The James Beard Awards are to the food industry what the Pulitzer Prizes are to journalism, the Academy Awards are to the film industry, the Emmy Awards are to television, the Tony Awards are to the theater and the Grammy Awards are to music.
That brings us to a nondescript place in a residential area at 219 W. Louisiana St. in the Arkansas Delta town of Marianna.
Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, owned by James and Betty Jones, has been selected by the James Beard Foundation of New York as one of five America’s Classics Award honorees for 2012.
Foodies nationwide can tell you that this is big.
Most Arkansans have never heard of the restaurant, but they’ll know about it now.
The America’s Classics Award is given to restaurants with “timeless appeal that are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community.”
The Jones family will be honored Monday, May 7, when the annual awards dinner is held at the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York.
“Every year, the presentation of our five America’s Classics Awards are favorite moments at our ceremony,” says Susan Ungaro, the James Beard Foundation president. “Attendees at our awards love meeting these folks and hearing their stories because they represent the diverse heritage, heart and community of our country’s national cuisine. James Beard would have loved visiting them all.”
Beard, who died in 1985, was a cookbook author and teacher who educated generations of chefs and other foodies. A Portland native, Beard published the first of his 20 books in 1940.
Julia Child once said of Beard: “Through the years, he gradually became not only the leading culinary figure in the country but the dean of American cuisine.”
He established the James Beard Cooking School in 1955 and for the next three decades taught men and women how to cook.
The James Beard Foundation website describes him as a “tireless traveler, bringing his message of good food, honestly prepared with fresh, wholesome, American ingredients, to a country just becoming aware of its own culinary heritage.”
I have no doubt that Mr. Beard would have enjoyed visiting Jones Bar-B-Q Diner.
Here’s how the Beard Foundation describes the place: “Some incarnation of Jones Bar-B-Q Diner has been open since at least the 1910s. Walter Jones was the founder and first pitmaster. He lived in a dogtrot house perched nearby. From the back porch, he served barbecue on Fridays and Saturdays.
“Hubert Jones, the son of Walter Jones and the father of present-day proprietor James Jones, recalled the family’s initial barbecue setup as a ‘hole in the ground, some iron pipes and a piece of fence wire, and two pieces of tin.’
“Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, one of the oldest African-American-owned restaurants in America, remains true to those roots. James Jones, the grandson of Walter Jones, tends the pits. His cooking apparatus is still elemental. And the pork shoulder, hacked into savory bits and served on white bread with a spritz of vinegary sauce, is as smoky as ever.”
Here’s the rest of the story of a James Beard Award coming to Marianna: Several years ago, when I became active in the Southern Foodways Alliance, I got to know John T. Edge, the alliance director and nationally known food writer who’s based on the Ole Miss campus. I urged John T. to spend more time on the west side of the Mississippi River. I’ve long considered the barbecue culture of the Arkansas Delta to be far superior to that of the Mississippi Delta, and I told him that.
Jones Bar-B-Q was among the places that I, along with other Arkansans, urged John T. to try.
The Beard Award for Jones Bar-B-Q never would have happened without the persistence of John T. Edge.
He drove over from Oxford to visit the restaurant and discovered that James Jones is a man of few words. John T. came back again and again, finally wearing down Mr. Jones enough that he had the material for an Oxford American article titled “In Through the Back Door.”
The article itself was nominated for a Beard Award.
Here’s how it started: “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 thin 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.”
And here’s how the Oxford American story ends: “And that is why, not 30 minutes after an old white man stood in the parking lot, bag in hand, he was replaced by a younger white man, bearing his own burden, gripping his own bag, a similar stigmata of grease defining the barbecue within. That man, I might as well tell you, looked a lot like me.”
You can find John T.’s story reprinted in a wonderful collection titled “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture & Barbecue in the Mid-South.”
The collection, which also contains a piece by Justin Nolan of El Dorado on the barbecue culture of south Arkansas and north Louisiana, was published last year by the Vanderbilt University Press.
John T. also wrote about Jones Bar-B-Q in a story in Saveur. James Jones told him: “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.”
John T. wrote: “Jones’ story is similar to many I’ve heard from pitmasters around the South: For their ancestors, barbecue was an opportunity — a way to leverage equity and muscle to build successful businesses. By the late 1930s, as new roads stretched across the South and community barbecue traditions begat city commerce, young entrepreneurs began selling sandwiches from roadside shebangs. And in a leap that would give a lexicographer whiplash, a vocation that had been built largely on the labor of enslaved African-Americans began referring to its best practitioners as pitmasters. … Race has always been a subtext of barbecue. In much of the South, blacks traditionally did the pit-cooking while whites supervised.”
Here’s a tip if you’re planning a pilgrimage to Marianna to get a sandwich: Get there early.
“Mr. Jones is there early in the mornings and leaves early in the afternoon,” says Kim Williams, a travel writer for the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. “If you want barbecue, you get it in the morning.”
Mr. Jones usually arrives by 7:30 a.m. each Monday through Saturday. Kim lists the closing time as 2 p.m., but if he runs out of barbecue, he’s gone much earlier. I’ve arrived at the noon hour and found the place locked tight.
Remember, no buns. Just white bread. Without or without slaw. No sides.
“I grew up on Jones,” Kim says. “I can only eat barbecue on white bread.”
A lot of people buy Mr. Jones’ barbecue by the pound.
“I actually prefer it without bread,” Kim says. “The slaw, which is basically the only slaw I will eat, is mustard based, I guess, because it’s yellow. The sauce is vinegar based and relatively thin. I’m craving it now. It’s only four blocks from my house.”
A James Beard Award for Jones Bar-B-Diner? How about that!
It’s indeed an American classic.