Archive for the ‘Southern food’ Category

My perfect summer meal

Monday, July 7th, 2014

A version of this story can be found in the July issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

Summer is upon us, and my thoughts turn back more than 40 years to long, lazy mornings fishing with my grandmother on the dock in front of her cabin at Lake Norrell in Saline County.

Lake Norrell was constructed in 1953 as a water supply reservoir for the city of Benton. It originally was known as Brushy Lake and later was named for William Frank Norrell, an Ashley County native who first was elected to the U.S. House in 1938 and represented part of south Arkansas in Congress until his death in 1961.

Lake Norrell covers just 280 acres, which is considered tiny in a state that boasts such huge U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments as Bull Shoals, Ouachita and Greers Ferry. To a boy growing up in Arkansas in the 1960s, though, Lake Norrell might as well have been the Atlantic Ocean. It’s where I learned to swim, water ski, fish, run a trotline, catch crawdads and gig frogs.

More important than any of that, it’s where I learned that the finest summer meal is fried fish, fresh out of an Arkansas lake or stream, served with fried potatoes, cornbread and fresh peas cooked with fatback. The platter in the middle of the table must have tomatoes, bell peppers, banana peppers, cucumbers and green onions fresh from the garden.

A couple of years ago, a website owned by the giant Hearst Corp. featured a story headlined “All-American Eats: Must-Try Foods from the 50 States.” The editors chose one ingredient or dish to represent each state.

What did they choose that best represented Arkansas?

Would you believe chocolate gravy?

The website described it as a “breakfast staple in Arkansas.”

I had two grandmothers who were great Arkansas cooks. One lived on the Grand Prairie, and the other lived in central Arkansas. Both lived well into their 90s, and neither ever prepared chocolate gravy. That’s not to say it wasn’t served in some Arkansas families. I know. I’ve heard from some of you since I wrote on this subject for the July issue of Arkansas Life magazine. But it’s far from “a staple” in this state. Had the website said cream gravy or even redeye gravy, made with the drippings of a salty country ham and a bit of coffee, I might have given those editors a pass.

Far too often, writers and editors in places such as New York and Chicago list what they think those of us in Arkansas should be eating and drinking as opposed to what we’re actually eating and drinking. In addition to chocolate gravy, examples of this are sweet tea and fried green tomatoes. Both have become trendy in the state, but these aren’t things I was raised on.

When I was growing up, if you wanted your tea sweet, you took a spoon, put sugar in the glass and stirred. It wasn’t brewed that way. Tables at restaurants and tables at homes all had bowls filled with sugar.

And, yes, my grandmothers fried about everything — potatoes, okra, squash. Yet we were much more likely to have fried green apples than fried green tomatoes in the summer. If tomatoes fell off the vine early, you put them in the windowsill to ripen rather than battering them and putting them in a skillet.

Sweet tea and fried green tomatoes are more a staple in the Deep South than they are in Arkansas. Defining Arkansas, its habits and its customs long has been a problem for those who aren’t from here. Outsiders fail to understand that this is a fringe state, not solely a part of any one region. We’re mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. Northwest Arkansas is far different from southeast Arkansas, and northeast Arkansas doesn’t have much in common with southwest Arkansas.

Once we’ve passed the age of 50, we’ve started to understand ourselves. But we still have a heck of a time explaining Arkansas to outsiders.

As for those younger than 50, well, let’s just say that for some reason they think chocolate gravy, sweet tea and fried green tomatoes are longtime Arkansas staples.

Just how difficult are we to define?

Consider the fact that people from outside Arkansas think Bill Clinton came of age in Hope. Granted, he was born at Hope but moved to Hot Springs as a child. He finished elementary school, junior high school and high school in the Spa City. Arkansans always considered him to be a Hot Springs product until that 1992 presidential campaign came along. Some political consultants evidently determined that “I still believe in a place called Hot Springs” just didn’t have the same ring to it. It’s another example of how this state of constant contradictions confounds outsiders.

I digress. Let’s get back to that wooden dock on Lake Norrell.

When the lake was built, the first lots were offered to Benton city employees. My paternal grandfather was the Benton street superintendent. He bought a lot and built a small wooden cabin that would in the next decade come to represent summer nirvana for a certain redheaded boy. His Christmas trees were tied to concrete blocks and sunk at the end of that dock each January. Bags of dry dog food with holes punched in the sides were submerged there. He would try anything he thought would attract fish.

Summer mornings at Lake Norrell with my grandmother were spent with cane poles in hand, sitting in metal chairs at the end of the dock. My grandmother would bait the tiny hooks with the red wigglers my grandfather had raised. Before dropping the worm into the water, she would spit on it for good luck and say, “Nelson sugar.”

It wasn’t uncommon for us to catch several dozen bream before lunch. We threw nothing back. My grandmother’s motto was, “If it’s big enough to bite, it’s big enough to eat.”

At about 11 a.m., we would end our fishing, go inside the cabin and ask for my grandfather’s help in cleaning the bream. You scaled them with a spoon. The smallest ones were fried to the point that you could eat them bones and all.

The vegetables from the garden were a necessary complement to the fried bream, fried potatoes, peas and cornbread. Together they formed the great Arkansas summer meal.

The sliced tomatoes were particularly essential.

Each summer on the editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Paul Greenberg writes his ode to that finest of all tomatoes, the Bradley County Pink.

Arkansans are serious about their tomatoes.

Last month, Paul and I received this note from Bob Nolan of El Dorado: “The winter of my discontent ended precisely at 6:47 a.m. on June 6 when, with great care, I lovingly twisted the stem of this magnificent Cherokee Purple heirloom, separating it from its mother plant. As I was once told, ‘It ain’t braggin’ if it’s fact,’ but I’m not sure it’s true because I’m pretty darned puffed up.

“Being mindful of the supposed ‘art’ of photoshopping, I have, to the best of my ability, framed this beauty with, first, my cupped hands, then secondly, juxtaposed on the cover of my favorite food magazine, Cook’s Illustrated. I honored my forebears this year by planting on Good Friday and not before, and thank God for their guidance, because the Lord smote down all gardens planted in south Arkansas prior to Good Friday with killing frost – period — here endeth the lesson.

“Question: Am I to be discomfited by the fact that my first harvest was not an Early Girl, a Bradley Pink, Big Boy, Better Boy or Celebrity but was a Cherokee Purple heirloom, vis-a-vis the Trail of Tears and all that guilt? I leave it to you scribes to tell me whether I should be directed towards absolution.

“Now, four days later, my harvest has begun in earnest. Bush Goliaths are particularly impressive and tasty. These are a ‘determinant variety’ (how impressed are you with my knowledge?), and you all should try them, either in your garden or in containers — trust me on this one.

“I will be signing off now, before the inevitable ‘blossom end rot’ attacks my treasures as a result of the unusually heavy rains of the last several days. So for now, here from our patio on Calion Road, we praise our Lord for the bounty of the earth, we thank him for this deliciously cool spring evening and we wish you the blessings of this beautiful late Arkansas spring.”

I told you Arkansans were serious about their tomatoes.

So you have my perfect Arkansas summer meal.

Fried fish, caught just hours before with a red worm and a touch of “Nelson sugar.”

Tomatoes, bell peppers, banana peppers, cucumbers and green onions fresh from the garden.

Fried potatoes.

Fresh peas cooked with fatback.

Cornbread.

Maybe even a cobbler made from wild dewberries picked earlier in the week.

I’ve just defined what an Arkansas summer tastes like.

You can save the chocolate gravy for a visitor from up north.

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Arkansas Delta food tour: Part Two

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

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

It was quiet at Dyess on Good Friday afternoon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to get back to Little Rock.

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

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The great Arkansas Delta food tour

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In between all of the eating, we managed to:

– Walk around the former company town of Wilson

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

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

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

– Check out the beautiful Poinsett County Courthouse at Harrisburg

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

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

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

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

He owns citrus groves in Florida.

He owns five banks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The restaurant in Wilson reopened on Dec. 20.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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