Arkansas’ barbecue culture

I had the honor recently of being asked by my friends at the Southern Foodways Alliance on the Ole Miss campus to write the introduction for the Arkansas section of the SFA’s Southern BBQ Trail.

You already can find oral histories from Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas posted at www.southernbbqtrail.com.

Oral histories currently are being collected from Arkansas.

I’ve never felt that the Arkansas barbecue culture gets the credit it deserves.

Why?

Here’s part of what I wrote: “Unlike their boastful Texas neighbors, Arkansans quietly prepare great barbecue, enjoy eating it and move on with their lives. Because the natives don’t brag, Arkansas barbecue has never received the national recognition it deserves.

“Let’s make one fact clear: Some of the best barbecue anywhere can be found in Arkansas though national TV shows and magazine articles tend to focus on North Carolina or Texas barbecue. In addition to the modesty of its natives, a reason for the lack of recognition might be that people from outside the state have a hard time figuring Arkansas out. It’s a fringe state, not solely a part of any one region. It’s a state that’s mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. Northwest Arkansas is far different from southeast Arkansas. Northeast Arkansas doesn’t have much in common with southwest Arkansas.

“One thing all parts of Arkansas have in common is that her people, while never boastful, are proud. … So what if outsiders can’t figure us out? Those of us in Arkansas already know we have a good thing going when it comes to food.”

If you love barbecue, you need to spend some time at the Southern BBQ Trail website. The website includes not only the oral histories but also photos, film snippets, audio clips and an interactive map.

In his introduction, Jake Adam York writes: “Barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-q, BBQ: there are almost as many spellings as there are kinds of barbecue, as if the proliferation of words could express the mastering tastes and aromas of the food, all the experiences that can fill the mouth, the place where also words begin.

“Today, barbecue is more popular than ever and can be found by a hungry Southerner in almost any American city, but barbecue will always be Southern because, as an American cuisine, that’s where it began and because that’s where it continues to evolve most interestingly.

“Though the word barbecue devolves from Taino, a pre-Columbian Caribbean language, the native method described by the word — the slow drying of sliced, spiced meat, over a low, smoky fire — seems to have been fairly widespread in the eastern Caribbean at the time of European contact, being practiced in what would become Brazil as well as in what would become Virginia.

“But it was in Virginia and in the Carolinas that barbecue as we know it would begin to evolve. In Virginia, British colonists observed the Native American method of drying meat on a grill of green sticks over a smoking fire and soon married this method to their own interest in spit-cooking hogs and other small animals. The British introduced their own native practices, including basting — either with butter or with vinegar — to keep the meat from drying while cooking.

“Slaves of African descent, imported from the Caribbean, brought a taste (developed in the islands) for New World peppers, especially red pepper. Along the Atlantic seaboard, then, when the vinegar and butter combined with the spices and peppers, barbecue sauce arrived on the Southerner’s and the Briton’s favorite hog. Even today in eastern North Carolina, you can find whole-hog barbecue, lightly seasoned with vinegar and black and red peppers, colonial style.

“In South Carolina, in the Broad River Valley, German and French immigrants brought their taste and recipes for mustard, which helped repel malarial mosquitoes, and these mustards found their way into that colonial food, barbecue, and remained there, through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and two World Wars, to be found even today in the same Broad River Valley.

“To the west, in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, probably toward the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century, barbecue cooks began using just the shoulder of the hog when barbecuing, an innovation perhaps encouraged by the growth of the meat curing and packing industries. In this same area, populated largely by Germans, German-style coleslaw, both sweet and spicy, dressed the pork, and the tomato, only recently determined edible, sweetened the fare.”

Back to Arkansas.

You can easily begin an argument on the best place to get barbecue in our state.

Here’s how I broke it down for the SFA: “The strongest barbecue area of the state is the Delta region of east Arkansas. The barbecue is pork here (beef has crept from Texas into parts of southwest Arkansas), though the sauces vary from place to place. At Craig’s in DeValls Bluff along U.S. Highway 70, you’ll walk into the ramshackle building and immediately be asked if you want your barbecue mild, medium or hot. The hot sauce is just that. Most of the regulars go the medium route. The crowd here is a mixture of locals, hunters from Little Rock and Memphis when it’s duck season and those who are wise enough to get off Interstate 40 and find their way to DeValls Bluff.

“In Marianna, meanwhile, Jones Bar-B-Q is in an old house in a residential area. Jones has been around since at least the early 1900s. While it’s hard to determine the exact year it opened, there are some people who believe it’s the oldest continually operated black-owned restaurant in the South.

“Up in the far northeast corner of the state, you can find the Dixie Pig at Blytheville, whose fan page on Facebook has almost 1,500 members. For more than 70 years, the ‘pig sandwiches’ here have drawn people from as far away as Memphis and the Missouri Bootheel.

“It’s common for restaurants to use the name ‘pig’ in a state where the beloved athletic teams at the University of Arkansas go by ‘Razorbacks’ and people ‘call the Hogs’ at football games. Not only is there a Dixie Pig in Blytheville, there’s a different restaurant with the same name in North Little Rock. The oldest barbecue joint in central Arkansas is the White Pig in a working-class neighborhood of North Little Rock. Alas, the venerable Pig Pit at Arkadelphia changed its name to Fat Boys a few years back, though barbecue still dominates the menu.

“While east Arkansas is widely regarded as barbecue country, the most famous barbecue restaurant in the state is likely McClard’s in the southwest Arkansas resort city of Hot Springs. Given the fact that Bill Clinton grew up in Hot Springs, McClard’s has received some media attention through the years. That attention is deserved, even in a barbecue-rich city that has other quality barbecue establishments with names like Purity and Stubby’s. Alex and Gladys McClard owned the Westside Tourist Court in the 1920s. When a traveler could not come up with $10 he owed them, he asked the couple to accept a recipe for barbecue sauce instead. By 1928, the Westside Tourist Court was Westside Bar-B-Q with barbecued goat as the featured item on the menu. McClard’s moved to its present location in 1942 and hasn’t changed much since, though the goat has disappeared from the list of entrees.

“People from outside Arkansas, incidentally, think Bill Clinton came from Hope. He was born in Hope but moved to Hot Springs as a young child. Clinton finished elementary school, junior high school and high school  in Hot Springs. For Arkansans, he was always considered a Hot Springs product. Suddenly, during the 1992 presidential campaign, he became the ‘man from Hope’ when consultants determined that ‘I still believe in a place called Hot Springs’ just didn’t have the same ring to it.

“It’s another example of how this state of contradictions known as Arkansas confounds outsiders. The same goes for its barbecue. Define Arkansas barbecue, you say? Impossible. Just shut up and eat, the Arkansan will tell you.”

There you have it. Time for you to weigh in. Best barbecue region in the state? Best barbecue city the state? Slaw or no slaw on your sandwich? Best barbecue restaurant in the state? Best wood for smoking? Does it have to be pork to be Arkansas barbecue?

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10 Responses to “Arkansas’ barbecue culture”

  1. Rocky says:

    It AINT BB’Q if it AINT pork. Definately slaw on the pulled pork sandwich. Proably like HB’s off of 65th better than any other.

  2. Jeff says:

    Sims has the best sauce. Ate at Craig’s once and was impressed.

  3. RWF says:

    I have to agree on with my brother on HBs. We were 09ers early in life and grew up on their BBQ. However, I still maintain that Shadden’s in Marvell was the best in Arkansas.

  4. David willms says:

    What was the place right in the shadow of the Capitol? (NE corner if my memory serves me correctly?) went there dozens of times as a child and young man.

  5. Bubba Wayne says:

    David, it was the Shack. Teacher Retirement building there now.

    My favorite B-B-Que is generally the one in my hand at the time. Sassy Jones in Dermott is great. Will miss Shadden’s! Grandpa’s in Cabot and the Mean Pig are good and the numerous roadside stands all over the state can be tasty. Bottom line, if you take pork and apply smoke and flame you can usually not go wrong.

    Now go forth and enjoy.

  6. Don’t forget Couch’s in Jonesboro, and the late and much lamented Bill’s Grill in Marion. Second all the accolades for Shadden’s, Craig’s and Jones’, and I’m fond of the Dixie Pig as well. Roadside, in Lehi just west of West Memphis (Hwy. 147 exit off I40) is good; more Sims-ish in its sauce. Hickory House in Wynne is little known outside the area, but really good. My adopted home of Hot Springs boasts plenty of good ones, as you’ve noted.

    Definitely pork, preferably shoulder. Medium sauce, vinegar based, sweet-tart slaw (I have a primo recipe for that if you want it).

    H’mm. Believe I may have to go to Purity for lunch.

  7. Mark says:

    Arthur’s in Pine Bluff is a city tradition, and Smoke on the Water has come back to it’s birth place ! Pork and Chicken for me with a spicy sauce. I go slaw-less

  8. Joyce Hayden says:

    HB’s on Lancaster is a “relative” to the old Shack. It is our favorite place. It has been there since 1957 and still going strong.

  9. JS says:

    Chips in Little Rock is the only one I miss.

  10. C. Gottlieb says:

    Rivertowne BBQ in Ozark is really good. I try and stop in when I visit the state, even if it’s miles out of my way.

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