Archive for April, 2010

The Delta dilemma

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

A reporter from The Associated Press called this morning. She wanted to ask me some questions for a story she’s doing on Helena-West Helena (gosh, I wish they would get rid of that clunky, hyphenated name and just call the place Helena) and its economic woes.

I told her that I had no silver bullets to serve up. I said that if I claimed there are simple solutions to the problems facing the Arkansas Delta, I would be either overly myopic or a candidate for political office. I’m neither.

There are, to put it bluntly, no easy answers for changing the economic and demographic trends that have been developing for 50 years or more in a part of the state that once was based on a sharecropping and tenant-farming system of labor.

It’s neither an easy nor a popular thing to tell someone who desperately needs a job to be patient. But the long-term salvation for the parts of east Arkansas that are suffering most is not in the quick fix. It’s in improving the public schools. It’s in improving public health. It’s in creating a quality of life that’s good enough that a college graduate might choose to come back home after graduation and start a business. Initially, that business might employ only one or two people. Eventually, it could employ 20 or 30 people. As I’ve written before, that’s the approach that will pay more dividends in the long than the race to land some Acme Widget Co. that suddenly will bring 700 jobs to town. More often than not, Acme Widget is a pipe dream.

This form of community development is much like being a tree farmer. You plant the seedlings, but it’s years before you see a return on your investment.

Recently, I attended the meeting of the Delta Grassroots Caucus at the Clinton Center in Little Rock. As I wrote in a column that ran in last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the highlight of the meeting for me was not anything said by the long line of politicians who came before the group during a two-day period. It was instead the words of a student at the Clinton School of Public Service named William Jeter. He’s a fourth-generation Arkansan who grew up in Pine Bluff and has spent countless hours working on his family farm at Wabbaseka in Jefferson County.

As part of a required project at the Clinton School, Jeter worked with the folks in Newport to establish a facility known as the Blue Bridge Center for the Delta Arts. I wrote about how Jeter hopes to be part of a wider effort to recruit and retain young leaders who will get involved in the Delta.

The future of east Arkansas depends on attracting the William Jeters back home — at least part of them. Success will no longer be defined by landing the big industrial plants. Success might instead come from focusing on sectors such as nature tourism (hunting, fishing, birdwatching, hiking and more) and new crops for part-time farmers.

It was Rep. Mike Ross from the 4th District of south Arkansas who pointed out to the group that it’s the small businesses that are the backbone of local economies in rural Arkansas.

“Most economic successes happen not because of those of us in Congress, they happen because of a can-do attitude in local communities,” he said. “The real job creators in this country are the small businesses. There’s only so much government can do.”

To that, I say “amen.”

Too often during my four years as one of the two presidential appointees to the Delta Regional Authority, I attended meetings where people simply had their hands out for government grants. They had no concrete action steps for doing the heavy lifting at the community level. There was no local investment of dollars and no buy in on the part of area residents. They simply wanted someone else — state government, the federal government, a big charitable foundation — to ride in and save the day.

That’s rarely going to happen.

Lee Powell, the former Arkansan who directs the Delta Grassroots Caucus from Washington, noted in an e-mail to me that it’s important for his organization to keep the pressure on officeholders not to forget the region. But he realizes there must be more than a government approach. He talked about the efforts of thousands of individuals in the eight states where his organization has contacts. Often, these are little things. But little things add up.

“It does not get the kind of major media attention that the politicians get, but those thousands of little accomplishments over the course of the year are just as essential as the big-picture stuff with Congress, the Obama administration and statewide leaders,” Powell said.

In the end, it will be the ability to attract private investment more than the ability to attract government grants that will determine which Delta towns survive and which towns continue to shrivel.

The surest way to avoid poverty, after all, is to have a long-term, private-sector job. If it’s a job with a company such as Nucor Steel in Mississippi County — which gives its employees $3,000 a year to improve their own educational attainment levels and $3,000 a year for the college-age children of employees — that’s all the better.

There are pockets of success. There are positive stories such as the education provided by the KIPP schools in Helena-West Helena or the jobs being provided by Nucor in Mississippi County.

Gov. Mike Beebe — raised in Amagon, a high school student at Newport, a college student at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro — understands east Arkansas as well as anyone. He understands that the key is somehow retaining people with talent, energy and a commitment to the region.

He talked about the first KIPP graduating class at Helena-West Helana and said: “The trick for us is to get them to come back after college. We need to be able to say, ‘We’ve invested in you. Now, please come back and invest in us.'”

Beebe understands that it eventually boils down to the continuous improvement of public education, not just in east Arkansas but in all parts of the state.

“If you get education right as your No. 1 priority, then everything else will follow,” he said. “The Delta is uniquely situated for a lot of wonderful things. But it takes leadership. It takes people working together. It takes people who are not afraid of innovative ideas.”

The governor didn’t put it in these words, but I will: It takes people who are doing more than simply seeking the next government grant. It takes people willing to get off their butts and do the not-always-pleasant, often-difficult, day-in-and-day-out things necessary to improve a community. Once those people have given up and moved elsewhere, it’s only a matter of time until that community enters the death spiral. Unfortunately for those left behind, no politician or government agency can change that trajectory.

Beam me up

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

They held the topping-out ceremony for the new press box at War Memorial Stadium on Thursday under blue skies.

The rains of Wednesday afternoon had washed some of the pollen away. Gary Smith, the activist, hyperkinetic chairman of the War Memorial Stadium Commission, could not have chosen a better day for the 11:30 a.m. ceremony. With heavy winds, the beam swung back and forth as it was raised to the top of the infrastructure on the west side of the venerable stadium. But the crew from Kinco Constructors did its job, and everyone was soon headed under the stands to eat barbecue from Whole Hog.

Atop that final beam, a U.S. flag on one side and an Arkansas flag on the other side stood straight out in the breeze.

It’s truly amazing what the War Memorial Stadium Commission has achieved with its aging facility in recent years — new lights, new scoreboards with video boards on both ends of the stadium, a new artificial turf on the field (which will be replaced yet again prior to the 2010 season), a total renovation of the south end zone, renovation of the concession stands, restroom renovations and an exterior renovation that took a dull facade and made it look new again.

For a stadium that was named in honor of military veterans from Arkansas, it was fitting that the invocation was delivered by a man in uniform. It also was fitting that his son was playing on the field at the time — a field that has hosted so many high school and college football players through the decades.

Doug Wasson, the Kinco president and my fellow Arkadelphia native, referred to it as “the people’s stadium.”

It’s just that.

In terms of sky boxes, club seats and other amenities, Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville is a far superior facility. But thousands of Arkansans have a special place in their hearts for War Memorial Stadium. To this day, the atmosphere for Razorback games in Fayetteville rarely matches the atmosphere of the Little Rock games. And War Memorial also is needed to provide a central location for the six high school state championship games.

It’s nice that the state of Arkansas (many Arkansans mistakenly believe War Memorial Stadium is a city facility) hasn’t allowed the 54,000-seat venue to deteriorate.

Smith related how Keith Jackson, the color analyst on Razorback football broadcasts, had called him almost three years ago and said, “We need to raise about $10,000 to renovate that radio both. It’s terrible.”

Smith replied: “We need to do raise a lot more than that.”

The radio booth had been named in honor of Jim Elder and Paul Eells, and Smith was embarrassed by its condition. The commission thus set out on a three-year plan to raise $8 million for a totally new press box.

Demolition of the old press box begain Dec. 15, just after the high school state title games. The new press box is scheduled to be completed by Aug. 15 in time for several high school openers. The Razorbacks will make the first of two 2010 visits to Little Rock on Sept. 11, and Smith hopes to hold an open house on Sept. 10.

The new press box will be three stories tall — 172 feet long and 112 feet high. The old structure was opened in 1966 and was considered a state-of-the-art facility in its day. In fact, the Football Writers Association of America once voted it the best college press box in the country.

The new press box will be 10,000 square feet larger than the old structure. Club seating will expand from 228 seats to 500 seats with five suites. Behind those suites will be a reception area with a kitchen and a dining room.

Smith also told of how former Razorback football player Muskie Harris had asked him to “just change the carpet and get a better TV” in the Lettermen’s Club on the west side of the stadium. Smith announced that the club will be totally renovated prior to next football season.

The members of the War Memorial Stadium Commission have been masters at pulling together money from various pots, even during a prolonged recession — the University of Arkansas athletic department, the state Legislature, the office of Gov. Mike Beebe, the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council (which doles out the proceeds of the state’s real estate transfer tax) and others.

Those funds will help pay for the 450 tons of structural steel, the 7,162 square feet of glass and the 50,000 square feet of exterior panels that will make up the new press box.

Louis Schaufele of Little Rock, who served on the War Memorial Stadium Commission for many years, sat in a golf cart on the windy morning and gave the “thumbs up” for the beam to be raised.

It marked the culmination of a lot of work by a lot of people.

Smith is joined on the War Memorial Stadium Commission by Brenda Scisson of Little Rock, Charlie Holt of Stuttgart, Kevin Crass of Little Rock, Dorance Damron of Fort Smith, Donnie Cook of Little Rock, Jim Hill of Nashville and Nancy Monroe of Little Rock.

With a little help from its friends, War Memorial Stadium is aging quite gracefully.

Now if only the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences would find a way to save the actual playing field at Ray Winder Field, if only the city of Little Rock would commit to long-term improvements to War Memorial Park, if only. . .

That’s another post for another time.

For those of us who want to see a renewed focus on midtown Little Rock, Thursday was a good day.

Pining for Clarksdale

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

When asked if I miss my former position with the eight-state Delta Regional Authority, I answer that I don’t miss the heavy travel schedule. In 2008, the last full year I worked for the DRA, I was away from home 110 nights. That’s too much for a father of two sons who are involved in sports and numerous other extracurricular activities.

So what do I not miss? The travel.

What do I miss? The travel.

Let me explain. The DRA’s 252 counties and parishes make up a colorful, culturally rich region that takes in southern Illinois, western Kentucky, western Tennessee, the Bootheel region of Missouri, the Black Belt of Alabama and large portions of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. While the travel schedule was a bit too hectic at times, it did allow me to sample interesting, out-of-the-way restaurants in all of these states and become what might be considered “a regular” in Clarksdale, Miss., where the DRA’s main office is located.

I continued to live in Little Rock for the four years I worked for the DRA, but I spent a night or two most weeks in Clarksdale. On Saturday night at Little Rock’s Capital Hotel, I visited with Bill Luckett of Clarksdale during the Oxford American Best of the South awards gala. Bill is Morgan Freeman’s partner in the Ground Zero blues club and the upscale Madidi restaurant at Clarksdale. He was born in Fort Worth but moved to Clarksdale when he was just six weeks old. His father was a lawyer. Bill received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and his law degree from Ole Miss. He has practiced law in Clarksdale for many years and is running as a Democrat for governor of Mississippi.

“You need to come see us again in Clarksdale,” he said.

It was like a siren’s song. I plan to do just that next month.

It was mentioned in an earlier post that the fifth in the series of “Cornbread Nation” collections of Southern food writing has been released. Several of the articles in “Cornbread Nation 5” center on Clarksdale, an economically struggling but fascinating Delta town. Amy Evans of the Southern Foodways Alliance describes it as the Delta’s culinary crossroads.

“Chafik Chamoun serves fried catfish,” she writes. “Kim Wong sells pork rinds. Pat and Abe Davis make barbecue. All over the Mississippi Delta, immigrants are embracing and interpreting Southern food. These three examples happen to exist only a stone’s throw from the intersection of highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, the spot where, as the legend goes, bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar virtuosity.

“But at Chamoun’s Rest Haven, Chafik Chamoun also serves baklava. At Kim’s Pork Rinds, Kim Wong cooks the rinds in woks. At Abe’s Bar-B-Q, the Davis brothers have hot tamales on the menu. For generations the seasonal flooding of the Mississippi River has enriched the soil of the Delta. So, too, have the waves of immigrants that have put down roots in this part of the American South, bringing their homelands’ culinary traditions with them. The Davis family of Clarksdale is part of this legacy. Abraham “Abe” Davis arrived in Clarksdale from Lebanon in the early part of the 20th century, a time when tamales — a food with its origins in Latin America — were peddled on street corners. Perhaps Abe recognized the tamale’s similarity to a dish from his native land, stuffed grape leaves.”

I stopped at Abe’s for supper many nights. And, yes, I usually preferred the tamales to the barbecue. Abe’s was, in fact, a stop on the Great Delta Tamale Tour that Kane Webb, Bill Vickery and I took while being followed by AETN cameras. AETN is now airing the resulting documentary from time to time.

And though Rest Haven sounds like the name of a cemetery, it just might be my favorite restaurant in the Mississippi Delta. I would always have breakfast with Mr. Chamoun, who serves great country ham — the really salty kind that sticks with you and leaves no room for lunch. I often would return to Rest Haven in the evening (and Mr. Chamoun would still be there, sitting at the same table with the big TV tuned to Fox News) for kibbe, stuffed grape leaves and cabbage rolls.

Head down to Greenville and you can, of course, enjoy the steaks and tamales at the Signa family’s original Doe’s Eat Place. It began as a Sicilian grocery store.

Delta chef Martha Hall Foose discusses the Delta tamale in another article in the book, focusing on Doe’s and its origins in 1903 after Carmel Signa had sailed from Sicily and made his way to Greenville.

The book also includes Greenville journalist Anne Martin’s interview with 84-year-old Florence Signa of Doe’s. She’s known by the regulars simply as Aunt Florence.

“She says she doesn’t smoke, drink or gamble, doesn’t read much or watch a lot of TV,” Martin writes. “Meeting all of the people who come into Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville over the years is something she looks forward to every day. Her secret to a long, productive life, she says, is going to Mass every day at 5:30 in the morning.”

Head over to Greenwood, meanwhile, and they’ll pull the curtain on your private booth at either Lusco’s or Giardina’s. Meanwhile, the Crystal Grill there has a huge menu with dozens of selections at both lunch and dinner.

“The Lusco and Giardina families assimilated their Sicilian culinary heritage with that of the Delta, as marinara and meatballs gave way to prme steaks and pond-raised catfish,” Evans writes. “At the new Giardina’s Restaurant, though, Frank Leflore celebrates his Sicilian roots, offering an Italian sausage on the menu that is made from his grandmother’s receipe. At the Crystal Grill, the Ballas family incorporates a couple of nods to their Greek lineage on the expansive menu, but the restaurant’s reputation is built on the quality and variety of Southern favorites. A typical meal there can consist of a Greek salad, fried chicken livers and coconut pie.” 

Two favorites that were not mentioned were Lillo’s in Leland (great Italian food) and Ramon’s in Clarksdale (best shrimp in the Delta).

Uncle Henry’s and Kathryn’s have always been favorite late-week dinner spots along Moon Lake, which is just across the Helena bridge.

“So what is Southern food?” Evans asks. “More than ingredients and origins, it is about tradition and family. Many Delta families incorporate hot tamales into their Christmas holiday menu. Others insist that a coconut pie from Chamoun’s Rest Haven or the Crystal Grill grace the table at Thanksgiving. Greek or Sicilian, Asian or Lebanese, the Mississippi Delta is a wonderful illustration of how ethnicity has embraced Southern food and how Southern food has embraced ethnicity. Let us all gather at the crossroads.”

So where are your favorite spots in the Mississippi Delta — favorite spots to eat, favorite spots to spend the night, favorite spots to listen to the blues? I don’t want to miss a thing in this fascinating part of the American South.

Cornbread Nation

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

The fifth volume in the “Cornbread Nation” series of books on Southern food writing is out, and it’s a dandy.

“Cornbread Nation 5,” edited by Fred Sauceman of East Tennessee State University (what a great name for a food writer), contains pieces by talented writers ranging from Marcie Cohen Ferris to Brett Anderson to Sara Roahen to Robert St. John to Julia Reed to Roy Blount Jr.

On Saturday, April 10, at 1 p.m. at the Historic Arkansas Museum in downtown Little Rock, I’ll moderate a panel on Southern food as part of the annual Arkansas Literary Festival. The panel will consist of Arkansas writer Katherine Whitworth, New Orleans writer Lolis Eric Elie and the great Little Rock chef Evette Brady of 1620.

We’ll discuss “Cornbread Nation 5,” and I suspect we’ll wander off the reservation into all kinds of interesting side discussions about Southern food. I hope you’ll find an excuse to drop by.

Anyone who has ever eaten at 1620 can attest to Evette Brady’s cooking ability.

Lolis Eric Elie, meanwhile, writes as well as Chef Brady cooks. He’s the author of “Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbeque Country” and produced a documentary based on that book. He’s now writing a book on the slave trade. He edited “Cornbread Nation 2” and was a producer for the Smithsonian Institution’s Jazz Oral History Project. He writes a consistently captivating column for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

Whitworth has written one of my favorite pieces in “Cornbread Nation 5.” That’s because it’s about one of my favorite restaurants, Little Rock’s Lassis Inn.

In a piece titled “Ode to a Catfish House,” she writes: “The Lassis Inn hunkers alongside the interstate in a small, royal-blue building. It is the architectural equivalent of minding your own business, and it’s hard to notice unless you’re looking for it. But if you’re traveling east on 1-30 toward downtown Little Rock — from the airport, say — it might catch the corner of your eye.

“What goes on there is excellent catfish. Fried catfish, to my mind, is best rated by its lack of negative qualities, at least one of which is usually found in any random sample: soggy crust, oily fish, watery fish, overcooked crust, flavorless fish, too-thick crust and sharply tapered fillets (which leave behind those curled nubbins of fishless, overfried cornmeal). None of these descriptions apply to the fish at the Lassis.”

She notes that Elihue Washington Jr. took over the Lassis in 1989 when the restaurant was 84 years old and Washington was 39. He invested his savings to reopen a business that had been closed for months following the death of its owner. The wooden booths in the restaurant were built by the owner in the 1940s.

Whitworth points out that “there are never hushpuppies. Fish dinners come with coleslaw, french fries and sliced white bread nailed to a Styrofoam plate with a toothpick. While you’re eating, make a mental list of all the people you know who have no idea how good a piece of catfish can be when it’s cradled in a slice of Wonder Bread with mustard and a generous shake of hot sauce.”

The Lassis has what I consider the best jukebook in the state. You’ll see the “No Dancing” sign.

Washington told Whitworth: “Look, if you’re dining out, and this guy is all over your table, pulling on you, ‘Come on, dance, baby, come on’ — the dancing and the beer, I just couldn’t get it to go together.”

As luck would have it, I had just been to Lassis Inn on March 25 for lunch. Joe York, who makes documentary films at Ole Miss, was in town working on “Southern Food: The Movie,” a project that will take him to states across the South. While the “Cornbread Nation 5” title characterizes the Lassis Inn as a catfish house, I consider it a buffalo house.

Don’t get me wrong. I love catfish. But fortunately I know a number of places across the state where I can get good catfish. I don’t know of as many places where I can buy properly cooked buffalo ribs.

We’re talking fish here, not some hairy mammal that Ted Turner is trying to protect out on the Great Plains.

The bigmouth, smallmouth and black buffalo live in the state’s large rivers and are caught by commercial fishermen. Washington buys his buffalo from commercial fishermen in southeast Arkansas who work on the Arkansas, White and Mississippi rivers. York interviewed Washington at length to learn how he cleans and cooks the buffalo ribs. What he turns out are works of the frying art.

I was glad Washington talked to York. The Ole Miss film crew had come up empty the day before in DeValls Bluff when Mary Thomas, the pie queen of Arkansas, declined to go on camera at her Family Pie Shop.

The Family Pie Shop is yet another of those cherished Arkansas food institutions. Here’s how Michael Stern described it at “The Pie Shop is an annex of Mary Thomas’ home, built out of a former bicycle shed, now filled with tools of the baker’s art. Mrs. Thomas starts making pies in the morning, and by lunchtime there might be half a dozen varieties available, the favorites including pineapple, apple, lemon, coconut and sweet potato, all laid out in gorgeous golden brown crusts that rise up like fragile pastry halos around their fillings.”

After having good luck getting Washington to speak on camera, York was successful the next day when he went to Lake Village to visit with Rhoda Adams of Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales. Stern describes the restaurant this way: “The name of Rhoda Adams’ cafe is no lie. The tamales are delicious and well deserving of the fame they have earned up and down the Mississippi Delta. She makes them with a combination of beef and chicken. The meats combined with steamy cornmeal are wrapped in husks that when unfolded, emanate an irresistibly appetizing aroma and are a joy to eat as a snack or meal.”

York, however, seemed to be having the most fun when he visited the weekly wild game dinner in the back room at Gene’s Barbeque in Brinkley, an invitation-only event that pretty well features whatever the boys who hang out in the back room have recently caught, shot or run over.

On this Sunday night, the menu featured wild duck and dressing, wild goose, fried rabbit, rabbit gravy, fried catfish, turnip greens, sweet potatoes, sliced onions and more. You have to see the spread to believe it. And to think that they do it every Sunday night of the year (unless the man my sons simply refer to as Mr. Gene is out of town).

By the way, Gene, thanks for sending that rack of ribs home for the boys.

I’m hungry now. We hope to see you at the Arkansas Literary Festival.