It was a magical weekend that combined some of my favorite things — Southern history and culture, the Delta, duck hunting, historic hunting clubs, fried crappie, crawfish, tamales, frog legs, beautiful homes, fascinating people, good friends and intelligent conversation.
It began Friday afternoon when Randy Ensminger of Little Rock picked me up for a trip to southeast Arkansas. To be specific, we headed for one of those famous Arkansas duck clubs I had long heard about but never visited.
It’s called Little Siberia, and its membership consists of some of Arkansas’ most successful businessmen.
The lodge sits on the banks of a reservoir near DeWitt, adjacent to the Bayou Meto. The reservoir was constructed in part by German prisoners of war in 1943-44. The current lodge was built in 1983, and significant renovations were made last year.
It was warm for late January, and two of the members had spent part of the afternoon fishing for crappie on the reservoir. They had filled an ice chest with large slab crappie, many of which weighed almost two pounds. Dinner that night consisted of fried crappie, hushpuppies and the best slaw I’ve ever had.
It had cooled off enough after dark for a roaring fire in the lodge’s large fireplace. The members regaled me with stories of days gone by in a part of the state filled with duck clubs and the colorful characters who inhabit them late each fall and early each winter.
I pulled from a shelf a copy of Ohio native Keith Russell’s book “The Duck Huntingest Gentleman.” First published in 1977, this collection of waterfowling stories contains a chapter on a Thanksgiving trip Russell once made to Stuttgart. The hunting was slow from a pit blind in a flooded field the first morning in Arkansas. The hunting was even slower on the second morning in the pin oak flats.
When the late Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart heard Russell complain during a bull session in the back of Buerkle Drug on Main Street, he promised to take his visitor to “where the ducks are.”
That place was the reservoir at Little Siberia.
Hancock, a dentist who died in 1986, was among the South’s foremost conservationists. He was best known for his lengthy battle to keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from turning the Cache River into a drainage ditch. Shortly after his death, the federal government earmarked more than $33 million from the federal duck stamp program for the establishment of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.
There wouldn’t be time for Randy and me to hunt the next morning, though I could hear shots from my bedroom as the Saturday sun rose. We left Little Siberia at 7:30 a.m., bound for Natchez and a meeting of the board of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
Randy has been on the board for several years. This would be my first board meeting. Headed by New Orleans resident Liz Williams, the organization that’s often referred to simply as SoFAB operates a museum in New Orleans that celebrates the food culture of the South. It’s the only museum of its kind in the country.
In addition to museum exhibits, there’s a culinary library, extensive archives and regular programs. There also are big plans for the future. SoFAB will leave the Riverwalk (the long, narrow shopping mall adjacent to the convention center, which is being turned into a collection of outlet stores) and move into the Uptown location once used by the Dryades Street Market. That market opened in 1849.
Writing about the neighborhood in a 2001 article, Keith Weldon Medley said: “Located in the Central City historic district of New Orleans, Dryades Street has always been one of the Crescent City’s most intriguing thoroughfares. … Now named Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in honor of one of the city’s premier civil rights workers, this old street has witnessed the bustling panorama of the New Orleans experience — the lively and the melancholy, prosperity and economic hard times. Bold entrepreneurs of different religions, races and classes found their fortunes along Dryades Street.”
SoFAB also plans to partner with the New Orleans Public Library for a new branch. There will be more than 9,000 volumes of cookbooks, menus, recipes and other literature pertaining to Southern foodways in the branch.
A well-known New Orleans chef by the name of Ryan Hughes will operate a restaurant named Purloo as part of the SoFAB complex, and there may even be a working brewery. It’s an exciting effort to be a part of, especially since there will be exhibits on every Southern state, including Arkansas.
The board was meeting in Natchez rather than New Orleans because of an invitation from board member Regina Trosclair Charboneau. Seven generations of her family have lived in Natchez. Regina returned to the city in 2000 to raise her two sons and be close to her mother. She and her husband later purchased Twin Oaks, which they operate as a bed and breakfast inn.
More on Twin Oaks in a moment.
As the frost burned off Saturday morning, Randy and I made our way down U.S. Highway 165, slowing down as vehicles pulled into Arkansas Post Museum State Park for an event marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Arkansas Post. That January 1863 battle was a Union victory.
We crossed the Arkansas River and intersected with U.S. Highway 65 at Dumas. From there it was a journey due south through the flat farming lands just west of the Mississippi River in southeast Arkansas and northeast Louisiana.
It was too early in the day to buy tamales from Miss Rhoda as we drove through Lake Village and passed its iconic “Home of Good Fishing” sign.
It was too early to buy a shrimp, crawfish or oyster poor boy at The Dock on the banks of Lake Providence.
The morning sun was beautiful as it reflected off the waters of Lake Chicot in Arkansas and Lake Providence in Louisiana, those two giant oxbows that have been magnets for hunters, fishermen and boaters in this part of the Delta for decades.
The Delta has its own brand of stark winter beauty as the giant pecan trees in the orchards on either side of U.S. 65 form silhouettes. Ducks could be seen on flooded fields, and pickup trucks crowded the parking areas of the hunting camps we passed. I’ve long been interested in the history and traditions of Southern hunting clubs. Though I resisted the temptation, I wanted to knock on the doors, ask how the morning’s hunt had gone, inquire how old each club was and see what was being served for breakfast.
We rolled south through East Carroll Parish, Madison Parish, Tensas Parish and Concordia Parish. We saw the landmarks that thousands of Arkansans remember from their summer treks to the Redneck Riviera — the Panola pepper sign, the bat on the water tank at Transylvania, the Christmas lights that stay in the middle of the bayou at Tallulah 12 months a year.
We crossed into Tensas Parish. Suddenly the woodland floor was covered with saw palmettos, a sure sign we were getting further south. We passed through Waterproof and Ferriday, though we didn’t have time to stop at Ferriday’s Delta Music Museum. Ferriday is the home of Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
We then turned toward the east, driving into Vidalia and seeing the church steeples of Natchez on the hills across the river. We crossed the Mississippi River bridge, having reached our destination.
I’ve always been fascinated by Natchez, dating back to trips I took there as a boy with my parents. My mother loved touring the city’s elegant old homes, and she enjoyed having lunch at the Carriage House Restaurant on the grounds of Stanton Hall.
The ladies of the Pilgrimage Garden Club have been serving food at the Carriage House since 1946. My mother, now 87, always would order the fried chicken. In her honor, I had fried chicken, rice and gravy and those silver dollar-sized biscuits. That’s not to mention the fact that Randy and I had started with an appetizer known as the “Southern sampler” that featured everything from deviled eggs to pimiento cheese to fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade on top (I hope my wife isn’t reading about how much I ate).
Randy, who has a massive collection of cookbooks, bought a cookbook in the gift shop next door after lunch.
From there, it was off to Twin Oaks. The original cottage, which is now the back kitchen and den, was built in 1806 for the area’s first territorial sheriff. There were a series of ownership changes during the next several decades. In 1832, the widow of Dr. Josiah Morris (who had been the victim of yellow fever) sold the house to a Philadelphia, Pa., couple, Pierce and Cornelia Connelly.
The couple had moved to Natchez so Pierce could serve as the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church. The Connellys added the Greek Revival portion of the structure. In 1835, Cornelia Connelly named the house White Cottage.
The story takes a bizarre twist at this point. Pierce Connelly decided to leave the Episcopal Church and convert to Roman Catholicism. The couple left for Rome and put their four children in orphanages. Pierce became a priest, and Cornelia became a nun. Cornelia later founded an order of nuns known as the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, which was dedicated to teaching young girls.
An 1840 tornado did a great deal of damage to the home. By 1852, Charles Dubuisson had completed the reconstruction of the Greek Revival home that visitors to Natchez see today. Dubuisson served as president of Jefferson College and later became a judge and state representative.
In an incident that sounds like something from a Southern gothic novel, Dubuisson’s 3-year-old daughter drowned in a cistern on the property and his wife died of yellow fever soon after that. Dubuisson fell into a deep depression and began spending most of his time at his plantation in Yazoo County.
Following a succession of owners, Homer and Elizabeth Whittington bought the house in 1940 and restored it. Since the house was not white at the time and was considered too grand to be named a cottage, they renamed it Twin Oaks in honor of the two huge live oaks out front.
Regina and her husband, Doug, bought the home in 2002 and have since added their own touches. Regina has conducted numerous cooking classes at the home during the past decade and fed guests ranging from Lily Tomlin to Anderson Cooper.
Following the SoFAB board meeting that afternoon, Regina gave three of us a driving tour of the area, complete with stories that sounded like something from “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
I’ll have more on Natchez and the rivalry between the city’s two garden clubs in a later post.
The dinner Regina served our board Saturday night included beef tenderloin, frog legs fried in duck fat and shrimp and grits.
Following breakfast across the street at The Castle (which is part of Dunleith, another of the famous Natchez mansions), Randy and I headed north toward Little Siberia.
Our only stop was at The Dock in Lake Providence to buy 10 pounds of crawfish for that night’s dinner at the duck club. While we headed north with crawfish, a friend headed south out of Little Rock with several dozen tamales from Doe’s and a pork loin.
We arrived at Little Siberia in time for Randy to give me a Sunday afternoon boat tour of the reservoir. We scared up hundreds of ducks as Randy pointed out the various blinds and told the kinds of stories one can only get at a club with a long history.
The lodge at Little Siberia faces west. We were back from our boat trip in time for a glorious sunset. We sat by the fire pit and watched hundreds of ducks funnel into the flooded timber in the minutes just before darkness descended over southeast Arkansas.
Crawfish and tamales for appetizers. Pork loin for the main course. The AFC championship game on the big screen.
It doesn’t get much better than that. And a morning of hunting still awaited us on Monday.