The Arkansas BBQ Trail

The Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization based at Ole Miss that does much to shine a spotlight on Southern food, has launched its Arkansas BBQ Trail, a collection of oral histories.

Arkansas is part of the larger Southern BBQ Trail, which can be found at www.southernbbqtrail.com.

I was honored to be asked by the folks at SFA to write the introduction for our state. I’m in good company.

Other introductions were written by Jake York for Alabama, Tom Freeland for Mississippi, John Shelton Reed for North Carolina, Robb Walsh for Texas and James Veteto and Ted Maclin for Tennessee — great Southern writers and thinkers all.

Veteto and Maclin are the men responsible for the book mentioned in the previous Southern Fried blog post — “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked.”

Arkansas is the sixth state for which there are oral histories. The Southern BBQ Trail is a work in progress, so other interviews will be transcribed over time.

For now, these Arkansas interviews are featured on the site:

– Kyle McClard of McClard’s Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs

– Robert Craig of Craig’s Bar-B-Q in DeValls Bluff

– Chris Dunkel of Stubby’s Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs

– Chris Newman of The Rack Pack competitive team and catering operation in Jonesboro

– Jim, Nora and Barry Vaughn of J&N Barbecue in Bono

– Carolyn Johnson of Big Johnson’s (a restaurant) and Little Johnson’s (a barbecue trailer) in Wynne

McClard’s and Craig’s are the two most famous barbecue joints in the state.

Stubby’s is also well known (I walked over there for ribs after watching the Rebel Stakes earlier this spring).

The others are not as well known, but the Southern BBQ Trail seeks to shine a light on all types of pitmasters and barbecue establishments.

Let’s take them one at a time.

The website says of McClard’s: “McClard’s Bar-B-Q was founded in 1928 by Gladys and Alex McClard, who started their business by smoking goats, not hogs. Gradually, goat was phased out, and pork, as well as beef, made the menu.”

I hate it that goat was phased out. I love to partake of cabrito when I visit my wife’s relatives in far south Texas.

“Kyle McClard, pitmaster and Gladys and Alex’s great-grandson, represents the fourth generation to work in the family business in Hot Springs,” the website states.

Interviewed in the building on Albert Pike that has housed the restaurant since 1942, Kyle McClard said of the sauce: “They think it not too — too spicy; it’s not too vinegary. It doesn’t have very much of a vinegary taste to it. The recipe is actually still locked in a safe in a bank downtown.”

The website says of Craig’s: “Robert Craig is carrying on the tradition that was started by his father, Lawrence Craig, a former cook on a Mississippi River boat, and his uncle Wes. The Craigs opened Craig Brothers Cafe in the segregated South of 1947.

“Three generations have supplied many satisfied customers with a variety of smoked meats, most notably smoked and sliced pork sandwiches slathered with a sauce made with hints of apple and bell pepper. Their signature sauce was developed over the kitchen table of the Craig family home.”

Robert Craig told the interviewer: “My mom was just in the kitchen one day, putting a little bit of this and putting a little bit of that together. And my dad said, ‘Well yeah; it tastes all right.’ And so he obviously introduced it to the public, and it has been skyrocketing ever since.”

The website notes that Robert Craig has been working at the restaurant alongside U.S. Highway 70 “from the age of three or four. Eventually, he went to college, but in 1997, Robert accompanied his father to the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, where Lawrence Craig’s barbecue was being celebrated as a Delta tradition.

“Today, Robert oversees the operation of Craig’s in partnership with his cousin, as well as long-time family friends, the Sirats.”

The website says of Stubby’s on Central Avenue in Hot Springs: “In 1952, Richard Stubblefield Sr. opened Stubby’s Bar-B-Q. In 1976, the Dunkel family moved from New York to Arkansas. A year later, they purchased Stubby’s Bar-B-Q.

“Chris Dunkel has been a part of the team at Stubby’s ever since, doing everything from waiting tables and working the pit to making Stubby’s distinct sugary-sweet sauce.”

Dunkel described Stubby’s barbecue this way in an interview: “It’s a meld between Tennessee and Texas because you have both the beef influence and the pork influence. And, of course, we do it better than both states, so they come here to enjoy it.”

The website states: “Chris’ business sense coupled with the restaurant’s prime location across from the Oaklawn racetrack has ensured a long and successful run. The restaurant was rebuilt after a pit fire in 2007 but has enjoyed continued success.

“They make a sweet tomato-and-vinegar sauce that they serve with beef, pork, ham, ribs and chicken. Specialties of the house include pit-smoked potatoes and pots of beans.”

Newman’s Rack Pack at Jonesboro will cater almost any type of event.

The website states: “Chris Newman has been raising hogs his entire life. He grew up on a farm in the southern Missouri Ozarks where his parents parlayed their experience raising quality pork into a thriving business with Newman Farms heritage Berkshire hogs.

“Chris still helps with the family business, although his time is mostly spent in Jonesboro, where he is co-conspirator in the Rack Pack, an award-winning barbecue team and catering company.

“Chris brings with him an understanding of where the food he produces comes from and how the different ways of raising and slaughtering hogs can affect his end result. His experiences have offered a unique perspective on barbecue that includes everything from the hoof on the ground to the sandwich on the plate.”

Newman told an interviewer: “When you grow up on a hog farm, you’re always exposed to barbecue, I guess. So that’s been a lifelong thing for me.”

If you love rural barbecue joints as much as I do, the photo on the website of J&N Barbecue at Bono — a shack with the wood piled at the side of the building — will make you hungry just looking at it.

“After suffering a back injury, Jim Vaughn made the shift from mechanic to barbecue pitmaster and opened J&N with his wife, Nora, in 1996,” the website states. “The couple had provided smoked meats and sides for community gatherings for years, so opening a restaurant didn’t seem like too much of a jump. Their small red-and-white trailer has been serving the greater Jonesboro community ever since.

“Barry Vaughn is Jim and Nora’s grandson and the third generation to work at J&N. Barry does most of the barbecuing these days, smoking everything from ribs to butts. He also smokes wild game — turkey, deer and even raccoons — for local hunters. Jim and Nora have attended coon suppers all their lives, so it wasn’t long before smoked raccoon became a J&N tradition.”

Vaughn said of his grandparents in an interview last year: “This is all they do. They eat and live barbecue. They’re here six days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., so there ain’t much life other than barbecue for them.”

The website says of Big Johnson’s and Little Johnson’s at Wynne: “It was 1972 when Carolyn Johnson, a farm wife, decided that she wanted to work outside the home. She answered an ad in the paper that brought her to Chuck’s Barbecue in Wynne, and within a couple of years, she and her late husband purchased what is now called Big Johnson’s. The family always worked the restaurant. She recalls that two generations have napped on the chest freezer in the back.

“In 2003, Carolyn suffered grease burns on a large part of her body while working at the restaurant. Her employees doused her with yellow mustard to help with the burns until medical help arrived.

“She was out of service for two years. Today, Carolyn has taken a back seat, and her son and grandchildren run the day-to-day operation of not only Big Johnson’s but also a Johnson’s Fish House and Diner and the barbecue trailer, Little Johnson’s.”

She told an interviewer last year, “We make our own barbecue sauce and then for the hot, hot barbecue sauce we add cayenne red pepper to it. … We make our own slaw. It has mustard and mayonnaise, black pepper, sugar and that’s it.”

Go to the Southern BBQ Trail website if you want hours of enjoyable reading. Just be prepared to get hungry in the process.

Post to Twitter

4 Responses to “The Arkansas BBQ Trail”

  1. No Jones’? Sacrilege!

    Do you remember Bill’s Grill between West Memphis and Marion? Lord have mercy, but I miss their barbecue, and their beans and slaw, to this day. I can get close to the slaw, but not quite there. I can’t approach the pork. I’d kill for a “No. 1, with beans,” right now. And fried dill pickles.

    When I retrieve my Daddy’s barbecue pit (he was a welder, so it’s sheet metal) from up home, and get ambitious, I’ll cook some shoulders and invite you over. I promise you good barbecue.

  2. Michael Simons says:

    Good read and I have at at 70% of those places before I was 25!

  3. I would like to have the sweet tart slaw recipe you said you would share. Thank you.

  4. Bryan Johns says:

    My mom and I have been discussing Bill’s Grill, and how much we all miss it also. They had the best pulled pork BBQ, sauce, baked beans to die for, and their slaw was the best BBQ slaw I’ve ever had. I drove by last night, and the building is still there.

    There are 2 more that need to be added. The Dixie Pig in Blytheville, and Nick’s in Carlisle. I know people that swear by them. Nicks isn’t as good since it moved from the old building in the curve.

Leave a Reply