A day of Delta driving and dining

Last year, I donated an item for a fundraising auction at Little Rock Catholic High School.

It wasn’t exactly an item.

I donated a day in the Delta — eating barbecue, viewing the sites, generally having fun.

I didn’t know if anyone would bid on it or not. But it was my gift to the school where my oldest son is receiving an excellent education.

To my surprise, a number of people bid. The high bidder was Gerald Grummer of Sherwood, a great guy who owns the Western Sizzlin at Jacksonville.

On Saturday, we finally got around to taking our trip. We were accompanied by two of Gerald’s sons, Jordan and Conner. Jordan majors in journalism at the University of Arkansas. Conner, who graduated last month from Catholic High, plans to attend the University of Arkansas and major in broadcast journalism.

Jordan is working this summer as a reporter for the Times Record at Fort Smith. He saw a far different world Saturday from the one he covers in west Arkansas.

Gerald began his career with Western Sizzlin in 1977 as a store manager in North Little Rock. He became the general manager of the Jacksonville location in 1995 and purchased the restaurant in February 2002.

We pulled out of Little Rock at 9 a.m. and made our first stop at my favorite vegetable stand in the state, the one at Biscoe in Prairie County where Arkansas Highway 33 intersects with U.S. Highway 70. I bought locally grown tomatoes and some squash.

On my way back to Little Rock from Arkansas City last week, I had purchased Bradley County pink tomatoes at the produce stand on U.S. 65 in Pine Bluff where Mrs. Jones’ restaurant once stood (I still miss that place). When the Arkansas tomatoes are ripe, we run through them quickly at our house. So those tomatoes were already gone.

I was tempted to buy a couple of big cantaloupes (I enjoy having half a cantaloupe for breakfast when they ripen each summer), but we had a long, hot day ahead of us. Frankly, I didn’t want to subject my guests to the smell of cantaloupes left in a hot car. It wouldn’t have bothered me. That smell always reminds me of childhood vacations, when my mother would buy cantaloupes on the way back from Texas.

After the stop at the vegetable stand, we pulled in just down the road at Martin’s IGA in Biscoe for something to drink. Back when I was going to Clarksdale, Miss., on a weekly basis, Martin’s was my morning stop for coffee and sausage biscuits. We were too late for biscuits Saturday morning. They were all gone. That was fine. There was plenty of eating ahead of us. I did, however, want the Grummers to get a feel for a real east Arkansas country store — one with lots of duck hunting photos on the wall.

We worked our way over to the Louisiana Purchase State Park, which I consider one of the most hauntingly beautiful places in the state. This National Historic Landmark just off U.S. Highway 49 preserves the initial point from which all surveys of the Louisiana Purchase began.

Twelve years after the 1803 purchase by President Thomas Jefferson, President James Madison ordered an official survey of the purchase area. This territory included parts of what are now 13 states stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. In October 1815, a survey party left the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Arkansas River and headed north to establish a north-south line known as the Fifth Principal Meridian.

On the same day, a party headed west from the confluence of the Mississippi River and the St. Francis River to establish an east-west line known as the baseline. The crossing of the two lines would be the point from which all future land surveys in the Louisiana Purchase would originate.

In 1921, two surveyors found marks on water tupelo trees in this headwater swamp. They knew this marked the initial survey point.

A granite marker was placed here in 1926 by the L’Anguille Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Despite the historical significance of this point where Monroe, Lee and Phillips counties intersect, few people visited until the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department used revenues from Amendment 75 to build a modern boardwalk to the 1926 marker. There are interpretive exhibits along the boardwalk that tell of the Louisiana Purchase and explain what can be found in the swamps of east Arkansas.

The park is open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. each day. Be ready for solitude. You likely will be the only one there. Twenty-one miles south of Brinkley, you turn onto Arkansas Highway 362 and travel two miles to the east. You can park right at the start of the boardwalk.

Having worked up an appetite after our visit to the park, we drove quickly to our first barbecue stop. When I put this day up for auction, I had planned for the first eating stop to be Shadden’s on U.S. 49 just west of Marvell. We reported last month the death of Wayne Shadden and the fact that his legendary country store likely won’t reopen. We drove by slowly Saturday and stared at the wreath still on the front door of the old building.

Our first eating stop ended up being on the other side of Marvell at Poplar Grove. It used to be called J.R.’s. It’s now called A.C.’s. But it looks just the same inside, the service is friendly and the pork sandwiches with slaw (we went with medium sauce rather than hot) are still good. Just look for the pink-and-purple pig on the wooden sign by the highway. It’s on your left as you head toward Helena.

We took a left at Walnut Corner and drove north on Arkansas Highway 1 to Marianna. The destination was Jones, the barbecue joint that no less of an authority than John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance believes might be the oldest continuously operated, black-owned restaurant in the South. Unfortunately, the place was closed. You just never know when it comes to getting barbecue at Jones. At least the Grummers were able to see the old house that holds the restaurant. Fresh hickory was piled outside.

We drove back south on Highway 1 and picked up our second barbecue sandwich of the day at Cypress Corner Bar-B-Q near Lexa. The barbecue is excellent here. Cypress Corner, in fact, ranks in my Top 10 of Arkansas barbecue restaurants.

With two eating stops behind us, we crossed the Mississippi River bridge at Helena and drove into Clarksdale. Taking a break from barbecue, we dropped by Hicks World Famous Hot Tamales to sample the tamales. The always affable Eugene Hicks took us into the back room to show us where he makes these tamales, which he ships across the country.

Since Gerald is a restaurant owner, he was fascinated by the $8,000 electric press that Mr. Hicks uses. That commercial press was intended for stuffing Italian sausages. But Mr. Hicks uses it for his beef tamale fillings. He has a tray with dozens of three-inch cylindrical plastic molds to shape the meat before it is hand rolled in white cornmeal and paprika. The 66-year-old Delta legend says the most time-consuming part of the job is rolling the tamales in corn shucks, which he orders from a company in Dallas. The tamales are then tied in groups of three.

We left Mr. Hicks and headed out to the Hopson Plantation on the edge of town. In 1935, Hopson’s owners began a serious effort to mechanize their cotton operations. In the fall of 1944, International Harvester introduced its first mechanical cotton picker at Hopson. The plantation has long claimed that it was the first place in the world to grow and harvest cotton completely by mechanical methods — no more rows of humans hoeing cotton in the summer and picking cotton in the fall.

The mechanization of agriculture changed the South, so Hopson is an important place for those who study Southern history. Fortunately, my friend James Butler was there on Saturday and hosted us for a visit in the Hopson commissary, which was built in 1924. The commissary now serves as a special events center.

We said so long to James and went downtown to Delta Avenue to visit Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art Inc., a store that Roger Stolle started in 2002.

“I was living in St. Louis with my now ex-wife (Jennifer), and after seven or eight years of visiting the Mississippi Delta, we started talking about moving there to start a blues business and try to support the far-from-flourishing blues scene as well as the culture and personalities behind it,” Roger writes on the store’s website. “I was running a marketing department at the time for a large retailer in downtown St. Louis, and the job was awesome — the kind people kill over. Still, it just felt like at the end of the day I was really just punching a clock, trying to make the most widgets and amass bigger and bigger slices of the pie. At some point, it just didn’t make sense to me anymore.”

Eight years later, the store is going strong.

Our fourth eating stop of the day was next on the agenda — Abe’s Barbecue in Clarksdale, which has been around since 1924. After World War II, Abe’s moved from the intersection of Fourth and Florida streets to the crossroads of U.S. Highways 61 and 49. Among the musicians who have eaten at Abe’s through the years are Paul Simon, Charlie Pride and Conway Twitty.

Michael Stern writes at www.roadfood.com: “Abe’s has been sung about in blues songs and written about in Faulknerian novels set in the Mississippi Dleta; and to the traveling foodie, it is a must-eat destination. Its legend goes back to 1924 when Abe Davis opened a snack stall on the street in Clarksdale. Today at the famous crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, Abe’s grandson Pat Davis maintains the name and the high-quality cooking, which includes thin-sliced, crisp-edged barbecued pork as well as that incongruous Mississippi Delta specialty, the hot tamale.”

Having had tamales with Mr. Hicks, we had our third pork sandwich of the afternoon at Abe’s.

It was time to head back west toward Arkansas.

Before crossing the bridge into the promised land, I showed my guests Uncle Henry’s Place on Moon Lake, just off U.S. 49. Moon Lake is an oxbow lake, and Uncle Henry’s is in the historic building that housed the Moon Lake Club (a casino famous across the Delta) in the 1930s. Tennessee Williams mentioned the Moon Lake Club (which he called the Moon Lake Casino) in “Summer and Smoke” and referred to Moon Lake itself in several other works.

According to www.roadtripusa.com, “Moon Lake was home to one of the South’s most famous Prohibition landmarks, the Moon Lake Club. Unlike speakeasies associated with thugs and tarts, this club was a family destination where parents could dance and gamble while the kids played in the lake. In a place and time when planes were still so rare the sound of their engines could interrupt work and empty classrooms, the club flew in fresh Maine lobster and Kansas City steak for its clientele of rich white Memphians.”

George Wright now operates the restaurant at Uncle Henry’s with service beginning at 6 p.m. each Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. George likes you to call ahead for reservations at (662) 337-2757. I can highly recommend his cooking. This is fine dining in an unlikely spot. Sarah Wright will also rent you one of the five rooms and serve you breakfast the next morning.

We didn’t eat with George on this night. Our final stop was to be that most famous of Arkansas Delta barbecue restaurants, Craig’s in DeValls Bluff.

We drove briefly around downtown Helena. We also stopped to read the new Civil War marker once we reached DeValls Bluff.  We walked into Craig’s at 7 p.m. This would be our fifth and final eating stop of the day.

Stern once wrote of Craig’s: “‘Mild, medium or hot?’ you will be asked when you place an order at this roadside smokehouse. Even the mild stuff packs a pleasant punch; medium is very spicy; hot is diabolical, enough to set your tongue aglow for hours. It was quite a sight to watch local boys in overalls come to Craig’s for ‘extra hots’ at lunch and quickly ingest two or three big sandwiches before hopping in their trucks and driving back to work. Not a one of the big fellers combusted from the heat.”

Well, these four Arkansas boys went the “medium” route on the barbecue sauce. As always, the food was excellent.

We arrived back in Little Rock less than 12 hours after we had departed — two states, four barbecue restaurants, one tamale restaurant, a swamp and several historic sites covered on a Saturday. It was quite a day.

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7 Responses to “A day of Delta driving and dining”

  1. Carl Enna says:

    Great article, Rex. Really enjoy reading your Southern Fried writings….

  2. Br549 says:

    I sure love that produce stand in Biscoe.

    I worked the entirety of one summer on the bank of the Cache river, just north of I-40 off of Hwy 33, at the end of Pendergrass road. It was always a treat to have fresh fruit and veggies for our lunches that came from that roadside stand.

    One of the most interesting experiences I had that summer was when there was a boat came down the river moving slowly, with an odd contraption on top, and one man operating it. It barely was making its way down the river. As it came closer, we were able to see there was a man under the boat as well, and he apparently had a tube running to a mask that was being pumped with air from the surface.

    Harvesting mussels. Or clams. For buttons. Apparently, at one time this was quite the profitable business according those who told me about it.

    Anyways, I never knew until that hot summer day.

    I can feel the muggy heat and sweat rolling down my back just thinking about that summer. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  3. rexnelson says:

    Thanks for the stories about the Cache.

    My mother grew up in Des Arc back when the “button factories” were a big deal along the White River. A lot of people made a living harvesting buttons.

    Plastic buttons pretty much put an end to all of that, but it remains an interesting footnote in Arkansas history — Rex

  4. Billy Ray says:

    Rex,

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE reading your stories. Keep up the great work. Glad to see someone from the Capital City with such a love and respect for the Delta. Sometimes, we seem to think that people in the flourishing parts of the state, look down upon us. Thanks for reminding us that we are blessed to live in the Arkansas Delta.

  5. rexnelson says:

    Thanks so much, Billy Ray.

    I love the Delta. Be proud of this beautiful region.

    I drove to Greenville and back last night for supper at Doe’s.

    I’m headed to Memphis on Sunday.

    I’m getting to see a lot of east Arkansas along the way — Rex

  6. AllenK says:

    Another great entry Rex!!! My wife just went to Clarksdale on business,and she brought us home Abe’s BBQ. It was fantastic! It was bittersweet though because I know it would’ve been Shadden’s if Mr. Wayne was still alive. What a shame.

    The Louisiana Purchase park is wonderful. My wife and I visited there late in the day (almost dark) on New Year’s Day. There was nobody around of course except us. It’s beautiful,but it was somewhat spooky as well. All you could hear were the Loons and the guns firing in the distance to scare off birds I presumed.

    Craig’s is awesome as well.

  7. Lee County’s Cypress Corner is one of my favorite BBQ joints. I also really like Tabb’s BBQ in Greenville.

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