Summer in Arkansas

The July issue of Arkansas Life magazine ( is out, and there’s a nice series of essays about summer in Arkansas.

For those of us who love summer, the essays bring back plenty of memories.

Here’s the introduction: “That first sweet bite of watermelon. The waxy-fine feel of a ripe tomato in the palm of your hand. Slapping your skin over and over, hoping the pesky mosquitoes will find another host. These are the staples of an Arkansas summer. But the soul of the season hides in the most unusual places and moments. For there is magic in a pre-dawn bike ride, a float down the Buffalo River or a cold mojito sweating in your hand. There is pure joy found in the eyes of children as they swat at lightning bugs or watch the fireworks sizzle in the sky before falling into the lake.”

During the summer, for instance, I simply cannot get enough of Arkansas tomatoes and peaches.

I plan to drive tomorrow to Clarksdale, Miss., for part of the Oxford American’s Most Southern Weekend On Earth event. On the way home, I hope to stop at the fruit and vegetable stand on U.S. Highway 70 at Biscoe to buy peaches, tomatoes and perhaps a big cantaloupe.

My friend Kane Webb, the executive editor of Arkansas Life, asked me to contribute a couple of short pieces. I addressed two subjects I’ve written about on this blog before — eating outside at the Dairyland Drive-In just off the Prothro Junction exit off Interstate 40 in North Little Rock, and getting my fill of vegetables at Franke’s in the Regions Center in downtown Little Rock.

I visited Dairyland at 1 p.m. on a sunny Wednesday. There were two other people eating outside. That left me two of the four small picnic tables from which to choose.

A steady stream of traffic wound slowly down Arkansas Highway 161 — big, loud trucks; cars with the windows open and their radios playing full blast. Don’t expect a quiet dining experience at the Dairyland Drive-In.

You can sit facing the traffic or you can sit with your back to the highway, facing an old shed and a dilapidated mobile home with boxes piled high on the added-on wooden deck. The lunch special was a hamburger, fries and a drink. With tax, the total came to $4.42. And there were enough fries to feed two. These aren’t the mass-produced, frozen version, either. They’re fresh cut and fried to a golden brown. It costs an extra 40 cents if you want cheese on the burger.

There’s a full selection of milkshakes, malts, sundaes, floats and banana splits. I ordered a milkshake to take back to the office with me. It was as good as any milkshake you can find in this state.

On the day I visited Franke’s for the magazine story (I’m in the same building; I’ve already visited twice for lunch this week), my choice for a salad was the marinated tomato and cucumber salad. Vegetables? I went that day with turnip greens and Franke’s famous eggplant casserole. The entree was the stuffed bell pepper. I added a cornbread muffin. A piece of egg custard pie is de rigueur for dessert when you visit Franke’s.

There’s a Franke’s out on Rodney Parham in west Little Rock that’s open seven days a week, serving lunch and dinner. The downtown location is only open from 10:45 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, still overseen by a member of the founding family, Kristin Franke. The demographics vary greatly between the two locations. Out west, it tends to be an older crowd — retired folks, people from out of town who have doctors’ appointments. Downtown, it’s more of a business crowd — good suits, well-shined shoes (I’m the exception; my shoes badly need a shine. Can someone suggest a good place to get a shine?).

The July edition of Arkansas Life also includes short pieces by:

— Christopher Irons on cycling at dawn

–Kyle Brazzel on Fourth of July fireworks

— Tammy Keith on drive-in movies and on peaches

— Werner Trieschmann on mosquitoes

— Steve Straessle on snow-cone shacks

— Nancy Elizabeth Dement on Lake Ouachita

— Kane Webb on baseball

— Sean Clancy on driving through the Delta with bugs hitting the window (I will no doubt experience some of those bugs on the way back from Clarksdale tomorrow)

— Bobby Ampezzan on summer heat

— Keith Sutton on fishing the oxbow lakes in the White River National Wildlife Refuge

That one brought back memories of summer evenings spent fishing with my dad on an oxbow in the Ouachita River bottoms south of Arkadelphia. We were always the only boat on the water. It was quiet, eerie even.

The talented Sutton writes: “Bass live in the emerald waters of the oxbows, and catfish and bluegills and crappie — lots of them. Yet anglers don’t visit often. The lakes are remote and it can be difficult to launch a boat. One might fish a lake for days without seeing another soul. But you can drop in a cricket or minnow, cast a crankbait or spinner, and catch fish after fish.

“Watch, and you will see flashes of yellow in the cypress trees — stunning prothonotary warblers, gleaning insects for their young. Breathe deeply, and you will smell the evergreen fragrence of cypress needles and the redolence of rich, bottomland earth and fertile water. Listen, and you will hear the haunting calls of barred owls — Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? — and the sonorous hum of summer cicadas. Relax, and you will feel your cares melt away. Senses stir every minute you are there.”

It’s nice writing, and it brings back nice summer memories.

What things, places and events define an Arkansas summer for you?

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