Archive for March, 2010

“In Through The Back Door”

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Congratulations to John T Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, for having his article on Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna nominated as one of three finalists for the prestigious M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. The award is presented by the James Beard Foundation of New York, an organization founded in 1986 to celebrate, preserve and nurture this country’s culinary heritage and diversity.

Beard was a cookbook author and teacher who championed American cuisine. He died in 1985, but his spirit lives on as the Beard Foundation conducts education initiatives, food industry awards, scholarships programs for culinary schools and more. It also maintains the historic James Beard House in Greenwich Village as a performance space for visiting chefs.

John T’s article ran in the Oxford American. A couple of disclosures — I’m the chairman of the Oxford American board of directors, and I spent a long time urging John T to check out Jones Bar-B-Q. So I’m not exactly an unbiased source. But John T deserves the award for a great piece of writing.

How could one resist a story that starts like this: “A white man clutching a brown paper bag stands in the dirt-and-gravel lot that fronts Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in the Arkansas Delta town of Marianna. Grease splotches the bag, a stain that envelops the bottom and flares up the sides. The man appears to be 60, maybe 70. His face is wide and jowly. His hair is thick and comb-raked. He wears brown pants, a white shirt and a baby blue windbreaker. He could have left a couple of minutes ago, could have jumped in his pickup and driven away, eating a barbecue sandwich from a foil wrapper, fighting the collapse of the two slices of white bread that contain, for the moment, a mound of hickoried and sauced ham and shoulder. But the man lingers. The grease spreads.

“He stares across the neighborhood. At rusted-out and busted-up trailer homes. At carbon-smudged chimneys that stand where clapboard bungalows once stood. At bottle-strewn ditches, flush with crabgrass and bull thistle. The man is no barbecue pilgrim, questing for lost tribes and forgotten temples in this once-prosperous cotton kingdom. He’s likely a native. The man appears at ease in this neighborhood, the one that some old and intransigent whites still call ‘Niggertown.’ Just as he appears at ease across the levee and down the blacktop in his neighborhood, where sentry pines and picket fences frame tidy farmhouses.”

John T quotes the great Southern writer John Egerton as saying that “before schools, churches, sports teams and even other restaurants in the South got around to lowering the barriers of racial segregation, many of the region’s best barbecue pits maintained a thriving interracial trade.”

John T said his time in Lee County led him to begin thinking of barbecue “less as a cultural product and more as an ephemeral indulgence, entered into lightly, exited from easily.”

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner has existed in some form since the early 1900s. A firm opening date cannot be established, but John T said it might be “the oldest black-owned restaurant in the South, and, perhaps, one of the oldest family-owned black restaurants in the nation.”

Walter Jones was the name of the founder. His son, Hubert Jones, later ran the restaurant. It’s now operated by Hubert’s son, James Jones.

James Jones told John T: “My brother and I would cook out at the farm, where we raised our pigs. My father would sell the meat in town at this place they had. They called it the Hole in the Wall. That’s what it was. Just a window in a wall where they sold meat from a washtub. That was it until he opened this place in ’64.”

Jones quietly hands each sandwich out a small service window that John T said calls to mind “both a ticket booth at a porn theater and a Catholic church confessional.”

“I can’t remember when I didn’t smell like smoke,” Jones says. “That’s the price you pay. That, and a lack of sleep for going on 20 years.”

John T did well in capturing the essence Jones Bar-B-Q Diner of Marianna, a true Arkansas institution.

Winners of the James Beard Foundation journalism awards will be announced May 2.

On May 3, the foundation will announce its restaurant and chef awards. I’m disappointed that neither of the two Arkansans nominated for Best Chef in the South — Lee Richardson of the Capital Hotel in Little Rock and Miles James of James at the Mill in Lowell — made the list of five finalists. Both are great chefs. Their day will come.

The five finalists for Best Chef in the South are Zach Bell of Cafe Boulud at the Brazilian Court in Palm Beach, Scott Boswell of Stella! in New Orleans, John Harris of Lilette in New Orleans, Christopher Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham and Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami.

Meanwhile, back to the old debate as temperatures reach 80 for the first time this year and April dawns: What’s your favorite barbecue restaurant in Arkansas and why?

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The Redneck Riviera

Monday, March 29th, 2010

With spring break having concluded in our state, I’m wondering how many Arkansans made an early run down to the Redneck Riviera last week.

Of course, summer will be the prime time for Arkansans to make that annual pilgrimage south to the Mississippi coast, the Alabama coast and the Florida Panhandle.

The spring issue of Southern Cultures, the excellent quarterly published by the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, contains an essay titled “The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera.” The author is Henry H. “Hardy” Jackson III.

The essay is an overview of a book by Jackson that will be published next year by the University of Georgia Press. The book will focus on the Gulf Coast from Gulf Shores, Ala., to Panama City, Fla., since World War II.

Jackson, a history professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama (the place where Jack Crowe now coaches football), notes: “The Mississippi Coast, though equal in redneckery to any place on the Gulf, contains economic, cultural and demographic elements that set it apart from its neighbors to the east, so it was decided to save that area for another day — and likely another historian. The same factors led to the decision to leave Alabama’s Dauphin Island out of the book.”

In 1954, Jackson’s grandmother bought property in Seagrove Beach, Fla. Two years later, she built a cottage there. Jackson says that cottage has been his home away from home for more than 50 years.

I’ve never had the privilege of having a cottage on the Gulf Coast, but I’ve made plenty of trips there — both as a child and with my own children. Like many children in this landlocked state, my sister and I always wanted to go to the beach for our summer vacation. My father, who traveled the state selling athletic supplies to high schools and colleges, had no desire to travel any farther than he had to in the summer. If one travels due south from Arkansas, the first beach you hit is the one on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

For us, Gulfport and Biloxi were what the beach was all about. The water in the Gulf of Mexico was supposed to be gray. We had no idea there was such gorgeous blue water just a few hours to the east in Florida. But the memories were great ones. The rich folks stayed at the Broadwater Beach (I always loved the house in the Heights in Little Rock with its shutters and trim painted in the pink-and-blue Broadwater Beach colors) and ate at Mary Mahoney’s. We stayed at the Holiday Inn and ate at the Friendship House, the White Cap and McElroy’s. I mourned when Hurricane Katrina destroyed so much of what I had cherished as a child.

My own children have experienced not only Biloxi and Gulfport but also Fort Morgan, Gulf Shores, Pensacola Beach, Destin, Seaside, Panama City Beach, Mexico Beach and Apalachicola (which is now my favorite city on the Gulf Coast, though a bit too far east to meet Jackson’s definition of the Redneck Riviera).

And, yes, we’ll be back this summer. We have our house reserved at Orange Beach in Alabama for a week in late July.

If I could afford it, I might just spend a few weeks each year at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear. I realize that’s on Mobile Bay, but who needs waves at my age? Our boys want the ocean, though, and we’re happy to oblige.

Jackson thinks the term Redneck Riviera first appeared in print in 1978 when Alabama native Howell Raines published a piece in The New York Times about how former University of Alabama and then pro quarterbacks Richard Todd and Kenny Stabler spent the offseason on the Alabama coast.

By the way, Richard Todd and his family once lived behind me in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood in Arkadelphia. Richard’s father was on the faculty at Ouachita Baptist University. Unfortunately for the Arkadelphia Badgers, the Todds moved away before Richard reached high school

At any rate, Raines confined his definition of Redneck Riviera to a small section of beach beginning just west of Gulf Shores and continuing east to the Flora-Bama, the famed bar on the state line that sits mostly in Florida to take advantage of that state’s more liberal liquor laws.

Jackson reports that you can find “Gulf Coast Riviera” references as early as 1941 when the WPA guide to Alabama was published.

“Raines’ Redneck Riviera was a scattering of vacation cottages, honky-tonks, picturesque if seedy motels, shacks on pilings and cafes that served smoked mullet, presided over by sunburned, bearded, beer-soaked refugees from civilization, driving rusted-out pickup trucks,” Jackson writes.

Jackson says that prior to World War II, there were a number of villages between Pass Christian, Miss., and Panama City that “survived on fishing and a trickle of tourists from not too far away, vacationers who came down to spend a week or so in the few ‘mom and pop’ motor courts. They’d swim a little, fish a little, eat raw oysters, buy something tacky at a local shop, and some, freed from hometown social restraints, would visit local nightclubs, dance and drink and get rowdy.”

The number of visitors to the Gulf Coast increased after World War II. The tourist economy grew and, according to Jackson, the season from Memorial Day to Labor Day soon became a “cash cow for locals.” Before long, upscale communities were developing for those who wanted to retire along the coast.

“As the region grew up, so did the offspring of these early pioneers,” Jackson writes. “Baby Boomers, the children of postwar passion, were part of the youth rebellion, with a Southern twist. Along with the Beatles and the Stones, they grooved to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. In the clubs they danced to the music they danced to at fraternity parties back in Tuscaloosa and Atlanta. Sometimes the bands were black, but the dancers were always white. … These bourgeois Bubbas and Bubbettes created the Redneck Riviera that Howell Raines saw and described.”

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Redneck Riviera became more and more upscale. The success of Seaside inspired others to build similar developments and, according to Jackson, ”people who bought into that lifestyle were a far cry from those who bought into beach life three decades before. First with money from the hot stock market of the 1990s and then with low interest loans after the dot-com bubble burst, Babby Boomers began to buy into a coast that a Baby Boomer generation of  developers was developing to sell.”

Jackson continues: “So it was that the Redneck Riviera, which had been slowly dying as Baby Boomers aged, became an investment opportunity for some, and a place of calculated and carefully controlled leisure for others. Meanwhile, more and more of the sort of people who had come down to make the region what it once was found themselves priced into a shrinking selection of motels and condos, and the bars and seafood joints they once frequented became in-vogue eateries with designer decor and ferns.”

The destructive hurricanes of recent years, followed by the worst recession since the Great Depression, have changed things. Many of those gleaming condo towers now sit largely empty. The construction boom has ground to a halt. Jackson thinks this may actually help return the Redneck Riviera to its roots.

“As condo prices fell, cautious buyers began to emerge; people who were more interested in a vacation place that could generate a little money on the side than in a unit for quick sale and a quick profit,” he writes. ”These folks, mostly from the Lower South, were much like their parents and grandparents who came to the coast in the ’40s and ’60s: white, middle class, and comfortably so, but with just enough redneckery in them to help keep places like the Flora-Bama going strong.”

I’ve always said I’m an Arkansas redneck at heart with perhaps a thin veneer of sophistication to use when needed.

At any rate, summer will be here before we know it. Jackson says that “though much of the old Redneck Riviera has declined and fallen dormant, from these seeds a new one may one day sprout and grow. There are those who hope so.”

Where are your favorite spots along the Redneck Riviera — towns, hotels, restaurants, etc.? Which ones have disappeared that you miss? Where are your favorite places to stop on the way down? After all, it’s almost April and not too early to be thinking of summer and the pilgrimage of Arkansans headed south in their packed SUVs through Pine Bluff, Dumas, McGehee and Lake Village.

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Elizabeth and Hazel

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

The photo is still mesmerizing after all these years.

Elizabeth Eckford walks stoically toward Little Rock Central High School. She looks neither right nor left. She looks straight ahead.

Behind her, the hostile crowd follows. Hazel Massery has her mouth wide open, screaming at Eckford when the shutter clicks on Will Counts’ camera.

David Margolick, a well-known writer who currently contributes to Newsweek, came to Little Rock in 1999 to work on a story about Paula Jones for Vanity Fair. It’s a story that never ran. On that trip, however, Margolick stopped by the visitors’ center at Central High. And as it had done for so many thousands of others through the years, the photo of Elizabeth and Hazel drew him in.

Margolick, the author of four books, decided to begin a book based on that photo. He has worked on the project on and off for a decade, visiting Little Rock numerous times and interviewing dozens of people who were on the grounds of the school during those crazy late summer and early fall days of 1957.

Margolick has spent many hours interviewing Eckford and Massery. The two women reportedly have opened up to him like no interviewer before. Massery transferred from Central High soon after the photo ran. She eventually dropped out of high school and got married at age 17.

Her widely publicized apology to Eckford in 1997 was the subject of a lengthy story on the front page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Less known was the fact that she had called Eckford in 1962 or 1963 to apologize. She wasn’t looking for publicity. She told no one at the time that she had made the call.

Still, according to Margolick, the photo is “an image she wears indelibly” for life.

Margolick thinks his book will be out in about a year. He describes the past decade of his life as “a prolonged exercise in trying to figure out what I would have done if I had been in Little Rock in 1957. I don’t know the answer to that. … I never wanted this book to be easy. I never wanted to listen to the conventional wisdom or follow the conventional story lines.”

Margolick, a legal reporter and later a law columnist for The New York Times from 1981-96, said he understands that there’s fatigue in Little Rock over the continued news stories and books about the events of 1957. He said he also understands the “kind of resentment” some feel toward what they believe to be “know-it-all Yankees who come here and past judgment decades later.”

He says of his work on the book: “I’ve tried to do it with a lot of conscientiousness and also a lot of humility.”

He believes history will judge Hazel Massery more kindly than it will judge many others.

“It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re 16 years old,” Margolick says. It’s harder to forgive people in their 60s and 70s who won’t acknowledge their mistakes.”

He readily acknowledges that Little Rock was, in a sense, a vicitim of its own progressive ways — a city where the school board decided to move forward with integration much more quickly than the school boards in most Southern cities.

Though others are weary of the subject, I look forward to the book. Margolick, who covered culture, the media and politics for Vanity Fair and Conde Nast Portfolio (which went out of business last year) after leaving the Times, is a talented researcher, reporter and writer. He will do the subject justice.

I just wish Will Counts were still around. Counts, who took the famous photo for the Arkansas Democrat, died of cancer in 2001 after years of teaching photojournalism at the University of Indiana.

On that day in September 1957, Counts was working in the darkroom, developing the photos of two veteran photographers who were out on other assignments. Suddenly, he heard the city editor scream for him to get to Central High because “all high is breaking loose.”

Fred Petrucelli wrote this in a 2007 Log Cabin Democrat feature on Counts: “Counts, dressed in nondescript clothing, blended in with the crowd gathered at the school. Photographers from major newspapers around the country were conspicuous, many dressed in coats and ties and carrying large cameras. They had the appearance of outsiders, and many were set upon by the unruly throng. Counts moved around and through the mass of humanity quite unobserved. His photos became snapshots of history.”

Counts himself would write: “Eckford’s imperturbable walk through the mob had become a slow-motion cinema verite memory. I still find it difficult to believe that this display of racial hatred was happening in front of my high school and my camera.”

His photographs shocked the nation, including the one of black photographer and reporter Alex Wilson of Memphis being hit and kicked.

In the audience listening to Margolick speak earlier this week at the Clinton School of Public Service was Julian Bond, the civil rights leader and politician who headed the NAACP from 1998 until earlier this year. Bond, who attended Morehouse College in Atlanta and was a member of the only class taught by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

It seemed fitting that he was here Monday to hear Margolick — here in the city that had no desire to be the focus of the early civil rights movement but nonetheless earned its place in history.

The story of Elizabeth and Hazel is an important part of that chapter in our country’s history. I hope Margolick tells it well.

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A Memphis Friday night

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Though he’s a native Arkansan who still lives in Forrest City, he does the pregame and postgame shows on the radio network that carries Ole Miss football.

He’s also one of the most popular sports talk radio personalities in Memphis.

And he works for one of the nation’s famous old AM radio stations.

He’s Brett “Stats” Norsworthy, and he came by his nickname honestly. He can spit out more sports trivia, history and statistics than anyone I know.

On Friday night, he hosted Kane Webb and me for a delightful evening in Memphis. Brett has long enjoyed Kane’s writing, and who doesn’t? Kane is, after all, one of the best writers in our state. Brett wanted to meet Kane, and so we set this trip up many weeks ago.

We started in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. Where else are you going to start in Memphis?

It’s the place where the Delta begins, according to Greenville writer David Cohn. And the Peabody lobby is still the place to see and be seen in the Mid-South. Hundreds of people crowded the lobby on this Friday afternoon for the 5 p.m. march of the Peabody ducks.

I enjoy visiting the lobby of the Peabody Little Rock, but it simply cannot compare to the history and charm of the original in Memphis.

From the Peabody, we walked over to the Rendezvous for dinner.

From the Rendezvous, we headed to the Fed-Ex Forum to see a much-improved Memphis Grizzlies team defeat the New York Knicks.

Brett began his Memphis radio career back in 1992, helping Memphis sports legend George Lapides (once the sports editor of the late Memphis Press-Scimitar, which was the city’s afternoon newspaper) host his radio show. Brett has worked on a number of shows in the market since then, currently hosting “Sportstime Extra” each morning on WHBQ.

WHBQ, which was long owned by RKO before being sold to Flinn Broadcasting in 1988, was the home of Dewey Phillips. He was the DJ who first played a recording of “That’s Alright Mama” by an unknown singer named Elvis Presley. It was the first time an Elvis recording had been on the radio. The year was 1954.

Phillips hosted an evening show known as “Red, Hot and Blue” that attracted both black and white audiences, something that was rare in those days.

RKO DJs who would later become famous — people such as Rick Dees and Wink Martindale — would get their start at WHBQ before moving own to bigger RKO markets in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

I love what the call letters stood for — We Have Better Quartets.

Now, it’s all sports and no music on WHBQ. And Mempis residents love their sports.

As we walked down the alley toward the Rendezvous, I could see that the line was out the door. I worried that we would be late for the game. I should not have worried. At the Rendezvous, they all know Stats.

“Come on, we already have a table,” he said.

We were immediately seated in a corner, and the food started coming without us having to place an order — sausages and cheese with that wonderful Rendezvous dry rub to start. The ribs came later.

It was 1948 when Charlie Vergos was cleaning the basement below his diner and discovered a coal chute. That chute gave him the vent he needed to do barbecue. Since then, the basement in downtown Memphis has become a legend.

There are those who will tell you that the Rendezvous is too much of a place for tourists. And, yes, I will tell you that my favorite dish in Memphis is still the barbecue spaghetti at Interstate Barbecue down on South Third Street. But I still enjoy the Rendezvous. I like the history, I like the downtown location, I like the vibe and I like the fact that they have waiters who have been there 30 and even 40 years.

On the Rendezvous website, you can read about those waiters. Robert Sr. has been around for 45 years. Big Jack has been there since 1969. Albert, known as Red, started in 1973. Percy started in 1970. Geno, known as The Fixer, has been around for 34 years. Robert Jr. has been there 24 years.

One after another, managers and waiters stopped by our table to talk college and professional sports with Brett.

And we still made it to the Fed-Ex Forum in time for the 7 p.m. tip.

After the game, Brett headed to the interview room to work. Kane and I took a stroll down Beale Street. The place was hopping. It was good to see an active downtown on a Friday night.

Like the downtowns of many Southern cities, downtown Memphis has had its problems. After years of progress that began in the early 1980s, the recession has slowed or killed a number of downtown development projects. The Belz family, for instance, has halted construction on the Peabody Suites in the former Peabody Place Retail & Entertainment Center next to the hotel. For now, the focus is on a massive expansion of the Peabody Orlando Hotel. And one of my favorite downtown Memphis restaurants that was in that location — Encore — closed last fall. The Muvico cinema is also gone.

The Belz family usually does things right, however. So when the project goes forward, I have no doubt it will be a classy development.

One piece of good news is that the empty space on Beale Street that once held a franchise location of the New Orleans bar Pat O’Brien’s will soon be the home an expanded location of the Memphis version of Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. The original Ground Zero is in Clarksdale, Miss. The Mississippi location opened in May 2001. The Memphis location, which was a block off Beale, opened in May 2008.

The two-hour trip from Little Rock to Memphis remains an easy and fun getaway. There’s still plenty to do just over the bridge in downtown. My recipe — meet in the Peabody lobby, have dinner at the Rendezvous and attend an event at the Fed-Ex Forum. And, if you like sports, listen to WHBQ-AM, 560, on the way over and back.

Thanks, Stats.

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Spring training

Monday, March 15th, 2010

In the previous post, I wrote about a large envelope that arrived at my home last Monday afternoon. That envelope had been mailed Saturday from Arkadelphia by Mac Sisson.

It arrived at my home several hours after I had learned of Mac’s death from a heart attack.

What did the envelope contain?

It contained a copy of the Friday, March 5, edition of The Sentinel-Record. Mac wanted to be sure I saw the front-page article by Mark Gregory on a new photo exhibit at the Hot Springs Convention Center.

What Mac didn’t know was that I had joined Mike Dugan of Hot Springs for dinner that Sunday night at the Brau Haus, one of the few German restaurants in the state, followed by a tour of the photo exhibit. The exhibit celebrates the fact that Hot Springs was the home of baseball spring training.

I don’t like winter. That means I like March in Arkansas since this is the month that marks the end of winter. As I look out the window of my downtown office, I can see the grass beginning to turn green around the Richard Arnold Federal Courthouse. To put myself even further in the mood for spring, I tune the satellite radio in my vehicle to exhibition baseball games each March if I happen to be in the car during the afternoon.

In 1886, future Baseball Hall of Fame member Cap Anson was the manager and first baseman for the Chicago White Stockings. He brought his team south to Hot Springs to prepare for the season.

“Anson had learned about our mineral waters and spas, and the reason he brought the team to Hot Springs was so they could ‘boil out the alcoholic microbes’ in their hard-living players,” says Dugan, a noted amateur baseball historian.

Spring training was born as the players took the baths, hiked up mountains and played exhibition games.

During the early 1900s, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Brooklyn Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds all came to Hot Springs for spring training. Even though teams began going to Florida in the 1920s, individual players would continue to visit the Spa City until the start of World War II in order to “boil out.”

Players who trained in Hot Springs included Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson and many others. When teams shifted their training to Florida, National Colored League teams began training in Hot Springs. For example, the Pittsburgh Crawfords team that included Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson came to Arkansas in 1932 and 1935.

The exhibit features 24 photos and is titled “Hot Springs: Baseball’s First Spring Training Town.” It’s sponsored by Arkansas Farm Bureau, the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Garland County Historical Society.

Steve Arrison of the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau says the players were “accessible to the public. Though some, like Babe Ruth, were larger than life, they enjoyed their celebrity status and didn’t shy away from the fans.”

Dugan said he has debated the issue of where spring training started with baseball historian John Thorn, who notes that the Philadelphia Phillies traveled 30 miles south of town into New Jersey in 1871.

“Thirty miles south of Philadelphia is just an afternoon trip,” Dugan told the newspaper. That’s not spring training — heading south for the winter.”

Gregg Patterson, who edits the Farm Bureau’s Front Porch magazine, became intrigued with the history of spring training in Hot Springs when he did a cover story on the subject last spring. He began looking for photos. He found a wealth of material in the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington.

“Bain News Services, back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, did a bunch of photography throughout the United States,” Patterson told Gregory.

The photos were on glass plates. Some of them had ‘Hot Springs’ written on the front. Dugan worked with Patterson to identify other photos. Dugan could make out the location of a ballpark that was on the upper end of Whittington Avenue in some of the photos.

“The hillside hasn’t changed much,” he said. “The rocks are still in the same place and such.”

In 1918, the Red Sox built Majestic Field at the corner of Carson and Belding streets. The trolleys would turn around in front of the ballpark.

“The Red Sox could ride from the Majestic Hotel down there every day,” Dugan told the newspaper. He said the Red Sox built the park after getting “into a squabble with some of the National League teams over the use of the ballfields up on Whittington.”

One of my favorite characters in the photographs is Red Sox super fan Michael T. “Nuf Ced” McGreevey, who owned the Third Base Saloon in Boston. “Nuf Ced” would come to Hot Springs with the Red Sox each spring. Some of the photos came from the Boston Public Library’s McGreevey Collection.

Gregory writes: “Another favorite is the misidentified photo in the book ‘Baseball Americana’ that Dugan spotted. The book identifies a photograph of the Brooklyn Dodgers posing for their annual team photo on the trolley tracks ‘running through the heart of Brooklyn.’ The photo was supposedly a nod to their nickname, inspired by ‘trolley dodging locals’ on Brooklyn’s busy streets ‘running through the heart of the burrough.’ Dugan called up Patterson, who grew up in the New York area, and asked: ‘Are there any mountains in Brooklyn?’ … The photograph was actually taken in front of the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs.”

If you like baseball, this collection of photographs is well worth the trip to Hot Springs.

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Mac

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Most of all, I’ll remember the laugh.

It was infectious. And it was loud. Real loud.

The sound of that laugh coming from down the hall always made me smile.

Mac Sisson of Arkadelphia died Monday morning of a heart attack at the far-too-young age of 62. He was a mentor. He was a friend. He was one of those salt-of-the-earth people who make me glad to live in Arkansas.

Mac, a Crossett native, was a fixture for years at my alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University. He directed the news bureau, the sports information department, the photo lab and more. Mac was a man who seemingly wore 100 hats. But he did it all with a smile on his face and a genuine concern for the students. Mac was, in fact, one of the main reasons I attended Ouachita.

When I was in high school in Arkadelphia, I was hired as the sports editor of the Southern Standard, a weekly newspaper that no longer exists. It was a dream opportunity for someone who wanted nothing more at the time than to be a sports journalist. With Arkadelphia being a two-college town, I would be able to cover college sports on a regular basis. I would, however, have to farm out the coverage of the high school football team since I was actually playing in those games.

Mac immediately made me feel important even though I was just 17. He treated me as professionally as he treated the full-time writers who would come down from Little Rock to cover the Ouachita games for the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette. Yes, Mac was a pro, and he made me feel like one.

During my senior year in high school, I decided I was going to be different. You see, everyone in town assumed I would attend Ouachita. I had grown up just down the street from the school. My father had graduated from Ouachita. My mother had graduated from Ouachita. My sister had graduated from Ouachita. I was going to go against the grain, though, and attend either Vanderbilt or Ole Miss.

Mac never put any pressure on me. He just quietly made the point that if I were to decide to stay in Arkadelphia and attend Ouachita, I would be his student assistant and broadcast Ouachita games on the radio. He also worked behind the scenes to get me the sports editor’s job at the city’s daily newspaper, the Daily Siftings Herald, and the sports director’s job at radio stations KVRC-KDEL.

For someone wanting to become a sports journalist, the practical experience would prove invaluable. I would spend my college years as a daily newspaper sports editor, a radio sports director and a student assistant sports information director — all at the same time. It was thanks to Mac Sisson. Fortunately, I didn’t need much sleep back in those days.

Many hours were spent sitting on that old couch in Mac’s office, comparing notes, discussing stories and making plans. Like Mac, I talked loudly and laughed loudly. Agnes Coppenger, the saint who had the office across the hall where she served as Ouachita’s director of alumni affairs, would often walk over to say: “You don’t have to scream at each other. You’re in the same room.”

At some point during my days as a student, Mac became much more than a mentor. He became a close friend. I can never remember us having an argument.

My wife, who grew up in a huge state (Texas) and went to a huge school (Texas State at San Marcos), is constantly amazed by all the “Ouachita people” I run into everywhere we go.

“What’s the enrollment of that school again?” she will often ask.

“About 1,500,” I’ll reply.

“It seems more like 150,000,” she will shoot back.

I believe that in a small state and at a small school, the personal relationships tend to be deeper. So it is that I’ve spent much of this Monday fielding phone calls and answering e-mails from fellow members of the Ouachita family.

The memories have come flooding back.

– Memories of long van trips through the night as we returned from Ouachita football games (which I’m still broadcasting after more than three decades along with dear friend Jeff Root) in Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Mississippi and elsewhere. To keep us awake on the drive home, we would tune the AM radio to WWL in New Orleans to listen to the LSU game with John Ferguson or to WSB in Atlanta to listen to Larry Munson call the Georgia game. If it were really late, there was always the midnight replay of the Iowa game on WHO in Des Moines. How I loved those trips.

– Memories of Mac’s reputation for never driving over the speed limit. Often, long after I had graduated, his student assistants would ask, “Mac, are you sure you aren’t getting tired? Don’t you want Rex to drive?” In other words, Rex drives a lot faster and will get us home more quickly. I’ll never forget the sheer delight of everyone in the vehicle when Mac received a speeding ticket one day in Oklahoma. We never thought we would see the day.

– Memories of Mac’s love of local diners, aka greasy spoons. Mac and I made it a point never to eat at a chain restaurant. We wanted to try out the local fare in places such as Durant, Okla., and Seguin, Texas. We used to love afternoon games against East Central University in Ada, Okla., so we could do what we called “the double J.D.” That meant we would have lunch before the game at a placed called J.D.’s and supper after the game at the same spot. If the parking lot was filled with pickup trucks — and there were always plenty of pickups at J.D.’s — Mac wanted to give it a try. He also would drive us by the local attractions such as the World’s Largest Peanut in Durant and the World’s Largest Pecan in Seguin. There actually were street signs in Durant that simply said “Big Peanut.”

I drove to Mac and Donna’s home on the June 2008 Saturday when they learned that their son, Alan, had been killed in an automobile accident at the age of 33. Alan, who was an Army sergeant, had survived a tour of duty in Iraq in 2006-07. How sad and how ironic that after surviving Iraq, his life would end in Killeen, Texas.

On that day, Mac was the strongest man in the house. His faith in God had never been more evident. Mac never had to wear his Christian values on his sleeve. That’s because he lived them.

One last story: My wedding was on a Saturday in October 1989. I’m not sure what I was thinking to let my wife schedule our wedding on a college football Saturday. Did she not realize that fall Saturdays are high holy days for those of us who love college football?

At any rate, it seems to me that every Baptist church has a little ol’ lady who runs the weddings. She acts as a drill sergeant of sorts. The First Baptist Church of Corpus Christi had one of those drill sergeants. I sat in a room with my groomsmen late on that Saturday afternoon, awaiting the early evening start of my wedding. And, yes, I was nervous.

The drill sergeant walked into the room.

“You just received a phone call from Arkansas,” she said matter of factly. “I told them you were not to be bothered, but he insisted I pass along the message.”

It scared me at first. Was someone in my family seriously ill?

The drill sergeant then gave us the message.

“It was a Mr. Mac Sisson,” she said. “He wanted you to know that Ouachita defeated UAM this afternoon.”

She rolled her eyes, turned around and exited the room.

The tension was broken. My groomsmen and I cheered. I did a “Tiger roll” (you will have to ask one of the groomsmen to describe that).

Early this afternoon, my wife called. I had informed her this morning of the sad news.

“Guess what?” she said. “You have a large envelope in the mail from Mac Sisson.”

I haven’t been home yet to open it. But he was thinking of me still.

I know I will bask in the warm glow of memories like these in the years to come. But it’s still too fresh. My body aches on this Monday afternoon. Writing this has been somewhat of a catharsis I guess, but I want more than memories. I want to talk to Mac. I want to hear that laugh.

I don’t want to be selfish in my grief. There are a lot of people hurting today. I do know his family is hurting more now than we can realize.

Donna and Stephanie, we love you and are praying for you. Mac loved you dearly.

It was too soon to go, Mac. Way too soon.

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Arkansas cuisine

Friday, March 5th, 2010

The Oxford American is out with a new issue, and this one focuses on Southern food.

John T. Edge, who heads the Southern Foodways Alliance over at Ole Miss, was the guest editor for this issue. He makes clear that he likes people “for whom food is a caloric fuel, sure, but also a means of cultural expression, on par with music and literature.”

I’m one of those who believe there’s no greater expression of our Arkansas culture than our food. Last night, I sat at one of my favorite Arkansas restaurants — Gene’s in Brinkley — eating a couple of fried fiddlers. For those of you not familiar with the finer things in life, a fiddler is a small catfish that’s typically fried whole.

My late grandfather in Des Arc would go to the fish market on Main Street there and request that they save him any fiddlers brought in by the commercial fishermen on the White River. So my taste for fiddlers developed early in life. You cannot find fiddlers in many restaurants these days. But my friend Gene DePriest in Brinkley does them right.

In this food issue, Sam Eifling, one of our talented Arkansas writers, has an essay on Arkansas food. As Sam points out, it’s tough to define a distinctive Arkansas cuisine in a state that’s mostly Southern but also a little bit Midwestern and a little bit Southwestern.

“The future of food here could be a bright one, if we embrace the possibilities of our versatile soil and temperate climate,” he writes. “… Progressive farmers’ markets and vanguard Little Rock institutions such as Brave New Restaurant and Boulevard Bread Co. source local goods and are working, individually and collectively, to revivify farm-to-table connections.

“A smallish, landlocked state with Missouri’s backwoods as its roof, Mississippi’s catfish pipeline to its east, culinary powerhouse Louisiana to the south and Texas’ beef-pork-pepper riot at its southwestern corner, Arkansas resists glib division, but when it comes to food, primary are the Ozarks of the northwest, roughly, and then the Delta of the east and southeast. Historically, as now, life was work, money hard, and the only thing cheap was the time that a cook could invest in laboring over the family’s meals.”

After a fascinating journey through the Arkansas foodscape, Sam concludes that we love our pigs.

So what is Arkansas cuisine?

Here’s my best shot: Traditional country cooking done simply and done well, using the freshest ingredients possible.

Growing up in Arkansas, I was fortunate for several reasons when it came to enjoying food.

For starters, I’ve always loved to eat. I’m much like the family friend who, when my mother would ask if he were hungry, his father would quickly reply: “He’s breathing, ain’t he?”

I was also fortunate that all four of my grandparents lived into their 90s. I was able to spend a lot of time with them. One set of grandparents lived in Des Arc. My other grandparents lived in Benton. Both sets of grandparents had great gardens, chicken yards and fruit trees. And both grandmothers were superb cooks.

If they were still with us, they would be “busting up the garden” right now in these early and thankfully sunny days of March. Soon, I would be having soaked salad with fresh lettuce, radishes, bacon and that vinegar-bacon grease combination that’s so addictive. That salad always tasted like an Arkansas spring to me.

While spending summer days in Benton or Des Arc, I would go out early in the morning to gather fresh eggs and vegetables from the garden. I sometimes actually dream of picking okra, cucumbers, purple-hull peas, corn and pole beans with my grandmother in Benton and my grandfather in Des Arc.

I’m also fortunate that I grew up eating the food cooked by Mrs. Lucille Balch. We weren’t wealthy. But because my mother worked as the business manager for my father’s sporting goods store, we did have a maid at home. In this more enlightened time, I realize I should have referred to her as Mrs. Balch. But in the 1960s and the 1970s, our black maid was simply Lucille to me. In my mind, she was a member of the family. She helped raise me, for goodness sakes.

I loved her, and I loved her cooking. Her fried chicken. Her chicken and dumplings. Her fried apples. Her squash and onions. Her fried eggplant.

When I was home in the summer, our “dinner” was in the Old South tradition — at 1 p.m. My mom and dad would come home from work to eat the huge meal Lucille had cooked. My dad often would take a short nap on the couch before heading back downtown.

“Supper” was at night. It was more simple. But there were few things I liked better in the evening than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the cold fried chicken left over from earlier in the day and a glass of milk. Sometimes, a fresh cantaloupe would serve as dessert.

Like I said, I was fortunate.

You sometimes see that stock question that asks “what would you choose for your last meal?”

I’ll equivocate a bit and give you several answers.

If it’s around Thanksgiving or Christmas — Arkansas wild duck and cornbread dressing.

It it’s in the winter — fried quail, rice and gravy, biscuits and strawberry preserves.

If it’s in the spring, summer or early fall — fried crappie, fried potatoes and sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and green onions fresh from the garden. Please throw in some dewberry cobbler for dessert.

Let’s eat.

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My favorite books

Friday, March 5th, 2010

In 1976, Jim Rikhoff founded the National Sporting Fraternity Limited and its publishing arm, the Amwell Press. Rikhoff earlier had founded the Winchester Press and was a well-known figure in the sector of the book industry that deals with hunting and fishing.

A group of sportsmen was organized and limited to 1,000 members. Using money I earned from working at the radio station and the newspaper in Arkadelphia, I joined. Various collectible book titles were published and first offered to fraternity members. Each title was limited to 1,000 copies. All copies were signed by the author and Jim Rikhoff.

Because I purchased a number of these books through the years, I was delighed to read this on a website for book collectors: “These books have become very collectible because of a few reasons. They are limited to only 1,000 copies, they are put together with beautiful bindings and slipcases, and the content is desired by hunting, fishing and history enthusiasts. In many editions, you will also find great photos from the author’s personal collections.”

The most recent of these books I purchased was “A Quail Hunter’s Odyssey” by Joseph Greenfield Jr. It came out in 2004.

As I thought about my quail hunting past (see the previous post), I found myself  drawn to this book.

Greenfield wrote: “The true bird hunters consider this addicting avocation to be nothing less than the key to the enjoyment of life. From late November until early March, the everyday problems of life become unimportant. Quail season is open. Each component of bird hunting — birds, dogs, shotguns — combine in changing proportions to paint a beautiful canvas. Dyed-in-the-wool bird hunters frequently choose to hunt by themselves. My primary reason for hunting with others is that they own the land and have invited me to participate. Without them there would be no hunt. Except for this eminently cogent reason, I am at a loss to understand why one would hunt with a companion.”

I loved hunting with my dad. But I also knew I was becoming a man when he would let me take our truck and our bird dogs out alone. There was nothing like going out after school for a quick hour or two of hunting before dark — just our Brittany spaniel, our English setter and me.

I never much enjoyed hunting pen-raised birds. With wild quail becoming rare in most parts of Arkansas, I stopped hunting quail years ago. I miss it terribly.

“Unless physically unable, the true bird hunter will choose to hunt wild quail,” Greenfield wrote. “This endeavor will entail either many hours of fruitless searching or else taking part in an extraordinarily expensive endeavor. Certainly there are many shooting preserves which make a considerable effort to simulate wild bird hunting. Undoubtedly, for some, released birds may serve as a reasonable substitute for wild birds. But, and it is a very big but, not for me or for other dyed-in-the-wool bird hunters. Wild quail in their natural habitat are the necessary game.”

Greenfield has a chapter in the book titled “Bird Hunting: Is There A Future?”

Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll experience in Arkansas what I experienced as a boy when it comes to bird hunting. I’m not an optimist in this area.

“In spite of the long odds, hunters must continue to fight the good fight to preserve the sport,” Greenfield wrote. “On the other hand, while it is available, enjoy the totality of the hunting experience — being close to God in the great outdoors. Perhaps we live at the tail end of a tradition stretching back to the time when our forefathers first crawled out of the primordial slime. If sport hunting disappears, God forbid, man and beast alike will be by far the poorer.”

At least I have the memories. And at least I have some nice, leather-bound hunting books to keep me company at night.

Let’s let Joseph Greenfield close: “Why hunt birds? The simple answer: Nothing, absolutely nothing, beats watching a pair of pointers cover a picturesque piece of ground in a workmanlike manner and slamming on brakes to a stylish point. Or even better, admiring them precisely handling a running covey. This tableau, immediately followed by the feel of a fine double shotgun brought into play and accompanied by the thunderous sound of the covey flushing, is an experience without equal. There may be a few things I haven’t tried, but nothing I have attempted, seen or read about even comes close.”

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The bird hunters

Friday, March 5th, 2010

What a difference a week makes.

As I write this on the first Friday morning in March, the sun shines brightly outside. The temperature is expected to near 60 before the day is done. Finally, after what was a long, cold winter (by Arkansas standards), one can sense that spring is near.

A week ago, I was in my hometown of Arkadelphia for the day and the temperature never topped 40. There was some snow mixed in with the rain that afternoon. In other words, it was a perfect day for a late-winter ride through the country.

I had a few hours to spare before having to attend a banquet at Ouachita. Suddenly, the urge hit me to drive past some of the places where my dad and I used to quail hunt.

I chronicled part of that drive in the column I wrote for this Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I first drove east toward Dallas County on Arkansas Highways 7 and 8. I later went west on Arkansas Highway 51 toward Okolona, cutting north on Arkansas Highway 53 to Hollywood and then following Arkansas Highway 26 back east into Arkadelphia.

I tuned into KWKH-AM in Shreveport, the home of “The Louisiana Hayride,” to set the mood for a country drive. KWKH, 1130, is one of America’s famous old AM stations. It seemed fitting to listen to country music on that legendary station while driving by the fields where I had often hunted quail in the 1970s and early 1980s. It was, in so many ways, a sentimental journey.

For all practical purposes, quail hunting is a thing of the past in Arkansas. Or should I say “bird hunting,” as most Arkansans simply knew it? You didn’t have to ask what the bird was. It was the bobwhite quail, of course. One of my favorite meals as a child was fried quail along with rice and gravy. Having fried quail for breakfast on Christmas morning (you substituted grits for the rice when it was breakfast) was a special treat.

We occasionally would kill a woodcock while quail hunting (a good bird dog will also point a woodcock), and I would get the fried woodcock along with my quail at supper. Woodcock is a wonderful dark meat. If you like eating wild game, you’ll like woodcock.

But I digress.

We’re talking about quail hunting today. In his wonderful 2002 book “Hunting Arkansas,” Keith Sutton writes: “We may never see the glory days of  bobwhite quail hunting our fathers and grandfathers experienced earlier this century. Habitat loss has taken a heavy toll, and days when you could park on a hilltop and find eight or nine coveys within sight of the vehicle are long since past.”

Sutton goes on to write about the glorious tradition of quail hunting and how it clashes with the reality in Arkansas: “Though bobwhites range throughout the eastern and central United States, bobwhite hunting belongs to the South with all its color and boundless hospitality. Quail are simply ‘birds’ to Southern shooters, and the mention of ‘bird hunting’ conjures up visions of plantation houses, sprawling sedge fields and a brace of slat-ribbed pointers sailing across the countryside. Some even hear strains of gospel music filtering up from the fields beyond the barn. Though we wish it were otherwise, for most of us, quail hunting bears little resemblance to this idyllic setting. Old Shep replaces the pedigree pointers, and we’re much more likely to hunt on Uncle Jack’s back-forty that some high-dollar shooting resort or fancy plantation.”

So it was with my dad and me. We usually had two bird dogs and bounced in a dirty pickup truck from small farm to small farm in parts of Clark County and Dallas County. But we felt like aristocrats because of the sport’s regal tradition. Quail hunting just always seemed so much classier than deer hunting to me.

“Quail hunting can be as simple or as sophisticated as you want — or can afford — to make it,” Sutton wrote. “Expensive dogs, riding horses and English doubles aren’t required to savor its many pleasures.”

Dad and I would spend entire winter Saturdays bird hunting. We would start early in the morning while the frost was still heavy and go until dark. We often would stop for lunch in one of the two stores at Dalark. They were both classic old country stores with wooden floors and iron stoves to keep customers warm. One catered primarily to whites. The other served mainly a black clientele.

I loved going in the “black store” to listen to my dad visit with the owner, Mr. “Sugar” Jones. Mr. Jones would always be dressed in overhauls with patches all over them. His son, Danny, later ran the store.

After I had spent a Friday afternoon thinking about quail hunting with my dad, I picked up the Democrat-Gazette on Sunday morning to find Bryan Hendricks’ column about a recent Arkansas Game and Fish Commission meeting. The purpose of the public meeting was to discuss how we can increase the number of quail in Arkansas.

In 1982, about the last year I seriously hunted quail, a quail whistling survey reported that observers in Arkansas heard nearly seven birds per mile. In 2009, it was down to about one bird per mile, according to Hendricks. Let’s hope private landowners across Arkansas will become more serious about restoring quail habitat. I would love to take the sport up again if there were some chance of success.

“Quail densities are still adequate on lands that are managed for quail,” commission quail biologist Stephen Fowler told Hendricks. “There’s still a decent population of birds on Fort Chaffee and in the Ouachita National Forest. When the habitat is improved, quail populations respond accordingly.”

I thought about all of our old bird dogs on that Friday afternoon. I thought about the fun times outdoors with my dad. I thought about him teaching me to clean quail as we stood outside under a large light on winter Saturday nights. I thought about the fried quail dinners and breakfasts my mother would prepare.

I thought about how lucky I was to grow up roaming the Arkansas countryside.

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