, the natural formation that extends 200 miles from just below Cape Girardeau, Mo., to Helena. Ruth needed an attraction in far north Arkansas to promote, and she thought Piggott might provide just such an attraction.

“The Delta Cultural Center and the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena anchor the southern end,” Ruth said at the time. “Identifying a northern anchor for the ridge, however, was somewhat problematic.”

She finally focused on the fact that Paul and Mary Pfeiffer had called Piggott home. The couple moved to Piggott in 1913 and eventually acquired 63,000 acres in the area. The Pfeiffers had the first electric refrigerator and stove in Piggott and later led efforts to provide electricity for the entire town.

They also had a daughter named Pauline, who in 1927 became Ernest Hemingway’s second wife. The marriage lasted until 1940, and during that time there were regular visits to Piggott. Hemingway wrote parts of “A Farewell to Arms” along with short stories in the Pfeiffer barn, which had been converted into a place for him to work.

Ruth learned that the Pfeiffer home was for sale. ASU bought the home, which is now the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum & Educational Center. After a short break for the holidays, the museum will reopen Jan. 2 and be open each Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. and each Saturday from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m.

Along the way, Ruth determined that she had gathered enough information for a book.

“When I began researching Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway and her family nearly 15 years ago, I was surprised at what little attention the Pfeiffers had received,” she writes in the preface to the book. “Though the Pfeiffers were mentioned by many Hemingway scholars, this family’s impact on Ernest Hemingway and his writing career essentially was neglected. Today, that hasn’t changed significantly, and much of what is written is inaccurate or does not capture the family’s true contributions. Only a few writers, such as Michael Reynolds, have suggested the breadth of the Pfeiffers’ influence, and it was Reynolds who convinced me that this book should be written.”

Ruth attributes the lack of attention to two things:

1. The Pfeiffers were an extremely private family and never publicly discussed their relationship with Hemingway.

2. Pauline died before her former husband did.

“His other three wives had the good health and the good sense to outlast him and contribute their own views of life with Hemingway, thus balancing out the record, if not actually setting things straight,” Ruth writes. “In spite of the greater attention given to Hemingway’s other wives, Pauline lived and worked with him during his most productive period as a writer and bore two of his three children. Thus she deserves more than to be dismissed as a man-chaser who went after Hemingway and broke up his marriage, got what she deserved when the same thing happened to her and ultimately wound up in an unmarked grave.

“Even Pauline’s uncle, Gus Pfeiffer, acknowledged as Hemingway’s financial backer, is mostly ignored except as the man who wrote occasional big checks that helped Hemingway get through the rough spots. Yet Uncle Gus had a profound influence on Hemingway’s career, including gathering research materials, providing sound advice and enabling him to live the lifestyle necessary for his writing success.”

Ruth believes that Pauline actually was a naive women who became “enamored of Ernest beyond all ability to judge or care about right and wrong. Not only did Pauline have the misfortune to fall in love with him, but she continued to love him until the day she died. It is questionable whether Ernest ever truly loved her, though a strong sexual chemistry existed for a time. More likely, he loved everything she brought to the marriage — her family money, her editorial skills, her strong belief in him and her devotion to his every need.”

Ruth admits that Pauline made bad choices.

“Though witty and intelligent, she had little ambition of her own and chose to promote the man she loved rather than attempting anything in her own right,” she writes. “Perhaps her greatest failing was in her role as a mother. When married to Ernest Hemingway, one often had to choose between being a wife and being a mother. Pauline chose being his wife, and in the end she lost both her husband and, to a degree, the respect of her children.”

It is Ruth’s contention, though, that the support of the Pfeiffer family enabled Hemingway to develop the literary style that brought him international recognition.

“Despite her faults, Pauline and her family deserve recognition for the major impact they had on Ernest Hemingway financially, emotionally and artistically,” she writes.

“Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow” provides that recognition.

On to pie.

Way back in 1983, famed “Roadfood” authors Jane and Michael Stern did an interview with People magazine.

When asked what part of the country had the best regional cooking, Michael Stern responded: “The Deep South. It’s a stewpot of different influences and dishes. There’s New Orleans Creole, Louisiana Cajun, Southern fried chicken, barbecue, catfish, Arkansas pies, country ham and redeye gravy.”

Yes, he singled out Arkansas for pie.

Asked directly who serves the best pie, he said later in the interview: “Arkansas is the greatest pie state. We found terrific Karo-nut pies in a converted tool shed called Family Pie Shop in DeValls Bluff.”

Enter Kat Robinson, a former television producer turned food blogger turned communications pro for the state Department of Parks and Tourism.

In the foreword to “Arkansas Pie,” North Little Rock writer Eric Francis states bluntly: “If I’m hungry and I’m in Arkansas, I let Kat Robinson tell me where to eat. I’d be a fool not to.”

In a 2011 response to a website posting in which a bunch a Yankees presumably said Arkansas was identified with “jelly pie” (something none of us had ever heard of), Kat responded: “It’s true, Arkansas has no official state food. But there are foods that originate here. We host the Hope Watermelon Festival, which claims the world’s largest melons, and the Cave City Watermelon Festival, which serves up the (academically asserted) world’s sweetest melons. We produce a fantastic amount of rice and soybeans. … We love sassafras tea and rice smothered in chicken gravy (and rice with just sugar and butter to boot). Our state produces fabulous cheese straws, funnel cake mix, yellow corn grits and muscadine wine.

“We like our pies — oh heavens we do — but we prefer them meringued or creamed or with a little coconut in them.”

After reading Kat’s book — and staring at Grav’s beautiful photos — I’m prepared to agree with Stern that Arkansas is America’s top pie state.

“I suppose in some states a restaurant might be like as not to have pie,” Kat writes. “Here in Arkansas, we love pie. We love its infinite diversity and its infinite combinations (to paraphrase the old Vulcan maxim). We claim so many varieties that the head swivels.

“In Arkansas around the holidays, pecan pie is so prevalent that a dinner table is empty without one. Feuds have broken out over the superiority between sweet potato and pumpkin pie. Restaurants compete over which has the tallest meringue on its coconut or chocolate pies, and you can tell the progressing weeks of summer based on what pie shows up at Sunday dinner.

“Our oldest and most famous restaurants, for the most part, are known for their pies. Every innovative young chef seems to have a special one. Almost every drive-in, diner, family-style restaurant and soul food shack has its own version, and it’s nary a barbecue restaurant that doesn’t have a grand fried pie. You can even find good pie in Chinese restaurants, at service stations and inside flea markets and antique stores. Pie is everywhere in Arkansas.”

The majority of my favorite Arkansas restaurants are in this book — the Bulldog at Bald Knob, Burge’s at Lewisville, the Colonial Steak House at Pine Bluff, Ed & Kay’s at Benton, Franke’s in Little Rock, the Hurley House in Hazen, the Kirby Restaurant at (you guessed it) Kirby, Mama Max’s at Prescott, Neal’s Cafe at Springdale, the Oark General Store in Oark, the Pickens Store at Pickens, Ray’s at Monticello, Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales at Lake Village, Sweet Treats at Lamar, the Wagon Wheel at Greenbrier, the White Pig in North Little Rock and Wood’s Place at Camden to name just a few.

Here’s to good reading.

And good eating.

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Elk Festival time in Jasper

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

The invitation proved irresistible.

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

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

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

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

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

Only six counties have fewer residents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have no doubt that Newton County will beckon again.

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Another slice of pie

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Having worked in the Delta the past four years, my most recent points of reference have been in east Arkansas when it comes to finding good, locally owned restaurants.

One of the nice things about this new job is the chance to also travel west again. On Wednesday, I was in Clarksville for a meeting at the University of the Ozarks. Following that meeting, I accompanied Larry Isch and Mike Smith of the university staff down the road to Lamar for lunch at a place called Sweet Treats.

The plate lunch special for the day was ham and beans, cabbage, fried potatoes and cornbread — all for less than $5. And it was great.

The pie took the cake, though. The pie took the cake? You know what I mean.

I had coconut. Larry and Mike had told me to save room for dessert. They knew what they were talking about.

Thus Sweet Treats in Lamar — you have to get off Interstate 40 and onto U.S. 64 to find it — makes my Top 10 for best pie joints in Arkansas.

Thanks to all of you who responded to the earlier pie post. For the rest of you, it’s time to vote. Where can you find the best pies in Arkansas?

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A slice of pie

Friday, September 18th, 2009

It’s getting late on a gray Friday afternoon at the end of a long, gray week. And I suddenly find myself craving a slice of pie — not that cardboard stuff you might find in Sam’s Club and in far too many Little Rock restaurants but real pie.

I’m talking pie with the syrup oozing up through the meringue.

Arkansas just might be the best pie state in the South. We boast regular pies and fried pies. And we have people in all parts of the state who know how to turn out memorable pies.

I grew up on good pie. My dad always called pecan pie Karo nut pie (a term I still prefer since it gives it more of an Arkansas feel), and he always wanted a mincemeat pie for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Is it just me or is mincemeat pie getting hard to find? Growing up in Arkadelphia, we got our fried pies from Mrs. Frost (her husband was indeed named Jack Frost) at the Pig Pit in Caddo Valley.

These days, when I think of pie in Arkansas, I tend to think of road trips to DeValls Bluff. That historic Prairie County town on the banks of the White River boasts both Mary Thomas’ Pie Shop and Ms. Lena’s Pie Shop. Pie connoisseurs pick sides on which one has the best pies, kind of like deciding whether you like the cheesesteaks best in Philadelphia at Pat’s or Geno’s.

Mary Thomas has been selling pies along U.S. Highway 70 — just across the street from Craig’s Barbecue — for more than 30 years. Writer Michael Stern of Roadfood fame describes it this way: “The Pie Shop is an annex of Mary Thomas’ home, built out of a former bicycle shed, now filled with tools of the baker’s art. Mrs. Thomas starts making pies in the morning, and by lunchtime there might be half a dozen varieties available, the favorites including pineapple, apple, lemon, cream, coconut and sweet potato, all laid out in gorgeous golden brown crusts that rise up like fragile pastry halos around their fillings.”

Ms. Lena’s has not been serving pies for as long, having opened in the early 1990s. But it’s also worth the trip. To find Ms. Lena’s, continue east on U.S. 70 and then take a right onto Arkansas Highway 33. You will see Ms. Lena’s on your left after getting onto 33.

Ms. Lena passed away in January 2005, but her family has kept the place going. Saturday, by the way, is the day for fried pies — peach, apple, apricot, chocolate, coconut and more. If you call (870) 998-1204 in advance of your trip, they can tell you what they have. The last time I checked, the fried pies were only $1.50 each.

Whole pies often are available on some other days of the week. As I said, call in advance for a whole pie and the hours.

Where else are great pies in Arkansas, both fried and the conventional variety? I need your pie tips.

Where are the best pies in Central Arkanas? In Southwest Arkansas? In Southeast Arkansas? In Northwest Arkansas? In Northeast Arkansas? In the heart of the Ozarks in the north-central part of the state? In the Ouachitas out around Mena and Waldron?

Do they call it Karo nut or pecan? And, finally, where should I get my mincemeat pie for Thanksgiving? In Little Rock, I’m thinking Franke’s.

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