Archive for the ‘Southern food’ Category

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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Presqu’ile: Almost an island

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Presqu’ile is a Creole word meaning “almost an island.”

For decades, it was the name of a gathering spot for the Murphy family of El Dorado at Henderson’s Point on the Mississippi Gulf Coast near Pass Christian.

Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005 and wiped Henderson’s Point clean.

In honor of that part of their family heritage, the Murphy family named a winery in the Santa Maria Valley of California after the Gulf Coast compound.

Many of those who attend the Nov. 21 Arkansas food and wine gala at the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock will be sampling Presqu’ile wines for the first time. The event will raise money for the new Arkansas exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Tickets are $125 each. Those desiring more information should call (501) 661-9911 or email morris.leslie@sbcglobal.net.

A bit of background on the Murphy family and Henderson’s Point is in order.

First, the Murphy family.

Charles Murphy Sr. already had extensive timber and banking interests in south Arkansas when oil was discovered in 1907 in the Caddo Field north of Shreveport.

“Murphy decided that his timber company should purchase land on a scattered, noncontiguous pattern to provide more exposure to any oil development,” John Ragsdale wrote in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “When the large Smackover Field in Ouachita and Union counties was discovered in 1922, Murphy had oil royalty interests in it. He and joint operators owned about 100,000 acres in the Union County area. In 1936, Phillips Petroleum discovered a small oil field at Snow Hill in Ouachita County, but the area’s extent was limited. Murphy preferred to spread drilling and production risks. He did not have an extensive operating company but rather owned interests in different operations.

“In 1937, an abandoned Phillips Petroleum well in western Union County, where some Murphy acreage was located, was re-entered by the Lion Oil Refining Co., which discovered deeper multiple zones between 5,000 and 8,000 feet below the surface in the Shuler Field. This included the Smackover limestone, which led to development of fields in the Smackover limestone throughout south Arkansas. Then, in 1944, Murphy land was included in the development of Louisiana’s Delhi Field, a major oil producer. This was the largest field for Murphy.”

Charles Murphy Sr. had moved to El Dorado in 1904 to operate a bank. By 1907, he owned 13 banks. He built a sawmill at Cargile in Union County and later established a railroad to supply the mill with timber from north Louisiana and south Arkansas.

Charles Murphy Jr. took over the family businesses in 1941 at the age of just 21 after his father suffered a stroke. Murphy Jr. had attended Gulf Coast Military Academy at Gulfport, Miss., at age 16 and had learned to love yachting. Much later in life, he would write two books on the sport, “Yachting Smart” and “Yachting Far.” He received expert tutoring, especially in French. Murphy Jr. graduated from El Dorado High School in 1938 and got married in October of that year.

Murphy Jr. spent three years in the Army during World War II. In 1946, he and his three sisters — Caroline Keller, Bertie Deming and Theodosia Nolan — pooled their interests to form C.H. Murphy & Co. In 1950, that company was transformed into the Murphy Corp., with Murphy Jr. as its president. He would serve as president until 1972 and as chairman of the board until 1994.

Murphy Corp., which had gone public in 1956, became Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964. The first foreign exploration for the company occurred in Venezuela in 1957. That was followed by production in Iran in 1966, the North Sea and Libya in 1969, Spain in 1979, Ecuador in 1987 and the Gulf of Mexico in 1988. Deltic Farm & Timber Co. was spun off from Murphy Oil Corp. in 1996 to form Deltic Timber Corp. Deltic is the developer of the Chenal neighborhood in west Little Rock and has timber holdings in Arkansas and Louisiana. Earlier this year, the Murphy USA subsidiary was spun off to form a company that focuses on retail sales, primarily at stores associated with Walmart.

Murphy Jr., an erudite man, served on the state Board of Higher Education and on the boards of Hendrix College at Conway and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.. He established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in New Orleans. He died at his home in El Dorado in March 2002.

Murphy Jr.’s son Madison would go on to become chairman of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission.

Next, Pass Christian and Henderson’s Point.

Henderson’s Point on the Gulf Coast was named for John Henderson Sr., a U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1839-45. Along with several partners, Henderson acquired 15,000 acres and developed the coastal community of Pass Christian. He died in 1857. In 1903, descendants of Henderson formed the Mexican Gulf Land Co. to promote Henderson’s Point as a planned community. It was advertised to wealthy New Orleans residents as the only remaining undeveloped tract between New Orleans and Mobile with easy access to rail transportation. There would be parks, big lots and a streetcar line to Gulfport and Biloxi. Located at the western tip of the Pass Christian peninsula, Henderson’s Point had homeowners who were known for fighting annexation to Pass Christian, and the area thus remained unincorporated.

U.S. Highway 90 west of Pass Christian now separates Henderson Point from the Pass Christian Iles, a 1,400-acre development that began in 1926. Seven miles of canals and lagoons were dug while the marsh areas were filled with the dredged material. The Isles are totally residential while Henderson’s Point has a small commercial district.

The Murphy family compound consisted of 14 acres that stretched in the shape of an isthmus.

The family bought almost 200 acres in California in 2007 to establish the Presqu’ile Winery. The first estate grapes were planted in 2008. A San Francisco architectural firm was hired to design the winery and tasting room, which are connected by a cave that was built into a hillside.

“That the Murphy family’s new Santa Maria property is shaped a lot like an isthmus smacks of serendipity,” Gabe Saglie wrote last year in the Santa Barbara News-Press. “‘We were looking for a great piece of pinot noir-growing land with a little bit of soul,’ says vinter Matt Murphy with a distinct Southern inflection. His family find off East Clark Avenue in 2007, which came after a year’s worth of hunting through pinot hot spots like Carneros and Lompoc’s Santa Rita Hills, fit the bill for clear viticultural reasons. The plot’s pervasive sand-like soil drains extremely well, and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean (the Murphy’s property is the second western-most vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley) creates ideal maritime growing conditions.”

Matt Murphy, the son of Madison and Suzanne Murphy of El Dorado, says of the Mississippi compound: “It was home to us. And it will never be the same.”

The family compound in Mississippi was given its name by Charles Murphy Jr., who loved to use his French. It’s pronounced “press-keel” with the emphasis on the second syllable.

“Presqu’ile is led by president Matt Murphy, and features his wife, Amanda; his brother, Jonathan, and his wife, Lindsey; his sister Anna; and their parents, who still reside in Arkansas,” Laurie Jervis wrote in the Santa Maria Times. “Matt Murphy and winemaker Dieter Cronje, a native of South Africa, lead the winemaking and are vocal believers in the potential of the Santa Maria Valley to lead the West Coast in terroir-driven wines.”

The new tasting room opened in June.

In addition to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and now the California Pacific Coast, the Murphy family long has had close ties to New Orleans.

“New Orleans is, in essence, our second home,” Madison Murphy said recently. “This place is special to us.”

So it’s natural that the Murphy family — and its winery — is playing a leading role in the Nov. 21 Little Rock event to fund an Arkansas exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

Matt Murphy moved to California to learn the wine business.

“During the wine grape harvest of 2006, Matt found himself working at Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara wine country,” Saglie wrote. “He’d already spent previous vintages in Napa, learning the business of growing grapes and selling wine. This was the year he’d get to know an increasingly renowned region called Santa Maria.

“The 2006 harvest had also brought Dieter Cronje to Bien Nacido. He’d already been trying his hand at winemaking for four years in his native South Africa and had developed a zeal for pinot noir. ‘I love to make it because it’s tough to make,’ he says with a Southern accent of a totally different kind. To stretch his wings, ‘it was either Burgundy or the United States for me, and since I knew my lack of French would make Burgundy tough, I came to the United States,’ he says with a laugh. The weather helped set his sights on Central California instead of Oregon.

“When Matt and Dieter met at the height of the grape-picking season, the unlikely duo quickly realized they shared a passion. And not just for pinot noir. The two will tell you they are fiercely focused on making wines that are balanced, not just big.”

The land purchased by the Murphy family in 2007 previously was being used to grow gladiolas.

Saglie wrote: “The promise for growing great grapes was palpable. And the fact it looked a heck of a lot like an isthmus was good fortune at least. They named their new property, for purely sentimental reasons, Presqu’ile.”

Matt and Amanda built a home on the property.

“Presqu’ile’s new, state-of-the-art winery and hospitality building — connected by a unique cave system — and the nearby residences could easily grace the pages of Architectural Digest,” Wendy Thies Sell wrote in the Santa Maria Sun. “The award-winning, San Francisco-based architectural firm Taylor Lombardo Architects designed the project. The design aesthetic is contemporary, sleek and elegant, incorporating stone, wood, concrete, glass and metal. Interesting modern art adorns the walls. They paid attention to every detail — just as Presqu’ile does in winemaking. Many of the building materials are sustainable and sourced from the West Coast. The sandstone used for the exterior and interior of the winery complex were harvested from a quarry in Lompoc. A local artisan labored for seven months hand-cutting and laying each stone.”

The newspaper describe Cronje as “a wine rock star — literally. Cronje not only handcrafts vibrant, complex wines, but he actually has a rock band, The Tepusquet Tornadoes, made up of wine industry friends.”

“We really do want it to be an easy rapport and a place where people can interact,” Madison Murphy said of the winery. “As they say on the Gulf Coast, ‘pass a good time.”’

From the pine woods and the oil patch of south Arkansas and north Louisiana to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to New Orleans and now to the Pacific Coast, the Murphy family of El Dorado has made its mark.

It all comes together on the evening of Nov. 21 at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock.

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Nov. 21: A celebration of Arkansas’ food culture

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

WHO: Those who love Arkansas food and the state’s unique food culture.

WHAT: A gala to celebrate Arkansas foodways.

WHERE: The Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 21.

WHY: To raise money for the Arkansas exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Tickets are $125 each. Food and wine stations will feature special pairings of Arkansas fare with Presqu’ile wines. Presqu’ile is a California vineyard with Arkansas roots. For more information, call (501) 661-9911 or email morris.leslie@sbcglobal.net.

___

On Saturday, Arkansas food expert Kat Robinson, whose latest book is “Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley,” will speak at the SoFAB Institute’s new culinary library and archive in New Orleans.

Thanks, Kat, for spreading the great story of Arkansas cuisine to the Crescent City and beyond.

The library and archive officially opened Wednesday.

Here’s how the Times-Picayune in New Orleans described the facility: “For the past eight years, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum has collected menus, cookbooks and pamphlets from food companies and much more. The library opens with almost 12,000 cookbooks, SoFAB president Liz Williams said. The books will not circulate; the collection is intended for research. … Williams said that other libraries — including the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, which has a large culinary collection — have sent their cookbooks here, and libraries are happy to know of a place that wants them. Other books were donated in honor of relatives who collected them by people who inherited cookbooks. Ken Smith, the former chef of Upperline, donated his huge cookbook collection when he left the restaurant business. SoFAB started collecting books a few months before Hurricane Katrina, and between 600 and 700 were lost in storage at Southern University of New Orleans. Afterward, publishers sent box after box of generous donations.”

Williams also put out a call for regular folks across the South to send in cookbooks.

Arkansas answered that call better than the other Southern states. Though Williams is a New Orleans native, I think she has a soft spot for those of us from Arkansas. That’s one reason Kat is on the program for the library’s first Saturday and probably why Liz Williams asked me to be on the SoFAB Institute board.

“We are going to have a wonderful resource for home cooks, culinary students, scholars and researchers here in New Orleans,” Williams told the New Orleans newspaper. “And it will continue to grow with new books, old books, pamphlets, postcards, papers, all kind of ephemera. We consider ourselves a repository and not a regular library. You can find that old book that most libraries would have sent to deaccession because they need the space. If you want to do historical research, this is the place you can put your hands on those older books and pamphlets.”

Let me back up and give you a bit of background.

Then, let me tell you about the event of the year for Arkansas foodies, which will be held Nov. 21 at the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock.

SoFAB is the parent organization of the New Orleans-based Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

It’s the brainchild of Williams, whose bachelor’s degree and law degree are from LSU. Here’s how the organization’s website (www.southernfood.org) describes her: “Always fascinated by the way the lure of nutmeg and peppercorns motivated the exploration of the world, Liz Williams was lucky to be born into a family of Sicilian heritage in New Orleans. She grew up eating in two great food traditions. She is a founder and president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Much of her research and writing centers on the legal and policy issues related to food and foodways. Besides establishing this new museum, which opened in June 2008, she consults on issues of nonprofit management and governance as well as public-private partnerships, intellectual property and publishing.”

As president and CEO of the University of New Orleans Foundation for five years, Williams played a key role in the opening of the D-Day Museum (now the World War II Museum) and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum opened its doors less than three years after Katrina as the city was struggling to recover. It found a space in the Riverwalk Marketplace, an indoor mall of mostly small shops that had grown up in an area that had been developed for the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair. Though based in Louisiana, the museum was designed to celebrate the diverse food of the entire region. The museum was viewed as a place that would host exhibits, demonstrations, lectures and tastings. It would showcase the food and drink of the South. Partners would be other local and regional museums, restaurants and academic institutions.

The museum’s exhibits would focus on:

– The food and drink of the South

– The ethnicities that have contributed to Southern food and drink traditions

– The farmers, fishermen, hunters and gatherers who have produced the South’s food through the decades

– The processors, inventors, chefs and business owners who run restaurants and stock stores with Southern products

– The home cooks and families who have passed down recipes and food traditions for generations

There was one big problem. The Riverwalk already was in decline, drawing fewer visitors with each passing month.

In 2011, the Howard Hughes Corp. bought the mall and decided to undertake the first major redevelopment of the Riverwalk since it opened in 1986. The new owners decided to transform the Riverwalk into an outlet mall designed to attract the thousands of cruise ship passengers coming and going to the nearby ship terminals.

“We are part of a movement across the city where retailers are discovering the city,” Howard Hughes Corp. senior vice president of development Mark Bulmash told WWL-TV. “About two and a half years ago, we had a lot of resistance from retailers. There was a lot of work involved.”

The company let the existing leases run out and closed the Riverwalk for interior demolition. Earlier this month, the names of more than five dozen retailers that are headed to the outlet mall next summer were released.

Rather than letting panic set in, Williams saw an opportunity to move the museum into one of the city’s historic structures, the Dryades Market.

The building at 1504 O.C. Haley Blvd. will be converted into a new Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Plans for the building include the Leah Chase Gallery, the Museum of the American Cocktail and the Gallery of the States. There will be a demonstration kitchen, a museum shop and a full-service restaurant and bar. The second phase of the complex will include additional galleries, a children’s gallery and a rooftop garden.

The Dryades Market opened in 1849. Three years later, the market was expanded by the city. The original building was demolished in 1857 to make way for an expanded market that included updated equipment. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the city of New Orleans paid for improvements that included brick and iron columns. Electrical lighting was added in 1903, and the market became a popular spot for political rallies and other meetings. In 1911, that building was demolished and replaced with a $60,000 structure that included a refrigeration plant. It was renovated in 1932-33 at a cost of $125,000. The building was turned over to a private owner in the 1970s.

Randy Ensminger — a Little Rock businessman who is a foodie of the first order — has been on the SoFAB board for a number of years. The Nov. 21 gala was his idea. Randy is developing a gorgeous piece of property along the Little Red River near Heber Springs known as Primrose Creek. He loves Arkansas as much as anyone I know. He wanted to not only raise money for the Arkansas exhibit in the Gallery of the States at New Orleans but also begin an event that fellow foodies would love. He hopes to make it an annual affair, something that will be near the top of the social calendar each fall.

The exhibits in the Gallery of the States — which will be created by curators from each Southern state — will explore and celebrate the food items, recipes, people, brands, dishes, agriculture, industry, cooking techniques and history that make each state different. I’ve never felt that Arkansas has received its due as a great food state. The food focus in the South has always been on Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida and some of the other Southern states. Talented young producers, chefs and food bloggers are changing that.

We’re entering a golden age of Arkansas food and drink.

“Arkansas has an opportunity to showcase it culinary heritage with a permanent exhibit at the museum,” Ensminger says. “The Arkansas exhibit will allow our state to take its rightful place alongside other Southern states long known for outstanding food and beverage producers, products and purveyors.”

In addition to celebrating Arkansas’ culinary culture, the permanent exhibit will be designed to encourage visitors to the museum to travel to Arkansas and experience our state’s food.

We have something special going on here. It’s time to let the rest of the nation know.

 

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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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A trip to The Tamale Factory

Monday, March 4th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paul McIlhenny: The king of Tabasco

Monday, February 25th, 2013

Back when I covered Oaklawn Park on a regular basis three decades ago, sports columnist Randy Galloway (then with The Dallas Morning News) would come to Hot Springs for the final week of the race meet.

In his briefcase, Galloway carried a large bottle of Tabasco sauce.

“You can make anything taste good with Tabasco,” he would say.

At Dallas Cowboys home games, I would again notice him pulling that big Tabasco bottle out of his briefcase.

On Saturday, Tabasco lost its leader when Paul McIlhenny died from a heart attack at his home in New Orleans. He was 68.

McIlhenny, who had headed the family company since 1998, once was dubbed by The New York Times as “the scion of spice.”

He was the sixth member of the McIlhenny family to be the company’s president. He gave up the presidency to cousin Tony Simmons last year but still held the titles of chairman and chief executive officer.

Here’s how the Times began its story on McIlhenny’s death: “Paul C.P. McIlhenny took joy in escorting visitors to his company’s warehouse, where wooden whiskey barrels filled with the aging pepper mash that is the main ingredient in Tabasco sauce were stacked six-high to the ceiling.

“With a flourish, he would ask an employee to crack open a couple of barrels. After the stinging smell of the peppers was noted, he asked guests to dab the mash with a finger and gingerly lick it. Tears flowed, air was gasped for and, at the host’s invitation, spit flew to clear tongues.

“Mr. McIlhenny had no doubt played the culinary instigator countless times in his 45 years at the McIlhenny Co., the makers of Tabasco pepper sauce, perhaps Louisiana’s best-known product. But he still chuckled as he gave his guests small spoons that earned them entry into the Not So Ancient Order of the Not So Silver Spoon.”

McIlhenny was an icon of the Southern food world, a man also dedicated to the region’s natural and cultural heritage. He was a major contributor to organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited. He also was a master business leader who saw the company’s sales soar with the introduction of new sauce flavors such as chipotle, Buffalo wing-style and sweet and spicy.

The Tabasco catalog included numerous items containing the company’s distinctive logo, and McIlhenny entered into licensing deals with everbody from the makers of Spam to the makers of A1 steak sauce.

He truly made Tabasco an international brand.

The family history is fascinating. Edmund McIlhenny was born in Maryland and moved to Louisiana in 1840. He first produced Tabasco sauce in 1868, putting it in discarded cologne bottles for family members and friends.

When Edumund McIlhenny died in 1890, oldest son John Avery McIlhenny took over the company and quickly expanded its operations. He resigned to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and was replaced by brother Edward Avery McIlhenny. Edward was a naturalist who had just returned from an adventure to the Arctic. He would run the company from 1898 until his death in 1949.

Walter McIlhenny became the next family member to run the company, serving as president from 1949 until his death in 1985.

All the peppers used to make Tabasco sauce once were grown on Avery Island (an ancient salt dome) in the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana. Now, the peppers grown on the island are used to produce seeds that, in turn, are shipped to growers in Central America and South America.

Peppers are picked by hand. Each worker carries le petit baton rouge (the little red stick) to make sure that only peppers matching the color of the stick are harvested. The peppers are ground into mash, and the mash is shipped to Avery Island for aging.

Paul McIlhenny attended Woodberry Forest, an elite prep school in Virginia, and graduated with a degree in political science from the University of the South at Sewanee. He joined the family business in 1967 and was groomed by Walter, a cousin.

Paul did everything from loading cases of sauce onto railcars to processing the mash.

In 2010, Paul McIlhenny was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.

As New Orleans tried in early 2006 to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, McIlhenny reigned as Rex, the King of Carnival.

The adjective often used to describe Paul was “ebullient.”

“He worked aggressively to expand the number of items to which the familiar Tabasco logo could be affixed,” John Pope wrote in The Times-Picayune at New Orleans. “They include T-shirts, aprons, neckties, teddy bears and computer screensavers, as well as seven varieties of hot sauce.

“In 2009, Queen Elizabeth II granted the company a royal warrant, which entitles it to advertise that it supplies the pepper sauce to the British royal family. In honor of the queen’s diamond Jubilee last year, the company turned out a Tabasco-sauce box for its British market emblazoned with drawings of dozens of diamonds. In the United States, the company provides hot sauce for Air Force One.”

Paul McIlhenny and his twin sister were born at Houston because their mother was staying there with relatives while the children’s father was in the armed services during World War II. McIlhenny spent his childhood in New Orleans and at Avery Island.

“Because of his interest in the wetlands around Avery Island, his passion for hunting and his mother’s membership on a committee concerned with coastal-zone management, Mr. McIlhenny became aware years ago of Louisiana’s increasingly fragile coastline,” Pope wrote. “Gov. Mike Foster appointed him to the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Restoration, Protection and Conservation, and he was a vice chairman and board member of the America’s Wetland Foundation, whose logo appears on every box of Tabasco sauce sold in the United States.

“Although Mr. McIlhenny was serious about coastal restoration and the preservation of Louisiana’s wetlands, he generally was a merry man — one friend described him as ‘Falstaffian’ — who strove to inject humor wherever possible. A few days before he reigned as Rex in 2006, Mr. McIlhenny quipped that if, during the ceremonial toast to the mayor at Gallier Hall, the subject of hot sauce came up, ‘I’ll say that’s one form of global warming I’m totally in favor of. We’re defending the world against bland food.”’

There were many people who believed the Carnival parades in New Orleans should be called off in 2006. McIlhenny, who loved Louisiana and all of its traditions, wouldn’t hear of it.

He said at the time: “If there was any time when we needed distraction, digression, diversion from the grind, it’s Mardi Gras. And if there was any time we ever needed it, it’s here. We need to let it all hang out and, in the sense of pre-Lenten revelry, make sure we relax and recreate.”

McIlhenny’s hunting club in Vermilion Parish was famous among those who hunt waterfowl in the South.

“Paul continued the tradition of running the Tabasco organization, which has put New Iberia, south Louisiana and Louisiana food on the map worldwide,” said Lafayette attorney Ed Abell, a family friend. “It’s a great tradition for the state and our Acadiana area.”

Tabasco sauce now can be purchased in 165 countries.

On the day of the Super Bowl earlier this month, the Times ran a feature story on the ties between Tabasco sauce and the sports world.

Ken Benson wrote: “Walter Stauffer McIlhenny, the fourth chief executive of the McIlhenny Co., was a farsighted risk taker. The son of one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, he was an expert marksman who was wounded at Guadalcanal in 1942. He did not have the bullet in his leg removed until the next year so he could keep fighting.

“After the war, he helped turn Tabasco into a global brand. A prominent businessman in New Orleans, he bought a slice of the Saints before their first season in the NFL in 1967. That savvy investment included 50-yard-line seats to Saints home games and the Super Bowl when it was played in New Orleans. But when Uncle Walter, as he was known to his extended family, died a bachelor in 1985, none of his cousins took his stake in the Saints. So the stake was sold and with it access to those seats.”

Paul McIlhenny told the newspaper: “They were wonderful. You could pound on the metal deck at Tulane Stadium and make a lot of noise. Shame on us for not keeping them.”

The company and the family, however, kept their ties to sports. Hugh McIlhenny was a running back for the 49ers in the 1950s. Paul McIlhenny considered buying the naming rights to the Superdome before it was determined it was just too expensive. Tabasco sauce is a staple at football parties nationwide.

“The Tabasco factory has been working overtime to keep up with the seasonal jump in demand,” Benson wrote. “For three-quarters of the year, production lines operate in two 10-hour shifts four to five days a week, producing 750,000 bottles daily. In November, as the holidays and the NFL playoffs approach, the company adds an extra day of production.”

“The Super Bowl is the single biggest month for hot sauce,” Paul told the newspaper. “It’s huge.”

Do you remember the television ad the company ran during the Super Bowl back in 1998? A man was pouring large amounts of Tabasco sauce on his pizza while sitting outside. A mosquito landed on his leg and began sucking blood. When the mosquito flew off, it exploded.

“It was the only time we spent that much on a single ad, but we got a lot of mileage out of that one,” Paul said.

John Madden, it seems, is like my friend Randy Galloway.

“I’ve had thousands of meals with him, and there’s not a food out there that he doesn’t use Tabasco on,” Madden agent Sandy Montag told the Times. “He puts it on food from the time he wakes up. For him, it’s like toothpaste.”

Paul once presented Madden with a personalized bottle of Tabasco. For this year’s Super Bowl, the company released a commemorative bottle with Mardi Gras colors and a football on the label.

Tabasco sauce and the McIlhenny Co. will continue to move forward, but all who have an interest in Southern food, the region’s natural attributes and its culture will miss Paul McIlhenny.

He was indeed ebullient and Falstaffian, a man seemingly made to promote hot sauce and the Louisiana way of life.

 

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From Little Siberia to Natchez and back

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

It was a magical weekend that combined some of my favorite things — Southern history and culture, the Delta, duck hunting, historic hunting clubs, fried crappie, crawfish, tamales, frog legs, beautiful homes, fascinating people, good friends and intelligent conversation.

It began Friday afternoon when Randy Ensminger of Little Rock picked me up for a trip to southeast Arkansas. To be specific, we headed for one of those famous Arkansas duck clubs I had long heard about but never visited.

It’s called Little Siberia, and its membership consists of some of Arkansas’ most successful businessmen.

The lodge sits on the banks of a reservoir near DeWitt, adjacent to the Bayou Meto. The reservoir was constructed in part by German prisoners of war in 1943-44. The current lodge was built in 1983, and significant renovations were made last year.

It was warm for late January, and two of the members had spent part of the afternoon fishing for crappie on the reservoir. They had filled an ice chest with large slab crappie, many of which weighed almost two pounds. Dinner that night consisted of fried crappie, hushpuppies and the best slaw I’ve ever had.

It had cooled off enough after dark for a roaring fire in the lodge’s large fireplace. The members regaled me with stories of days gone by in a part of the state filled with duck clubs and the colorful characters who inhabit them late each fall and early each winter.

I pulled from a shelf a copy of Ohio native Keith Russell’s book “The Duck Huntingest Gentleman.” First published in 1977, this collection of waterfowling stories contains a chapter on a Thanksgiving trip Russell once made to Stuttgart. The hunting was slow from a pit blind in a flooded field the first morning in Arkansas. The hunting was even slower on the second morning in the pin oak flats.

When the late Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart heard Russell complain during a bull session in the back of Buerkle Drug on Main Street, he promised to take his visitor to “where the ducks are.”

That place was the reservoir at Little Siberia.

Hancock, a dentist who died in 1986, was among the South’s foremost conservationists. He was best known for his lengthy battle to keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from turning the Cache River into a drainage ditch. Shortly after his death, the federal government earmarked more than $33 million from the federal duck stamp program for the establishment of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

There wouldn’t be time for Randy and me to hunt the next morning, though I could hear shots from my bedroom as the Saturday sun rose. We left Little Siberia at 7:30 a.m., bound for Natchez and a meeting of the board of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

Randy has been on the board for several years. This would be my first board meeting. Headed by New Orleans resident Liz Williams, the organization that’s often referred to simply as SoFAB operates a museum in New Orleans that celebrates the food culture of the South. It’s the only museum of its kind in the country.

In addition to museum exhibits, there’s a culinary library, extensive archives and regular programs. There also are big plans for the future. SoFAB will leave the Riverwalk (the long, narrow shopping mall adjacent to the convention center, which is being turned into a collection of outlet stores) and move into the Uptown location once used by the Dryades Street Market. That market opened in 1849.

Writing about the neighborhood in a 2001 article, Keith Weldon Medley said: “Located in the Central City historic district of New Orleans, Dryades Street has always been one of the Crescent City’s most intriguing thoroughfares. … Now named Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in honor of one of the city’s premier civil rights workers, this old street has witnessed the bustling panorama of the New Orleans experience — the lively and the melancholy, prosperity and economic hard times. Bold entrepreneurs of different religions, races and classes found their fortunes along Dryades Street.”

SoFAB also plans to partner with the New Orleans Public Library for a new branch. There will be more than 9,000 volumes of cookbooks, menus, recipes and other literature pertaining to Southern foodways in the branch.

A well-known New Orleans chef by the name of Ryan Hughes will operate a restaurant named Purloo as part of the SoFAB complex, and there may even be a working brewery. It’s an exciting effort to be a part of, especially since there will be exhibits on every Southern state, including Arkansas.

The board was meeting in Natchez rather than New Orleans because of an invitation from board member Regina Trosclair Charboneau. Seven generations of her family have lived in Natchez. Regina returned to the city in 2000 to raise her two sons and be close to her mother. She and her husband later purchased Twin Oaks, which they operate as a bed and breakfast inn.

More on Twin Oaks in a moment.

As the frost burned off Saturday morning, Randy and I made our way down U.S. Highway 165, slowing down as vehicles pulled into Arkansas Post Museum State Park for an event marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Arkansas Post. That January 1863 battle was a Union victory.

We crossed the Arkansas River and intersected with U.S. Highway 65 at Dumas. From there it was a journey due south through the flat farming lands just west of the Mississippi River in southeast Arkansas and northeast Louisiana.

It was too early in the day to buy tamales from Miss Rhoda as we drove through Lake Village and passed its iconic “Home of Good Fishing” sign.

It was too early to buy a shrimp, crawfish or oyster poor boy at The Dock on the banks of Lake Providence.

The morning sun was beautiful as it reflected off the waters of Lake Chicot in Arkansas and Lake Providence in Louisiana, those two giant oxbows that have been magnets for hunters, fishermen and boaters in this part of the Delta for decades.

The Delta has its own brand of stark winter beauty as the giant pecan trees in the orchards on either side of U.S. 65 form silhouettes. Ducks could be seen on flooded fields, and pickup trucks crowded the parking areas of the hunting camps we passed. I’ve long been interested in the history and traditions of Southern hunting clubs. Though I resisted the temptation, I wanted to knock on the doors, ask how the morning’s hunt had gone, inquire how old each club was and see what was being served for breakfast.

We rolled south through East Carroll Parish, Madison Parish, Tensas Parish and Concordia Parish. We saw the landmarks that thousands of Arkansans remember from their summer treks to the Redneck Riviera — the Panola pepper sign, the bat on the water tank at Transylvania, the Christmas lights that stay in the middle of the bayou at Tallulah 12 months a year.

We crossed into Tensas Parish. Suddenly the woodland floor was covered with saw palmettos, a sure sign we were getting further south. We passed through Waterproof and Ferriday, though we didn’t have time to stop at Ferriday’s Delta Music Museum. Ferriday is the home of Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

We then turned toward the east, driving into Vidalia and seeing the church steeples of Natchez on the hills across the river. We crossed the Mississippi River bridge, having reached our destination.

I’ve always been fascinated by Natchez, dating back to trips I took there as a boy with my parents. My mother loved touring the city’s elegant old homes, and she enjoyed having lunch at the Carriage House Restaurant on the grounds of Stanton Hall.

The ladies of the Pilgrimage Garden Club have been serving food at the Carriage House since 1946. My mother, now 87, always would order the fried chicken. In her honor, I had fried chicken, rice and gravy and those silver dollar-sized biscuits. That’s not to mention the fact that Randy and I had started with an appetizer known as the “Southern sampler” that featured everything from deviled eggs to pimiento cheese to fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade on top (I hope my wife isn’t reading about how much I ate).

Randy, who has a massive collection of cookbooks, bought a cookbook in the gift shop next door after lunch.

From there, it was off to Twin Oaks. The original cottage, which is now the back kitchen and den, was built in 1806 for the area’s first territorial sheriff. There were a series of ownership changes during the next several decades. In 1832, the widow of Dr. Josiah Morris (who had been the victim of yellow fever) sold the house to a Philadelphia, Pa., couple, Pierce and Cornelia Connelly.

The couple had moved to Natchez so Pierce could serve as the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church. The Connellys added the Greek Revival portion of the structure. In 1835, Cornelia Connelly named the house White Cottage.

The story takes a bizarre twist at this point. Pierce Connelly decided to leave the Episcopal Church and convert to Roman Catholicism. The couple left for Rome and put their four children in orphanages. Pierce became a priest, and Cornelia became a nun. Cornelia later founded an order of nuns known as the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, which was dedicated to teaching young girls.

An 1840 tornado did a great deal of damage to the home. By 1852, Charles Dubuisson had completed the reconstruction of the Greek Revival home that visitors to Natchez see today. Dubuisson served as president of Jefferson College and later became a judge and state representative.

In an incident that sounds like something from a Southern gothic novel, Dubuisson’s 3-year-old daughter drowned in a cistern on the property and his wife died of yellow fever soon after that. Dubuisson fell into a deep depression and began spending most of his time at his plantation in Yazoo County.

Following a succession of owners, Homer and Elizabeth Whittington bought the house in 1940 and restored it. Since the house was not white at the time and was considered too grand to be named a cottage, they renamed it Twin Oaks in honor of the two huge live oaks out front.

Regina and her husband, Doug, bought the home in 2002 and have since added their own touches. Regina has conducted numerous cooking classes at the home during the past decade and fed guests ranging from Lily Tomlin to Anderson Cooper.

Following the SoFAB board meeting that afternoon, Regina gave three of us a driving tour of the area, complete with stories that sounded like something from “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

I’ll have more on Natchez and the rivalry between the city’s two garden clubs in a later post.

The dinner Regina served our board Saturday night included beef tenderloin, frog legs fried in duck fat and shrimp and grits.

Following breakfast across the street at The Castle (which is part of Dunleith, another of the famous Natchez mansions), Randy and I headed north toward Little Siberia.

Our only stop was at The Dock in Lake Providence to buy 10 pounds of crawfish for that night’s dinner at the duck club. While we headed north with crawfish, a friend headed south out of Little Rock with several dozen tamales from Doe’s and a pork loin.

We arrived at Little Siberia in time for Randy to give me a Sunday afternoon boat tour of the reservoir. We scared up hundreds of ducks as Randy pointed out the various blinds and told the kinds of stories one can only get at a club with a long history.

The lodge at Little Siberia faces west. We were back from our boat trip in time for a glorious sunset. We sat by the fire pit and watched hundreds of ducks funnel into the flooded timber in the minutes just before darkness descended over southeast Arkansas.

Dinner followed.

Crawfish and tamales for appetizers. Pork loin for the main course. The AFC championship game on the big screen.

It doesn’t get much better than that. And a morning of hunting still awaited us on Monday.

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Arkansas food notes

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

There’s a lot going on with the Arkansas food scene right now.

Here are some notes on developments that might be of interest:

– I’m anxious to try The Tamale Factory in Woodruff County, a creation of George Eldridge, the man who put the Little Rock location of Doe’s Eat Place on the map.

The Tamale Factory is in George’s old horse barn at Gregory, which is 10 miles south of Augusta on Arkansas Highway 33. It’s only open on Friday and Saturday nights, from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m.

You order just like you would at Doe’s — bring a big group, come hungry, get tamales and shrimp for appetizers and then have steaks for the main course.

Though there are now Doe’s restaurants in several locations, George was the first to come up with the idea of using the name and concept of the original restaurant on Nelson Street in Greenville, Miss. The Little Rock outpost of Doe’s became even more famous than the original when staffers for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign began hanging out there.

Once the weather warms a bit in March, a Friday or Saturday night road trip to Gregory sounds in order.

– An even shorter Friday night road trip (and one I plan to make) is to Big K’s Fish Barn, which I understand is in a farm equipment shed (my kind of place).

Traveling east on U.S. Highway 70 out of  Carlisle, you should turn north just past Murry’s restaurant onto Anderson Road. After crossing over Interstate 40, Big K’s is the first farm shop on the right.

I’ve heard the catfish is something special there.

– Two of the best meals I had in 2012 — one in the spring and one in the fall — were at the Bohemia on Park Avenue in Hot Springs.

Founded more than half a century ago by Mr. and Mrs. O.E. Duchac, the Bohemia was operated for years by Adolf Thum. I loved his German and Hungarian food, and I enjoyed hearing his heavy accent when he would come over to check on us.

I was saddened when Thum closed his restaurant in 2007. We’ve already lost too many of the Hot Springs classics I grew up enjoying – Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s to name three.

In late 2009, the Bohemia was given new life by Fermin Martinez, who was born in Mexico City and raised in Brooklyn. He later worked in France and Italy.

You would never guess from the outside that this is a fine dining establishment. It looks more like a beer joint as you drive down Park Avenue. Don’t let that fool you. Inside is one of the best restaurants in Arkansas.

– My top Arkansas dining “find” of 2012 was in the former Crain Motor Co. building in downtown Siloam Springs. The building, which had housed a restaurant called Emelia’s, underwent extensive renovations after Shelley and Todd Simmons of Siloam Springs joined forces with Chef Miles James.

An open kitchen was installed, the dropped ceiling was removed to expose the beams and historic photos of Siloam Springs were added.

James, known for what he calls Ozark plateau cuisine, created a menu featuring locally sourced foods. The restaurant is named 28 Springs. It opened in May, and I ate there in the fall.

James still operates James at the Mill in Johnson, long recognized as one of the region’s best restaurants.

James, a Fayetteville native, earned a degree from the New England Culinary Institute and then worked at these restaurants: American Seasons in Nantucket; Park Avenue and the Tribeca Grill in New York City; The Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe; Guy Savoy in Paris (not the one in Logan County); and The River Cafe in London (not the one in Pope County).

He was on the list of the “rising star chefs of the 21st century” that was released by the James Beard Foundation. His cookbook “Cuisine of the Creative” received a James Beard nomination back in 1999 for Best Cookbook of the Year.

Southern Living once described James at the Mill as “an architectural and culinary marvel … the peak of fine Ozark dining.”

For those who like James at the Mill, it’s well worth the drive over to Siloam Springs the next time you’re in northwest Arkansas so you can give 28 Springs a try.

– The hiring of Joel Antunes as the executive chef at Ashley’s and the Capital Bar & Grill in Little Rock’s Capital Hotel was a positive sign. It showed that the Stephens family remains committed to world-class dining in the state’s largest city.

Antunes was awarded the James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast Award in 2005 for his work at the restaurant named for him (Joel) in Atlanta.

Citing his disdain for the celebrity chef syndrome, Antunes once told an interviewer: “I don’t wear a tie and walk around talking. I am a cook. Discipline. I learned that in France. I am in the kitchen every day cooking.”

Joel — the restaurant — opened in 2001 and was named one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in the country.

As a youngster, Antunes went to live with his grandparents in the south of France while his father was serving in the military. He learned to cook from his grandmother and discovered it was something he enjoyed.

Antunes began an apprenticeship at the age of 14 at Belle Meuniere in the city of Royat in France, a Michelin two-star restaurant. He went on to work in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Leyoden in Paris, Duquesnoy in Paris and Hotel Negreso in Nice.

Antunes trained under famous chefs such as Paul Bocuse in Lyons and Michel Troisgos in Roanne.

He headed to Bangkok in 1987 at the age of 26 to work at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. In 1991, he became a partner and the executive chef at Les Saveurs on Curzon Street in London. That restaurant earned a Michelin star in 1994, but Antunes’ investors pulled the plug three years later.

The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta was looking for a chef after Guenter Seeger left to open his own restaurant. The likes of Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse recommended Antunes for the job. He spent several years at the Ritz-Carlton before opening Joel.

A short stay at the venerable Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel in New York was followed by a return to London and stints at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel and the Embassy Mayfair Hotel.

– Near the top of the list of the tastiest things I ate in 2012 were the sausages at the 83rd annual Louie Mancini Sausage Supper, a Knights of Columbus event in Little Rock that drew hundreds of people to the Cathedral of St. Andrew on Dec. 4.

I was honored to be the featured speaker at an event with such a long history. From 1929-78, Council 812 of the Knights of Columbus held the annual supper to raise funds for the Saint Joseph Orphanage in North Little Rock. In the orphanage cafeteria, the orphans would sing Christmas carols while the diners enjoyed the sausage supper.

Saint Joseph’s closed in 1978, but the supper continued, raising money for needy children and their families. It was named for Louie Mancini in 2005 in honor of his decades of support. He helped his father prepare food each year for the supper, followed his father into the Knights of Columbus and continued to devote countless hours each December to the event.

Finally, a few of my dining wishes for 2013:

– That the weather is unseasonably warm on Jan. 25 when I’m standing in the long line waiting to get into the annual Slovak Oyster Supper.

– That the weather is unseasonably cool on Aug. 15 when I’m in the Ned Hardin pecan grove for the annual Grady Fish Fry.

– That the Little Rock restaurant Matt Bell is opening in conjunction with the Oxford American in the old Juanita’s location — South on Main — is as good as I think it’s going to be.

– That the former Capital Hotel chef Lee Richardson opens his own place in Little Rock.

– That someone will use the name The Gar Hole, which was the name of the bar at the Marion Hotel, for a good restaurant in downtown Little Rock.

– That the new restaurant Cache in the River Market District — named after the Cache River in east Arkansas — is a rousing success.

– That chef Matt McClure’s new restaurant in the 21c Hotel at Bentonville, known as The Hive, draws national attention.

– That the new owners of what was The Peabody Hotel in downtown Little Rock will bring in a well-known chef along the lines of Antunes. Since we’re losing the iconic Peabody brand and having it replaced by the boring Marriott brand, they at least owe us that much.

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Bessemer’s Bright Star

Friday, September 14th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you coming to dinner?” he said.

“Yes sir,” I quickly replied.

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

“It sure is,” I said.

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

Yes, I used to work in politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He said, ‘This is Bear Bryant.’

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

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

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

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

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

Long live the Bright Star.

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