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.
Fresh peas cooked with fatback.
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.