Archive for January, 2010

The Banana Pudding Republic

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Members of the Southern Foodways Alliance like to refer to themselves as citizens of the Banana Pudding Republic.

It’s a fitting description for this fun group. I’ve had the privilege of attending SFA events in Greenwood, Miss., and Louisville, Ky. And the small but hearty band of us who are SFA members in Arkansas get together on occasion.

The SFA, which is based on the Ole Miss campus and is part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, has more than 800 members. Writing in The Atlantic, Corby Kummer called the organization “this country’s most intellectually engaged (and probably most engaging) food society.”

Here’s how the SFA website describes what we do: “We stage events, produce documentary films, publish compendiums of great writing and — perhaps most important — document and map our region’s culinary standard-bearers through oral history interviews. We’re talking fried chicken cooks, barbecue pitmasters, bartenders, ham curers and row crop farmers. … Chefs and academics, writers and eaters: all are active participants.”

I’m neither a chef nor an academic. But I’m a writer. And, Lord knows, I’m an eater. I’ve fallen in love with this organization.

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned that I recently had the pleasure of sitting next to the great Southern writer John Egerton during dinner at the Capital Hotel. Back in July 1999, John convened a two-day meeting of 50 people in Birmingham. They were there to discuss the formation of an organization that would document and celebrate the South’s diverse food cultures. The name “Southern Foodways Alliance” was adopted at that meeting.

This is how the event is described in the official history of the organization: “That night, the founders gathered for a celebratory dinner of butterbean crostini and rabbit pilau at Highlands Bar and Grill, Pardis and Frank Stitt’s Birmingham restaurant. The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi agreed to act as the incubator of the SFA and provided startup capital. … Two organizations with similar aims preceded the SFA: The Society for the Preservation and Revitalization of Southern Food, spearheaded by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. And the American Southern Food Institute, led by, among others, Jeanne Voltz. Soon after the SFA was established, both organizations folded their member rolls and cash reserves into the SFA.”

In the letter used to invite people to the 1999 meeting in Birmingham, Egerton wrote: “The time has come for all of us — traditional and nouvelle cooks and diners, upscale and down-home devotees, meat eaters and vegetarians, drinkers and abstainers, growers and processors, scholars and foodlorists, gourmands and the health conscious, women and men, blacks and whites and other identity groups, one and all — to sit down and break bread together around one great Southern table. We all know that this is the finest regional food in America, yesterday and today and forever. Here is our chance to keep it vibrant and to share it with one another and the rest of the world.”

John T. Edge has done a marvelous job leading the SFA since its founding. Groups known as SFA Skillet Brigades have done work throughout the region, such as helping rebuild the famed New Orleans fried chicken restaurant known as Willie Mae’s Scotch House after it was destroyed by the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Fittingly, the organization’s quarterly publication is called Gravy. And, in a nice Arkansas touch, it is underwritten by Mountain Valley Spring Water.

We would love to have you join us. Individual memberships are $75 a year. Family memberships are $100 a year. Student memberships are $50 a year. Corporate memberships are $500 a year.

We need many more members from Arkansas. You can join online at www.southernfoodways.org.

I hope to see you at an SFA event soon.

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Hacks and flacks

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

In a recent blog post, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic writes that some of his friends in the public relations business have been “inundated with calls from journalists looking to escape our profession before it dies, as opposed to after it dies.”

I’ve heard from a few journalists myself in recent months. No, we’re not hiring right now.

Goldberg goes on to report that Jeff Birnbaum has left The Washington Times to serve as the president of BGR Public Relations in Washington. What’s now BGR was founded by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Republican White House aide Ed Rogers back in 1991.

This is interesting because Birnbaum made his reputation covering the lobbying business in Washington. Now, he will be working with and for lobbyists.

“If I were younger, and if we lived in a different age, I might feel slightly condemnatory, but this is the world we live in,” Goldberg writes. “All this gyrating does raise a couple of questions, though: Can journalists turn themselvs into skilled flacks? And, if all the journalists become flacks, who will the flacks flack to?

“The answer to the second question is easy — they’ll flack to underpaid, undertrained bloggers. For an answer to the first question, I turned to my friend Richard Mintz, who owns the Harbour Group, a public relations firm in Washington. He, too, is seeing a rise in queries from stressed-out reporters, but he was not entirely positive about their utility.

”’Journalists by their nature don’t make great advocates or public relations people because they’re trained to be objective rather than to take sides,’ he said. ‘They also tend to work alone, and they have no business experience.’ Other than that, of course, hacks make excellent flacks.”

This brings up the whole issue of “crossing the fence,” one I’ve dealt with numerous times during my career. Back when newspapers were much more successful financially and newspapermen were thus far more arrogant, some had the idea that you couldn’t leave the newspaper business for a public relations job or a political campaign and then return. In their minds, it was like being a priest. Or being in the Mafia.

To put it as delicately as I can, that’s crap.

I left journalism to work full time on a political campaign in 1984. When that campaign concluded, I went back to the newspaper business.

In 1989, I left the newspaper business again to work full time on a political campaign. Guess what? When that campaign was over, I returned to journalism.

When the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette created the position of political editor during Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for the presidency, I was selected to fill that job. I was asked a legitimate question. It went something like this: “You’ve worked on two political campaigns. Both were Republican campaigns. In Arkansas, most of the officeholders you cover will be Democrats. Is this a problem?”

I’ve always felt that one’s body of work and past experience will tell you far more than anything a person can say in a job interview. So, since I had been the Arkansas Democrat’s Washington correspondent from 1986-89 and covered our two senators virtually every day during that period, I suggested that those hiring me could talk to Democrats Dale Bumpers and David Pryor. I felt certain those two pillars of the Arkansas political world would say I had been tough but always fair as a reporter.

I can tell you this much: Because I had worked full time on two political campaigns, I was a much better political editor of the state’s largest newspaper than I otherwise would have been. I better understood the games the consultants and the pollsters played. I understood more about raising funds and leading volunteers.

And when I left that job in July 1996 to become the communications director for a new governor named Mike Huckabee, I was a much better hire because I had spent so many years as a reporter and editor. I would have been far less effective to Huckabee had I followed the traditional political route of Young Republican, College Republican, campaign worker, governor’s staff member.

I started working in the newspaper business when I was in high school. I was never a member of the Young Republicans. I was never a member of the College Republicans. I was hired because I was a communications professional.

The communications director for a statewide officeholder should serve as a go-between. I would at least like to think that those in the Arkansas media knew I would never knowingly give them false information. If I found out later that I had said something that wasn’t entirely correct, I would set the record straight as quickly as possible. I was honest in letting them know that there would be times when I would be unable to tell them all I knew. However, I would never lie.

I would attempt to be their advocate in the governor’s office. I would try to give the governor my best advice on how to respond and my best analysis on the fallout from certain acts. It wasn’t always an easy position to be in. More than once, an angry governor would look at me and talk about “your friends in the media.”

He knew, however, that he had hired me to give him just that side of the equation. He always listened. Had he not, I would not have stayed for more than nine years.

So, for any journalists out there thinking about jumping that fence, don’t worry. You can always return. And if you do return, you’ll probably be a better reporter, writer and thinker than you were before you left.

I just hope too many of you don’t leave. I worry about the decline of print journalism in this country. It’s vital. And there are few things I enjoy more than reading multiple newspapers each day. That, however, is another post for another day.

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Pigs have flown

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Jim Henderson has been the radio voice of the New Orleans Saints since 1986. In other words, he has seen a lot of bad football games.

Henderson, who moved to New Orleans in 1978, teamed with Archie Manning on the Saints broadcasts from 1986-97. Since then, he has worked with former Saints and LSU running back Hokie Gajan (one of the greatest south Louisiana names ever).

The nice thing about a Saints game after dark is that you can pick up WWL-AM, 870, from New Orleans at home in Little Rock. Last night, with my television sound turned down, I listened to Jim and Hokie for the entire broadcast. And as Garrett Hartley made the kick that is to this point the most famous play in Saints history, Jim Henderson had an emotion-filled description that will go down as one of the great radio calls in NFL history.

“It is good! It is good(voice cracking)! It is good! Pigs have flown! Hell has frozen over! The Saints are on their way to the Super Bowl.”

This morning, I exchanged e-mails with a dear friend who is a New Orleans area native. His thoughts were centered on how much he wished his late father were still here to have shared in the joy of last night.

I thought about his sentiments when I read this piece of heartfelt reporting by Jay Vise on the WWL radio website today: “Many fans spoke of dueling emotions: sheer joy at the first Super Bowl trip for the Saints, and sadness that relatives, who also loved the Black and Gold, were not alive to see it happen. ‘I lost my mom in ’96, and I wish my dad could have been here,’ one man said as he cried, after giving up trying to maintain control. ‘It’s the greatest.’

“Many saw the win as vindication. Others saw it as destiny. Another man in the Superdome watching the trophy ceremony saw it as a burden being lifted from thousands of lifelong fans: ’43 years of suffering. . . ended,’ he said, wiping his eyes. ’We’re men. We can cry.’

“A human wall of sound enveloped the Dome when the Saints scored the final field goal. But around the stadium, the emotion played out on thousands of different individual pockets of fandom. While the Saints lined up for the overtime field goal attempt, two elderly men, one black, one white, both decked out in black and gold, stood in the alleyway leading to section 313, nervously awaiting the final play. As the football sailed through the uprights, the two strangers embraced, laughing, crying, jumping, shouting, lost in the unbelievable moment that had finally arrived.

“The Saints are in the Super Bowl. This year is ‘next year.’ Life is good.”

I realize that watching team sports isn’t for everyone. But at times like these I feel a bit sorry for those who cannot savor the moment. I think back to being in the stands at both of the Miracles on Markham in War Memorial Stadium as I celebrated with strangers sitting next to me. All that mattered is that they were fellow Arkansans on those Saturdays and also pulling for victories over LSU. Those are moments to remember and cherish.

There’s something poetic about the fact that last night’s celebration began in a building that was the home to so much suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Yes, there were a lot of grown men and women who cried. And rightfully so. This football team, you see, has served as a rallying point for a whole region as it still works to recover more than four years after what’s simply known in New Orleans as “the storm.”

The Prytania Theater, one of the region’s few remaining one-screen theaters, is in the city’s sometimes snooty Uptown neighborhood. It canceled a showing of George Clooney’s “Up in the Air” and instead showed the game on the big screen, free of charge to anyone who wished to attend.

“They’re going to tear my building down,” said owner Robert Brunet as the game ended.

He was smiling as he said it.

His 88-year-old father, Rene Brunet, said: “When the city was leaning toward despair, the Saints were the hope that pulled us out. A lot of people had given up. The Saints were the catalyst to move forward.”

This is a franchise, mind you, that took 21 years to post a winning season and 35 years to win a playoff game.  

Yes, hell has frozen over.

In those words, Jim Henderson conveyed the emotions of all of south Louisiana and much of the Gulf Coast. As I have written before, rarely if ever has a sports franchise meant as much to a city as the Saints mean to New Orleans in these years after Katrina. I have spent a lot of time in New Orleans since the storm. I can confirm what this means to the people who live there.

The 11 a.m. mass at St. Louis Cathedral yesterday was filled with Saints fans.

Bishop Shelton Fabre ended with this: “St. Paul reminded us in the second reading that we are part of the body of Christ. Today we are also reminded that we are all part of the Who Dat Nation. Let us pray that there is great rejoicing this afternoon.”

The crowd in the cathedral broke into cheers.

This is how Bill Barrow described the day on the front page of today’s Times-Picayune: “You might call this one a stranger-hugger — grabbing the person closest to you, then the next. No one paying attention to anyone’s words. No one ashamed of the tears. Of course, there really are no strangers to begin with in a city that has known so much pain — the kind that extends well beyond the football field, into the sad realm of hurricane winds, rising waters, lost lives and wrecked property. The kind of immeasurable pain that almost makes a mockery of the bags that once covered the heads of New Orleans Saints fans in what is now a bygone era.

“All of that history, from the 1-15 football seasons to the broken levees, made the hugs all the more real in the moments after Garrett Hartley’s 40-yard field goal split the Superdome uprights, sending the 43rd edition of the Saints to the Super Bowl and sending a grateful city into a surreal celebration never before seen through decades of parades, festivals and other good times that have always rolled through the Crescent City.”

Pour me a cup of cafe au lait. Pass the beignets. In the year of our Lord 2010, pigs have flown.

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I know what it means. . .

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

The e-mail arrived late Thursday afternoon, and I began dreaming.

It was a mass e-mail from John Besh, the superb New Orleans chef who runs several of my favorite restaurants. It announced that what I consider to be the best of those restaurants — August — will have special Sunday hours since the Saints are hosting the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC  championship game at 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

Lunch will be served beginning at 11 a.m. Dinner will be served until 10 p.m.

I won’t be in New Orleans for the game, mind you. I just wish I were. A man can dream, can’t he?

The e-mail read in part: “It will be a ‘Brees’ to choose from some of the select dishes that are sure to draw a cheering crowd. For example, you might enjoy wild-caught speckled trout Pontchartrain or jumbo lump crabmeat, wild mushrooms and sauce hollandaise. And hopefully you will save room for the bittersweet chocolate hazelnut pansorte with local satsuma and aleppo pepper.”

If you haven’t tried any of the Besh restaurants, you owe it to yourself to do so the next time you’re in New Orleans.

August features contemporary French cooking with a focus on local ingredients. The late Gourmet magazine (I miss it already) included August on its list of the top 50 restaurants in the country. August is housed in a four-story building in the Central Business District that was built in the 1880s. There are hardwood floors, interior columns and antique mirrors. The food is as beautiful as the building.

Down the street on St. Charles Avenue is another Besh restaurant, Luke in the Hilton St. Charles. Luke is a brasserie that has great cured meats and a number of German dishes.

In the gaudy Harrah’s New Orleans casino, there’s Besh Steak. The walls of the restaurant feature George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog artwork. Besh has foie gras, Louisiana oysters and lots of seafood on the menu in addition to steaks.

In the newly renovated Roosevelt Hotel (Huey P. Long’s old haunt), there’s Domenica. This restaurant features Besh’s take on rural Italian cooking. To give things a homey feel, there are no tableclothes on the wooden tables, and the menus are printed on paper placemats.

At the city’s fine National World War II Museum, Besh has opened a restaurant known as The American Sector.

“This area of downtown New Orleans was historically known as the American Sector,” says Besh, a Marine veteran. “I have been wanting to open an American-style restaurant in this area.”

Meanwhile, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain at Lacombe, Besh operates La Provence, a restaurant first opened by Chris Kerageorgiou in 1972. The tile-roofed restaurant is filled with antiques from Provence and is surrounded by several acres of grounds. It features southern French cooking.

This is the Besh family of restaurants.

As if the Thursday afternoon e-mail from Besh were not enough, I received my Friday edition of The New Orleans Menu Daily from Tom Fitzmorris. You can subscribe to the Fitzmorris newsletter, which comes each Monday through Friday. He noted that the Pelican Club on Bienville in the French Quarter will have a special Sunday brunch menu. And the Bon Ton Cafe on Magazine in the Central Business District will be open from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. though it’s almost never open on weekends.

The Bon Ton, a businessmen’s favorite for weekday lunch, was one of the city’s first true Cajun restaurants, featuring the cooking of rural southwestern Louisiana. Traditional New Orleans cooking is Creole, not Cajun. Most tourists don’t know the difference, just as they think Bourbon Street represents the real New Orleans. You might as well be on the midway at the state fair as on Bourbon (in fact, the people in both places tend to resemble each other).

New Orleans has hosted more than its share of big events through the years — Super Bowls, NCAA Final Fours, title fights, college football championships, national political conventions, you name it.

But the Saints have never hosted an NFC championship game — until now.

My previous job took me to New Orleans a lot. I don’t get down there as often these days. On Sunday, I’ll truly know what it means to miss New Orleans.

Geaux Saints.

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Lunch with Sandy

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

I’ve written before that I consider the lecture series at Little Rock’s Clinton School of Public Service to be one of this city’s (indeed this state’s) top amenities.

I go to hear the speakers (it’s free) as often as my schedule allows. When the Clinton School hosts a noon lecture, it always advertises it as a “bring your own lunch” event. To heck with that.

Since the lectures end at 1 p.m., this is a chance for me to drive just down the street and have a late lunch at Sandy’s Homeplace Cafe at 1710 E. 15th St.

The unassuming home of Sandy’s is tucked into the industrial district near the Little Rock National Airport. Sandy doesn’t advertise. You will rarely see a review of the place. She only serves lunch from Monday through Friday.

If you like Southern country cooking, though, you will have a hard time finding a better value anywhere in Little Rock. For $6.50, you get all the food you can eat and all the iced tea you can drink. The main limitation is that you can only have one chicken fried steak or hamburger steak at the $6.50 price. Another one will cost you an extra dollar. There’s always a second meat dish, which is an all-you-can-eat choice. It might be chicken livers one day. It might be turkey and dressing the next.

“That’s one way I keep the price low,” Sandy says.

Also, if you want a piece of pecan pie, it’s an extra $1.50. Needless to say, I’ve never left hungry.

On Monday, after hearing attorney John Walker speak at the Clinton School, I headed over to Sandy’s for a chicken fried steak along with turkey and dressing. I also had turnip greens and mashed potatoes on that first plate.

Once I had cleaned that plate, I went back for the vegetables I didn’t have room for the first time around — brown beans, green beans and. . . Heck, I can’t even remember what else I put on the plate. But it was all good. I didn’t even get any cornbread or rolls, which come with the meal. And I sure didn’t pay extra for a piece of pie.

Put up your own plate and glass when you’re finished. Pay Sandy $6.50 at the register (it’s a cash business). Then, head back to work and try your best to stay awake.

If you haven’t tried Sandy’s, you owe it to yourself to do so. She caters mostly to the workers in that neighborhood, though an occasional “suit” from downtown will wander in.

Where’s your favorite place for country cooking at lunch? I would love to hear about it.

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Rainy morning in Monroe

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

It was raining steadily as I pulled away from my home at 4 a.m. Sunday.

I had ignored Wiley’s advice. He had called the previous afternoon and said: “If it’s raining fairly hard when you get up tomorrow morning, I suggest you go back to bed.”

Indeed, the rain was coming down when the alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. But I was wide awake. I figured that even if we didn’t go duck hunting, I might as well have a big breakfast with the guys and swap some stories.

The rain never stopped as I made the drive east on Interstate 40. In fact, it got harder. As I pulled into the parking lot of Gene’s Barbeque in Brinkley shortly after 5 a.m., I could see the forlorn faces of the men standing out front, outfitted in camouflage. Some of them likely had driven a long way to hunt ducks in east Arkansas, and the weather was not cooperating.

Inside the restaurant, the cooks had not yet made an appearance. But there were more hunters, drinking coffee and trading tales of past hunting adventures.

Wiley introduced me to one hunter from Mississippi. He introduced me to another couple of people from Tennessee.

“How long have you been coming over here?” he asked one of the out-of-state visitors.

“Every year since 1972,” the man answered.

Early on a Sunday morning at Gene’s, it quickly becomes evident what duck hunting means to the Arkansas economy.

Steve Meacham, one of Wiley’s three sons, came into the restaurant and said of his father: “You know why he made you come down here in the rain, don’t you? To get you back for not mentioning his name until the very end of that column.”

I recently had written a column on duck hunting for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It had become somewhat of a joke in these parts that I had failed to mention Wiley’s name until the final paragraph of the column. At age 78, Wiley is the patriarch of the Piney Creek Duck Club and one of a small fraternity of famous Arkansas duck hunting guides who have been practicing their craft for more than 50 years.

Finally, we decided to make the drive south to the small community of Monroe and the famous Piney Creek Duck Club, which recently was featured on the ESPN Outdoors website. The fellows who had spent the night there were doing the same thing the hunters had been doing back at Gene’s — drinking coffee and waiting for the rain to stop.

We decided to reverse the order on this Sunday morning. Rather than hunting first and then coming back for a huge breakfast, we would have that huge breakfast first and hunt later in the morning once the rain had stopped. My wife always gives me a hard time about our healthy fare. We had the usual — biscuits, gravy, hash browns, sausage and eggs. Someone opened a can of sliced pineapple so we could tell our wives we ate fruit.

As someone who has long been intrigued by Delta history, I was fascinated as I listened to Wiley talk about growing up on that farm. He talked about the thriving community that Monroe once had been, its stores and restaurants fueled by the thousands of sharecroppers who lived in the area. The same story could be told about countless other Delta communities that are now almost ghost towns in this age of agricultural mechanization.

He talked about the large sawmill at Monroe as the area was cleared of its bottomland hardwoods in the 1930s. He told me where the cotton gin had been. He pointed out where the farm’s pond had once been located and discussed how his father even tried to the raise sheep at one time.

He talked about accompanying his father as they took several bales of cotton on a truck to Memphis. They would join many other Delta farmers in driving up and down Front Street — “Cotton Row” — seeking the best prices for their products from the many cotton buyers along the street. Thousands of bales of cotton would be stacked on the sidewalks in those days.

By the time we had finished breakfast, the rain had stopped and the sun was working its way through the clouds.

It was time to put on our waders and head into the flooded green timber. No one hunts in the afternoon at Piney Creek. So for the first time in my memory, I rode the boat into the flooded woods when it wasn’t dark. By the time we reached the hole and took our places, all of the clouds were gone.

The hunting was slow. There were some ducks. There also were thousands of geese, a hawk and a majestic bald eagle circling these woods along the Monroe County-Lee County line.

As I sat there and breathed in the country air, I thought of a couple of things.

First, while duck hunters would consider this a slow morning, birdwatchers would pay good money to sit there and see what I was seeing. Those of us who get to do this on a regular basis should never take it for granted.

Second, I thought about how sad it is that so many of my fellow Arkansans never truly experience the Arkansas outdoors, whether it’s a cold January morning in the Delta or a hot June afternoon spent floating a stream in the Ozarks. For too many of us, even in a still-rural state like Arkansas, “outdoor activity” consists of walking through the parking lot at Wal-Mart.

With the duck season entering its final two weeks, I said farewell at 1 p.m., tuned the radio to the Cowboys-Vikings playoff game and headed back toward Little Rock.

I sure am glad I had not taken Wiley’s advice. I’m happy I had not gone back to bed at 3:30 a.m. Sleep can wait.

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The sweet science

Monday, January 18th, 2010

In the early 1900s, the top three sports in America were baseball, boxing and thoroughbred racing.

All are sports I still enjoy following. But they have slipped in the past century, falling far behind football and, to a lesser extent, basketball on the American cultural spectrum.

Boxing has hurt itself at the professional level with its many competing organizations, controversies and the circus aspects that surround so many fights. The average fan of the sport becomes confused. And in his confusion, that fan turns to something else.

At the amateur level, however, boxing remains a way to a better life for some, especially African-American and Hispanic boys. Thanks to the work of Ray Rodgers, one of the top amateur boxing officials in the country, Arkansas is somewhat of a center for the sport. That’s something the vast majority of Arkansans don’t even realize.

On Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday afternoon of last week, amateur boxers from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma filled the North Little Rock Community Center for the regional Silver Gloves tournament.

The state Golden Gloves tournament will be back at that location in March. Central Arkansas then will play host to the regional Golden Gloves tournament in April and the national Golden Gloves tournament in May.

I was at the community center Friday night and Saturday afternoon with my 16-year-0ld son. Even since he was a young boy, he has loved to watch fights on television and score them, seeing if he agrees with the judges. When I mentioned this to Rodgers last year, this boxing legend was excited at the prospect of finding young blood to insert into the pool of judges. So he took Austin under his arm and began training him. When Austin turns 18 in late February 2011, he will be able to become certified as an amateur judge and actually work events.

His goal, I can reveal, is to eventually be paid to fly to places like Las Vegas on the weekends and sit at ringside.

Why this fascination with boxing for a middle-class kid from Little Rock?

It can be traced to the excitement that surrounded the rise Jermain Taylor. Despite the recent bumps in the road, when we think of Jermain, most of us still have the words of Michael Buffer ringing in our ears: “The pride of Little Rock. Arkansas . . .”

Austin was age 7 when Taylor competed in the 2000 Olympics at Sydney and, frankly, was not paying much attention. But as Taylor began his march through the professional ranks, we would attend his fights at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock and what was then Alltel Arena in North Little Rock.

On the night Taylor won the middleweight championship against Bernard Hopkins in Las Vegas — July 16, 2005 — I was attending the National Governors Association summer meeting with Mike Huckabee in Des Moines. Janet Huckabee, a huge Taylor fan, was determined to find someone in Des Moines who had subscribed to the pay-per-view telecast of the fight. Finally, a policeman assigned to our hotel told her: “The boys down at the fire station always buy the fights.”

So it was that I ended up watching the fight with the first lady of Arkansas and a bunch of firemen at the central fire station in downtown Des Moines. To make things even more interesting, it was Janet’s birthday, and Jermain called her from his dressing room before the fight to wish her a happy birthday.

Back home in Little Rock, my wife and two sons had subscribed to the pay-per-view telecast. They called me within seconds of Buffer announcing the split decision.

My wife and I then took both of our boys on that hot Friday afternoon to the parade honoring Taylor in downtown Little Rock.

For the rematch against Hopkins in December 2005, we were at a friend’s home to watch. When Taylor fought “Winky” Wright on June 17, 2006, Austin was playing in an AAU basketball tournament in northwest Arkansas. A father of one of the other players on the team had a satellite dish on his souped-up rig for football tailgating. So it was that we sat in the parking lot of the La Quinta in Springdale that evening to watch the fight.

From a fire station in Des Moines to a parking lot in Springdale to seats at the Arkansas matches, I had watched the Taylor fights. And, along the way, my boys had become hooked on boxing.

That kind, dedicated soul who is at the heart of Arkansas boxing — Ray Rodgers — is guiding the oldest of the two boys toward his goal of becoming a judge. I think of the hundreds of boys Rodgers has helped through the years. He’s a great asset to our state.

Now, he’s even helping one boy who has no desire to actually step into the ring.

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Exploring Izard County

Friday, January 15th, 2010

I devoted my column in last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to Izard County, one of this state’s more remote, rural and beautiful counties.

One of my wife’s friends had turned me onto an interesting website called Exploring Izard County, which can be found at exploreizard.blogspot.com. This blog contains photos, videos and written accounts about jaunts to various places in Izard County.

Denny Elrod told me that he and some friends began their blog because they see so much untapped tourism potential in Izard County.

“The one industry that is viable in this area is the tourism industry,” Elrod says. “One of our goals is to show people here and from other places that Izard County prosperity lies in the development of a tourism industry. It’s frustrating to know that we have miles and miles of White River frontage along some of the most scenic parts of the river, yet there is not a single restaurant or resort standing along its bank in the county. We have two trout docks and a few scattered rental cabins. But while there are scores of interesting natural and historical sites to exploit, there is absolutely no infrastructure to support a robust tourist industry.”

Elrod lives along Arkansas Highway 9 in Melbourne.

He says, “For more than 10 years now, the weekly thunder of biker clubs snaking through town, as well as car clubs traversing what we call the Great Circle Tour route, has excited me.”

In case you’re wondering, the Great Circle Tour route is Sylamore Road, Arkansas Highway 5 in Stone County, Arkansas Highway 56 from Calico Rock to Brockwell in Izard County and Arkansas Highway 9 south to Melbourne.

Elrod and his partners on the blog began tours to various parts of the county two years ago.

“We did so because of the constant e-mails from readers wanting to tag along with us on our excursions,” he said. “We’ve made some wonderful friends through these efforts, and we’re beginning to see some excitement among locals who are becoming aware of the possibilities.”

It’s always refreshing to find people in Arkansas’ sparsely populated, rural counties who realize the potential others have missed.

Give the Exploring Izard County blog a try. You’ll enjoy it.

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. . . And they’re off!

Friday, January 15th, 2010

In a feature story on Oaklawn Park in The New York Times last April, the newspaper’s superb racing writer, Joe Drape, had this to say: “The Cellas have owned this charming racetrack for nearly 100 years, and their focus on quality horse racing has earned it the reputation as the Saratoga of the South. … Horse racing still rules here and is the reason that the owners and trainers of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin chose to prepare their colts here for the Kentucky Derby and beyond. In 2004, Smarty Jones used the Arkansas Derby as a springboard to a near miss of the Triple Crown when Birdstone caught him in the stretch of the Belmont Stakes.”

Drape, an author of several books who has attended the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock before, makes no secret of the fact that he loves Oaklawn. So do some of the biggest names in racing.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas told him: “It’s a great, great racing town, and if you don’t believe me, just walk into a diner or restaurant and see how many people are looking at the Daily Racing Form. I have folks stop me all the time and ask me about the great horses I’ve had and tell me about the good ones that are at the track right now. There’s not many places left where people adore the sport.”

Trainer Larry Jones told him: “They keep the surface in very good shape, and it is about as close to mimicking Churchill Downs’ oval as you’ll find. You can’t beat the air here, either. It’s fresh and clear and makes you feel like you’re in the country. Mostly, though, it’s because they have good purses, which brings in good horses.”

I visited briefly with jockey Corey Nakatani on Wednesday night, and he confirmed that the racing surface once more is in great shape.

Here’s the recipe: A resort town where the fans adore racing. A track owned by a family that also adores racing. Good purses. Leading horses and jockeys.

Oaklawn, after its struggles of the 1990s, has entered another golden age.

“The racetrack continues to offer novel promotions,” Drape wrote. “It went through six tons of corned beef on opening day when corned beef sandwiches sold for 50 cents and Cokes cost a dime. But just like Saratoga Springs in August, Hot Springs brings in knowledgeable horse enthusiasts.”

Terry Wallace came to Oaklawn in 1975 as the track announcer and has never missed calling a live race at Oaklawn. Not once. That’s a streak of almost 20,000 races.

“I think it’s the most incredible record in sports,”Charles Cella once told me.”This record will never be touched. I can’t imagine anyone will come close.”

Consider the fact that Cella was just 38 years old when Wallace came to Oaklawn. He had run the track for only seven years at that point following the unexpected 1968 death of his father, John G. Cella. For racing fans in Arkansas, the constants at Oaklawn have been Cella as the owner, Eric Jackson as the general manager and Wallace as the track announcer.

“It’s hard to narrow down my most memorable day at the track,” Wallace says. “It usually comes down to meeting the people who I have admired for a long time. I’ve met Carol Channing, Stan Musial, D. Wayne Lukas, Laz Barrera, Pat Day and hundreds of others who have made my life all the richer and more exciting.

“I’m not a Hot Springs native. I was born in Cleveland and only came here in 1975 when I was hired to be the announcer. I did get lost when I was coming here from New Orleans, where I was working at the time. Once I got to Hot Spring County, I thought I was at my destination. What a shock to find out that Hot Springs was not in Hot Spring County. It took me an entire afternoon of driving around Hot Spring County to find out that little secret.”

This is an era of corporate ownership in thoroughbred racing. Magna Entertainment Corp., which filed last year for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, operates seven thoroughbred tracks, including Santa Anita, Gulfstream and Pimlico. It also operates Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie, Texas, which runs both thoroughbred and standardbred meetings.

Churchill Downs Inc. operates — in addition to its namesake track in Louisville — Calder in Miami, Arlington Park in the Chicago area and the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Louisiana Downs in Bossier City is operated by Harrah’s, the casino company. Oaklawn goes against the grain.

“It’s nice to work for a family that’s dedicated to racing and has been for more than 100 years,” Wallace says of the Cella family, which owns only one track. “A lot of these other companies are focused on the gaming aspect. The Cellas, though, are committed to the quality of racing. We’re not publicly held so we can be a little different. At the same time, we realize we won the election that authorized expanded electronic gaming by only 90 votes. So we can’t afford to fumble the ball. This is a small town. You have to honor your promises to the community and be straightforward with people.”

As another live race meet begins today, Eric Jackson has a hard time singling out favorites.

The favorite thoroughbred he has seen compete at Oaklawn?

“My problem is I love animals. So I get attached to all of them. Smarty Jones and Rachel Alexandra have a special place in my heart. But my day-in/day-out favorite may well have been Chindi.”

Favorite owner and trainer? There are many. But some rate special mentions.

“The one-time football coach and then successful businessman Hays Biggs was my kind of guy (as an owner) — a true standup, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. I think the world of Bob Holthus (as a trainer) and would hate to count how many times I’ve gone to him for advice and counsel and direction.”

Favorite jockey?

“Larry Snyder. Never say him quit trying. Never heard him complain. One of the straightest shooters and fairest people I have ever met.”

Beginning today, more memories will be made. Oaklawn is a shining star in a sport that’s otherwise struggling. Should we ever lose racing and the colorful people who follow it, we’ll lose an important part of the American culture.

I’m drawn to Ted McClelland’s description of Hawthorne Race Course near Chicago. In his delightful book “Horseplayers: Life At The Track,” McClelland has a description of a place that could pass for other American tracks.

“In the grandstand, the grill sold fried chicken, collard greens and peach cobbler,” he wrote. “The cigarette smoke was not as heavy as it had been years ago, when it clouded as thickly as mustard gas on the Western Front and soaked into clothing, skin and the newsprint of my Racing Form. But there were still afternoons when sheer gray scarves floated beneath the ceiling. Over by the barbershop, old men threw spades and bid whist across a scarred tabletop. In the carrels facing the television monitors, which showed races from all across the country, you’d find find baskets full of chicken bones and discarded tickets from Aqueduct, Calder, Laurel, Turfway and the Fair Grounds. The pleas of the gamblers, some sacred, some profane, were as loud as the barking of brokers at the Mercantile Exchange.”

The track. What a place.

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They’re in the gate. . .

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Another season at Oaklawn Park is set to begin Friday. And, for once, there’s no chance that one or more of the first four days of the live meet (Friday through Monday) will fall victim to winter weather.

In past years, Oaklawn’s opening weekend in January often has been a magnet for ice, snow or at least temperatures so low that a frozen track was the result. It would have been a disaster had the meet been scheduled to start last weekend with the lowest temperatures in 14 years.

The weather gods have smiled this time. The only problem this year is going to be perhaps a little rain on Saturday.

Racing at Oaklawn began in February 1905. Hot Springs Mayor John Belding declared that first afternoon of racing a holiday, and almost 3,000 people turned out. The track closed after the 1907 meeting due to political problems with the state.

By 1916, racing had resumed, original owners Dan Strut and John Condon were dead and Louis Cella of St. Louis was the owner.

In 1918, Louis Cella died at age 51 in a St. Louis hospital following a stroke. His brother, Charles, and two partners would continue to operate Oaklawn and a number of other tracks. In October 1940, Charles Cella died in St. Louis at age 65. His son, John G., took over the track. John’s son, Charles J., was age 4 at the time.

Through almost three decades of track ownership, John Cella provided needed stability, developing strong relationships in the Arkansas business and political communities. He saw to it that Oaklawn was a charter member when the Thoroughbred Racing Association was formed in 1942. Spring racing was suspended under his watch in 1945 due to World War II, but he ensured that Oaklawn had a fall meeting that year to celebrate the war’s end. In the years after the war, purse distribution soared and attendance increased.

The Cella family’s investments in the entertainment business consisted of far more than thoroughbred tracks. At one time, the family owned 48 theaters.

“I frankly had more interest in the theater than in racing,” Charles Cella told me a couple of years ago during a visit in his office at Oaklawn. “Unfortunately, by the time I came of age, both racing and live theater were headed south as businesses. Television hurt live theater. And casino gambling hurt racing.”

Cella has been nothing if not innovative, though, since assuming ownership of the track in 1968 following the sudden death of his father from a stroke. Charles Cella was just 31 when he took over Southern Real Estate and Financial Co. and the other family enterprises.

William J. Smith, a prominent Little Rock attorney, had been one of John Cella’s best friends. Smith would advise Charles Cella, becoming almost like a second father to him. Smith, a Texarkana native, earlier had served as a key adviser to Govs. Homer Adkins, Ben Laney, Francis Cherry and Orval Faubus. Smith’s law parter, Little Rock attorney Herschel Friday, later would play the role of strategic adviser and political fixer for Charles Cella.

It’s now a rare thing to find a family-owned track. But Charles Cella hopes to continue the tradition at Oaklawn under the leadership of his sons, John and Louis.

Oaklawn somehow has survived the casino competition from neighboring states. It had been the last track in America to add exotic forms of wagering since Cella is a traditionalist at heart. But once the line was crossed, Oaklawn became an innovator in areas such as simulcasting races from other tracks and adding electronic games. In 1990, Oaklawn became the first North American track to bring full simulcasting cards across state lines. A decade later, the Instant Racing video game was introduced.

Now, Oaklawn has opened an 850-station electronic gambling room, a buffet, a separate video poker room and a racebook for high-dollar horse players. All the games are technically “electronic games of skill,” a designation allowing the track to get around the ban on casinos in the Arkansas Constitution. Legislation was passed in 2005 to allow these games of skill at Oaklawn and at the Southland greyhound track in West Memphis. Each track won local votes in 2006.

I don’t care for electronic games of any type. I likely will never play one at Oaklawn. But I do love thoroughbreds. I’m one of those people who can enjoy a day at the track and never place a wager. And the beauty of the Cella family is that they love racing more than anything. The electronic games truly are a means to fund greater purses and improve the racing facility. That wouldn’t be the case if Oaklawn were owned by a publicly traded corporation.

“Our job, in my opinion, is to make sure racing remains the main attraction here,” Cella once told me. “Not for one minute will I tolerate cutting back on what we do in the area of racing in order to promote gaming.”

Among Cella’s best innovations was the 1974 birth of the Racing Festival of the South. The festival includes a stakes race a day on the final seven days of racing each year, culminating with the Arkansas Derby. The Cella idea that paid off the most in terms of national publicity came three decades later in 2004. Cella announced that any 3-year-old that could sweep the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby would win a bonus of $5 million in celebration of Oaklawn’s centennial year. And along came Smarty Jones.

Since then, the 3-year-old program at Oaklawn has become even stronger.

Last night, almost 350 people packed the banquet room at the Wyndham Hotel in North Little Rock for a banquet sponsored by the Arkansas Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Horsemen’s Association. The size of the crowd showed the strength of thoroughbred racing in Arkansas.

Also consider the fact that two of the leading jockeys in America were in attendance. Calvin Borel, who became a nationally known sports celebrity last year when he rode Mine That Bird to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Rachel Alexandra to victory in the Preakness, was there. So was West Coast staple Corey Nakatani, the winner of eight Breeders’ Cup races in his career. The fact that both of these jockeys will ride the entire meet at Oaklawn says a lot about where the track now stands in the world of American racing.

Speaking at last night’s banquet was Maggi Moss, a former trial lawyer from Des Moines who gave up practicing law to concentrate on the thoroughbreds she owns. She consistently ranks as one of the country’s leading owners, and she loves Oaklawn.

She described Belmont Park in New York, with its surly race fans, as “a hostile work environment.”

She described Santa Anita Park in California as “beautiful but there is no one there.”

She described Oaklawn as “the greatest racetrack in America.”

“The enthusiasm here is unlike any other other place in the country,” Moss said.

Think about it. Arkansas does not have a major league baseball team. We don’t have an NFL, NBA or NHL team. Thoroughbred racing is the one professional sport where we truly are in the big leagues.

It’s time for what they used to call the Fifth Season to begin.

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