Death of a barbecue legend

On Thursday afternoon of last week, I drove along U.S. Highway 49 in the rain. I was on my way to an evening speaking engagement in Tunica, Miss.

With the truck traffic even heavier than usual on Interstate 40 and the spray from those trucks covering my windshield, I had decided it would be more relaxing to exit the interstate at Biscoe. I would drive through the Delta farm country, cross the Mississippi River at Helena and then head north to Tunica on U.S. Highway 61 rather than crossing the river in late-afternoon traffic at Memphis and coming south to Tunica. At the time, I knew nothing of that day’s police shootings in West Memphis, which backed up traffic on the interstate for miles.

As I passed the venerable Shadden’s store west of Marvell, I noticed that one of my favorite places to eat barbecue in the Delta was closed. I remember hoping that nothing was wrong.

I had no way of knowing that last Thursday would be barbecue impresario Wayne Shadden’s final full day of life.

Mr. Shadden died the following day at age 77 at his home near Marvell.

The obituary in The Daily World at Helena simply said, “Wayne was a good cook and well-known for his barbecue. He was a Navy veteran, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.”

What an understatement.

Well-known for his barbecue?

Wayne Shadden was much more than that. For true Delta barbecue aficionados, he was one of the masters. People heard about Shadden’s and came from across the country to try the barbecue. If you ate in the store, there was one table in the back you could share with others who were on their own barbecue pilgrimages.

I hope the store survives. Too many places like this don’t. An owner dies, and in small town after small town across the Delta, all we’re left with are convenience stores selling fried chicken under heat lamps.

Mr. Shadden is survived by his wife, Vivian, and a sister in Marvell. Unfortunately for those concerned about the long-term future of this sacred spot on the Delta barbecue trail, none of his kids live in Arkansas. One son lives in Washington state and the other lives in California. One daughter lives in Texas and the other lives in Virginia.

Business took me back to Helena today. I passed the store about 10 a.m. and noticed the wreath on the door.

Just down the road on the right side of the highway, I saw the green funeral awning in the Schaffhauser Cemetery. I figured it was for Mr. Shadden’s burial. I was right.

His funeral, as it turns out, had begun at 10 a.m. at the Bob Neal & Sons-Brickell Funeral Home in Marvell. I passed the funeral home a few minutes later and saw the cars packed into the parking lot.

The wooden building that houses Shadden’s is almost a century old. The walls are covered with newspaper clippings, photos and magazine stories. I’m told that Turkey Scratch native Levon Helm has Shadden’s barbecue sauce shipped by the case to his home in Woodstock, N.Y. Levon, incidentally, turned 70 today. Having grown up in the Arkansas Delta, he knows good barbecue sauce when he tastes it.

Several years ago, I took Gary Saunders of the food website www.dixiedining.com and Jay Grelen of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on my Delta barbecue tour. Shadden’s was our final stop of the day.

Here’s what Gary wrote: “Reeking of smoke from head to toe, we pressed onward to Marvell and the legendary Shadden’s BBQ shack. Shadden’s, once a hangout of The Band’s Levon Helm, gets high marks for its atmosphere alone. Talk about days gone by. The joint looks like the quintessential country store/filling station. A black woman was seated on the front porch as we pulled into the gravel lot out front. She slowly rose to her feet and nodded at us before disappearing into the kitchen. Her break from work was over — if just for a while.

“A young white girl sporting a ball cap greeted us as we gazed around the well-aged interior of Shadden’s. Jars of giant dill pickles, picked sausage and floating pickled eggs rested atop a rattling metallic cooler. Yellowed pictures of smiling families and once-young enlisted men could be seen everywhere, making Shadden’s look like a cross between a roadside grocery and a museum.

“The black woman soon emerged from the barely lit kitchen with our sandwiches, each one swaddled in wax paper and pierced with a lone wooden toothpick. Remarkably, we still had the appetite and room in our bellies for this last salvo of savory smoked pig meat. Yet it was clearly the sheer character of Shadden’s that would make this stop one of the highlights of our day.

“As we exited the rickety old structure, the black women had taken a seat alongside a broken-down jukebox, and the young girl was back on her cell phone. Rex, Jay and myself exchanged some final pleasantries on the drive back to our original rendezvous point. We then shook greasy hands, folded ourselves back into the two vehicles and wheeled back on the lonesome, raindrop-speckled highway. But not before plans were suggested for another road trip. Today’s work was done, but more dining adventures were just down the road. So much swine, so little time.”

In a later story in the Jonesboro Occasions magazine, Marcel Hanzlik described it this way: “Mr. Wayne’s award-winning cooking and Miss Vivian’s award-winning sauce make for a simple menu. Regular or jumbo. Hot or mild. With or without slaw. That’s it. … The sauce is thick and rich and with a tomato, brown sugar and pepper base. Mild is spicy, hot is excruciating. I love it. However, I do tone it down with a scoop of slaw. The sauce is so uniquely flavored that you will want to pick up a bottle or two on your way out.”

I hope the tradition continues. Regardless, we’ll miss Wayne Shadden. He was one of those people who make the Arkansas Delta such a unique, colorful region.

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