Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

Arkansas — A caviar state

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

I mentioned in an earlier Southern Fried post that I had done some writing for the July edition of Arkansas Life magazine. It’s the magazine’s annual food issue, and it’s filled with stories about (and great photos of) Arkansas food.

One of the things I most enjoy about writing is sharing with others stories about Arkansas that they might not otherwise know.

I bet that a majority of Arkansans don’t know that our state produces caviar — very good caviar, in fact.

So it was fun to be asked by the magazine’s editors to make the trip east to Marvell to interview 62-year-old Jessie George — his friends call him John — about the caviar he ships out from George’s Fish Market each winter and early spring.

“It’s comparable to the taste of Russian caviar,” he told me.

He gave me a container of his caviar to take home. I like anything salty, and this was something I found hard to stop eating.

Jessie George knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the rivers of the Arkansas Delta and the things those rivers produce. He grew up on a houseboat at St. Charles on the lower White River during the river-rat era when hundreds of Arkansans lived on houseboats on the lower Arkansas, Cache, St. Francis and White rivers.

These families scratched out a living catching fish, trapping for furs and gathering mussel shells for the button industry.

Jessie George has picked cotton, worked in grain elevators, fished commercially for catfish and buffalo and overcome alcoholism in his life.

One brother was killed in a boating accident while fishing on the White River at Indian Bay.

Another brother was killed when the truck he was driving, which was carrying 750 pounds of catfish, was hit by a train at Almyra.

“People were out there picking the fish up before they could even get his body removed from the vehicle,” George told me.

It hasn’t been an easy life.

Back in the day when Arkansas restaurants primarily sold river-caught catfish rather than farm-raised catfish, the George brothers supplied the owners of the best-known catfish restaurants in the state — men such as Virgil Young of North Little Rock and Olden Murry of DeValls Bluff.

George said he has thrown “tons” of paddlefish back in the river, never realizing there might be a demand for their eggs. Paddlefish can reach more than five feet in length and weigh more than 60 pounds.

George began moving slowly into the caviar business in 1998. At one point, he drove from east Arkansas to Portland, Maine, just so a wholesaler could sample his product.

“I’d send samples to famous companies such as Petrossian and Tsar Nicoulai Caviar,” he said. “In all these years, I’ve never had a pound of eggs returned.”

Within a few years, George was no longer selling buffalo or catfish. He explained it this way: “I would be selling someone $4 worth of buffalo and let $100 worth of caviar get spoiled in the process.”

About 15 commercial fishermen supply George from late November until early April with eggs from paddlefish (often known in the Delta as spoonbill catfish), shovelnose sturgeon and bowfin.

There was a time when George shipped almost 10,000 pounds of eggs a year out of Marvell. He said it’s now too hard for him to find seasonal labor — people willing to work long hours in short stretches — in that part of the Delta. He also has a bad back.

“If you meet a commercial fisherman who is as old as I am, you’ll meet someone with a bad back,” he said.

Pulling in those nets day after day can take its toll.

The output at the Marvell facility is now in the range of 5,000 pounds a season. That’s still a lot of caviar.

George’s biggest buyer is the Great Atlantic Trading Co. of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., which describes paddlefish roe on its website as ranging from “light to dark steel gray, and comparable in taste to Caspian Sea Sevruga.”

The eggs from shovelnose sturgeon, which are known in the business as hackleback caviar (the term “shovelnose” apparently turns some consumers off), are described by Great Atlantic as “dark, firm with a very mild, subtle flavor.”

George also supplies Great Atlantic with bowfin eggs that are marketed by the company as “black caviar roe with an earthy and distinctive flavor that makes a good, less expensive substitute for sturgeon caviar. Unlike sturgeon, bowfin black caviar roe will turn red if heated.”

George supplied me with the finest of his three types of freshwater caviar, the hackleback.

Caviar has quite a history.

Armenian brothers Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian, who were born on the Iranian side of the Caspian Sea and raised on the Russian side, are credited with popularizing caviar in Paris during the 1920s and spurring a worldwide interest in the product.

The brothers went to France to continue their studies of medicine and law, which had been interrupted in Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Petrossian website tells the story this way: “Paris welcomed exiled Russian princes, intellectuals and aristocrats with open arms, and Parisians embraced all things Russian, especially the arts, ballet, the choreography of Diaghilev and the music of Igor Stravinsky. Nonetheless, there was one thing missing from the Russian expatriates’ lives: caviar. The French had yet to be introduced to this rare delicacy, a situation that the Petrossian brothers immediately set out to remedy.

“Their first attempts to create an awareness of caviar in Paris were assisted by Cesar Ritz, the great impresario of the European hotel trade. His initial reluctance to offer caviar in his prestigious establishment at the Place Vendome was quickly overcome as caviar caught on and assumed its own very special niche in the world of gastronomy.”

Marvell and Jessie George don’t seem to fit alongside Paris and Cesar Ritz.

But there’s no doubt that Arkansas has found its own niche in the world caviar trade.

Pick up the latest issue of Arkansas Life to read more about it.

And know that for a recent Friday night meal, my family started with caviar, followed by fried crappie for the main course.

That might seem upscale-downscale to some, but I considered it a meal featuring the best of what comes out of Arkansas’ lakes, rivers and streams.

Wiedower, Ruskey: New South Heroes

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

The folks at Southern Living magazine call it the Heroes of the New South awards.

I don’t like the term New South, which has been around for decades and doesn’t carry much meaning.

But I like a couple of the jurors who selected this year’s recipients, and I love the fact that two of the people mentioned in the March issue of the magazine are having a positive effect on the Arkansas Delta.

As for the jurors, Bill Ferris of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina (a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities) and John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi are among the region’s brightest minds.

I don’t know the other two jurors — Gerri Combs of South Arts in Atlanta and Jim Strickland of Historical Concepts in Atlanta (I’m always reminded of the old Lewis Grizzard line that “Atlanta is what we fought the war to prevent” when it comes to that city) — but I’m sure they’re equally capable.

Now to the two people who are having such a good influence on the Arkansas Delta.

In the architecture category, one of three honorable mentions is Beth Wiedower, 35, of the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative.

The magazine describes Beth, a Little Rock native and Hendrix College graduate, as someone who “rehabilitates rural towns through restoration of significant structures, such as the Johnny Cash boyhood home (at Dyess).”

Through personal experience, I can tell you that she does more than that. She builds pride among Delta residents and educates outsiders on what the region has to offer.

Just Sunday, on what would have been Cash’s 80th birthday, some of his children, grandchildren, siblings and lots of fans gathered in Mississippi County to celebrate the start of restoration of the boyhood home.

“He should’ve lived to 80,” daughter Rosanne Cash told Rolling Stone. “It’s hard. But it’s so uplifting to celebrate it this way rather than going to a dark place about how sad it is he isn’t still around.”

In the eco-preservation category, one of the two runners-up is John Ruskey, 48, of Clarksdale, Miss., who also operates out of Helena (see the Southern Fried blog post from last week titled “Buck Island and the Mighty Mississippi”).

Ruskey, who owns the Quapaw Canoe Co., shared runner-up honors with Mike Clark of St. Louis, who operates Big Muddy Adventures. 

Southern Living wrote: “Floating down the Mississippi, surveying its untouched banks, John Ruskey and Mike Clark feel most at home. Owners of outfitting and tour companies on the Mississippi River, they volunteer together to protect the largest river system in North America, including leading large-scale cleanups and canoe-building sessions. In 2011, they launched to document and protect the river’s last untouched wilderness.”

Wiedower’s Rural Heritage Development Initiative is sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and began to take shape in 2005 with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

A 2007 story in the Arkansas Times described it this way: “While 10 of the participating Main Street communities flourished across the state in 2004, the remaining five, in the east Arkansas communities of Blytheville, Dumas, Helena, Osceola and West Memphis, struggled with redevelopment. That spring, Main Street Arkansas asked the National Trust to collaborate on an assessment of its Delta programs. The resulting report, on not just the five Main Street programs but the entire Arkansas Delta, was so voluminous and filled with such wide-ranging proposals that its authors saw fit to include, in the introduction, a credo from the famous urban planner and architect Daniel Burnham — ‘Make no small plans.’

“After using the report to get money from the Kellogg Foundation, the National Trust selected two regions to participate in a three-year pilot program: an eight-county swath of central Kentucky called the Knob region, and the impetus behind the program, the 15 counties that stretch along Arkansas’ eastern border and make up our Delta. The 15 Delta counties are Arkansas, Chicot, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Desha, Drew, Greene, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis.”

Here’s how Wiedower explained her mission at the time: “We’re at the tail end of a 60-year out-migration. We’re what economists would call a very cold market — we’re not growing and we’re not building. In terms of preservation, that’s a good thing. If there’s no influx of money and there’s no growth, then typically there’s no money to tear down old buildings, and there’s no money to put up new buildings.

“We have a tremendous amount of our historic fabric still in the region. How do we use that and take our unique history and heritage and culture and use it for our economic gain? Certainly there is a place for a Toyota plant, but in addition, we need to be looking at our own regional flavor and what makes us as the Arkansas Delta unique and distinctive, not only for ourselves as residents but for potential heritage tourists and for potential businesses moving in who are looking at community and quality-of-life issues.”

Alas Marion never landed that Toyota plant for Crittenden County, but Wiedower has plugged along with heritage tourism, Delta-made and small business initiatives.

Building blocks include:

— The region’s rich music heritage

— The Mississippi River, agricultural and African-American heritages

— Two national scenic byways — the Great River Road and Crowley’s Ridge

— Historic sites such as Dyess, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House at Piggott and the Lakeport Plantation at Lake Village

— Existing Main Street programs and other small towns that are trying to improve their historic commercial districts

Last year, former President Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative committed to work with the Rural Heritage Development Initiative in helping entrepreneurs succeed in the Arkansas Delta.

As for Ruskey, he’s attempting to introduce people from across the country to the lower Mississippi River.

Writing for Adventure magazine, Kimberly Brown Seely described his mission this way: “For those of us raised on the great novels of Mark Twain, the Big River is a mythical thing, more imaginary than real. But here in this moment, the palms of my hands ache from gripping a wooden paddle; the river is bigger, faster and darker than I’d ever dreamed.

“It has been two days on the lower Mississippi and already the preconceptions I had — industrialized banks and polluted waters — have evaporated like a morning fog. Unlike the more northern reaches of the river, flanked by towns, cities and heavily developed farmlands, the lower Mississippi is still a wild sprawl: Forested islands and huge deserted sandbars rise out of eddies the size of several city blocks; a bend in the river can take 20 miles to hairpin back to almost the same spot.

“At the water’s edge a dense strip of deciduous forest harbors bears and coyotes, oppossums and beavers, and turtles and snakes. The 300 river miles between Memphis and Vicksburg are the most sparsely inhabited stretch of the entire river. And that’s the exact reason we’re paddling them.”

Ruskey’s Quapaw Canoe Co. bases its trips out of Clarksdale and Helena.

“John, in fact, is the Quapaw Canoe Co.: founder, outfitter, guide, canoe-carver, artist, musician and chef,” Seely wrote. “Should you be lucky enough to catch him on the phone one of the days he’s not paddling, he will, in no great hurry, get around to telling you that he can take you out on the river to explore by the day or the week — his only requirements being that you are willing to paddle and can deal with whatever nature dishes up.”

She went on to describe the lower Mississippi as a river that is “still hungry. The beast imprisoned within the Army Corps’ walls flexed its muscles once more in August 2005, breaching the levees and floodwalls outside New Orleans on the heels of Hurricane Katrina. The river is wild and random, we’re learning all too slowly; it never rests. Just like the Delta blues, the Mississippi moves — both languid and roiling at the same time.

“At the confluence of the Mississippi and the Arkansas rivers, you can see exactly where the two meet. The Mississippi flows brown on the left; the Arkansas flows green on the right. We paddle the seam, dragging a bare foot alternately on each side to test which is colder. The Arkansas is warmer and visibly cleaner than its muddy cousin. The two flow side by side for a long stretch, until the greenish Arkansas disappears altogether and the mud prevails.”

Such scenes are what John Ruskey has to offer visitors from across the country and around the world.

W. Hodding Carter, whose grandfather won the Pulitzer Prize when he owned the Delta Democrat Times at Greenville and whose father worked in the Carter administration, took a trip with Ruskey last spring during the Great Flood of 2011.

In an article he wrote for Outside magazine about the trip, Carter said: “Today the Delta is mostly a depleted, depressed region with a shrinking population. In Greenville, a painful number of businesses are boarded up downtown, and one-third of the population falls below the federal poverty level. Bad as these facts may sound, the river has fared even worse.

“As far back as I can remember, its definable features have been its muddied water and the irrepressible Mississippi funk, a suffocating melange of rotting mud, decaying fish, fertilizer and some unidentifiable industry byproduct that is probably best not dwelled upon, at least when you’re swimming in it.”

In a region that others have left for dead, Beth Wiedower and John Ruskey are building on existing assets and creating pride among Delta residents.

They’re both heroes in my book.

No. 6 with a bullet

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Paste magazine has compiled its list of the 20 best magazines of this decade, and the Conway-based Oxford American finds itself at No. 6 on that list.

Paste, which is headquartered in Georgia, was founded as a quarterly in 2002. It’s now a monthly publication. The magazine focuses on music and entertainment. Like many magazines these days, it’s struggling during this recession. It issued an urgent plea to readers for donations back in May.

I love magazines. One of my favorites, Gourmet, was a recent victim of the recession.

According to my wife, I subscribe to far too many. There’s a term around our house — “working on stacks.” It means taking full days to cull the magazines that have piled up.

The Paste editors had this to say about The Oxford American: “As we toil away down here in Decatur, Ga., it’s nice to be reminded that all great magazines don’t come from New York City. Marc Smirnoff’s Oxford American has been through its share of publishing turmoil, but its uniquely Southern voice hasn’t wavered once.”

The Oxford American appears to have found its footing as a quarterly rather than a bimonthly publication and as a nonprofit publication with a governing board on which I’m honored to serve. Thankfully, the folks at the University of Central Arkansas had the vision to ensure that this nationally recognized publication is headquartered in our state.

More good news came Tuesday when it was announced that The Oxford American will receive a $15,000 Access to Artistic Excellence grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA said it chose the magazine for a grant because it “continues to highlight the work of emerging and established Southern writers and Southern culture.”

In case you’re wondering what other magazines made the Paste Top 20 list, here they are from No. 20 counting down to No. 1 —  Interview, Vanity Fair, The Word, National Geographic, Utne Reader, Real Simple, Mental Floss, Jane, Dwell, No Depression, Good, The Week, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Oxford American, The Believer, The New Yorker, New York, Esquire and Wired.

Two of the publications on the list — Jane and No Depression — are no longer in business.

Due to the efforts of a lot of good people in Arkansas, The Oxford American hopefully is here to stay.

A magazine and a website to love

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

It became official today.

Warwick Sabin is leaving his post as the associate vice president of communications at the University of Central Arkansas to spend all of his time in his other role, publisher of The Oxford American.

It’s time for another confession: I’ve known about this for quite some time since I’m the chairman of the OA board. But it was up to UCA to make the official announcement, and the university did that today.

Warwick, a New York native, came to Arkansas as a college freshman to attend the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He decided to stick around. He’s one of the most talented individuals with whom I’ve worked in my years of journalism, government and politics. It’s going to be a tremendous benefit having Warwick devote all of his time to the magazine.

Warwick took on the title of publisher in April 2008. He basically did a full-time job at the magazine in his spare time as his work days were consumed by UCA business. I’m not sure when he slept.

What Warwick’s move to the publisher’s position did, though, was to allow the heart and soul of the OA — editor Marc Smirnoff — to devote his days and nights to making a great editorial product even better.

It was Marc, a California native who ended up in Oxford, Miss., who founded the magazine with the goal of making it The New Yorker of the South. Living in Oxford allowed Marc to get to know Southern writers such as Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown and John Grisham. The first issue of the OA was printed in March 1992, and the magazine went out of business the first time in 1994.

Grisham helped resurrect the publication in 1995, but it went out of business a second time in 2001.

Private investors brought the OA to Little Rock in 2002. By the following year, those investors had decided that publishing an award-winning magazine with a literary bent was not a way to get rich.

So the magazine went out of business yet again. Then, Warwick stepped in. He was too young and idealistic to know better. He asked a group of people who were OA fans to work with him to give the magazine new life. I was fortunate to be one of the people he asked. It helped that Marc refused to give up on his dream and take a job in the real world.

Thankfully for all who love the South and love good writing, the University of Central Arkansas agreed to provide the financing necessary to resurrect the OA yet again. The university also provided a home for the magazine. Publication began again in late 2009. And this time, the OA is here to stay.

I think we have found the perfect mix — a non-profit status, a quarterly publication schedule, a home on a university campus where learning, reading, writing and lively debates are cherished. Now, if only we could give Marc more time to spend evenings at Dickey-Stephens Park.

The magazine was able to lure good, talented people like Ray Wittenberg to help it stay alive this time. With Warwick as a full-time publisher and Marc at the top of his creative game, I’m more optimistic about the future of the magazine than I’ve been in years.

The OA is the type of literary gem that we should support in Arkansas. It reaches people in the book world, the film world and the music world who don’t necessarily think of Arkansas as a place of culture. We know what we have in this state, and we shouldn’t keep it a secret. Even though its focus is on the entire South, the OA helps us spread the Arkansas message — the story of a state filled with talented writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers and more.

Yes, we turn out nationally known politicians. Attending National Governors Association meetings through the years, I would often find myself asking: “How on earth was that guy elected governor of his state?” But then I would realize I was spoiled. I came from a state that had produced truly world-class orators like Dale Bumpers, Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee. The fact that all are native Arkansans says a lot about the oral tradition in this state.

And, yes, we turn out nationally known football coaches. I never tire of reminding my friends in the state of Alabama that when the University of Alabama wanted to win, it had to turn to a native Arkansan, Paul “Bear” Bryant. And when Auburn University wanted to win, it had to turn to a native Arkansan, Tommy Tuberville. I even seem to remember that there’s a native Arkansan coaching over at Ole Miss right now.

But we also turn out the musicians — Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Louis Jordan, Al Green, Glen Campbell (sorry, Melissa, I’m not quite ready to add Kris Allen to that list). And the artists. And the architects. And the writers. When I had an office in the Mississippi Delta, I would joke to my co-workers about the famed Mississippi literary tradition: “All of your great writers are dead. A lot of ours are still alive.”

The OA helps us celebrate all of that and spread the word.

A couple of items to close. First, you’re missing a real treat if you’ve not visited the OA’s revamped website at It features a new original video series; editors’ picks for music, books and the theater; interviews; links to the blogs of top Southern writers; and much more. Be careful. If you’re like I am, you will end up spending hours at the site.

Finally, congratulations to my friend Jeff Pitchford. UCA also announced today that Jeff, a Mountain Home native, has been promoted to vice president of university and government relations. Jeff and I worked together in the early years of the Huckabee administration, including the contentious 1997 legislative session when Sen. Nick Wilson was calling many of the shots. I know what Jeff is made of, and it’s strong stuff.

UCA’s new president, Allen Meadors, made a wise choice. I’m not sure we have to sell Dr. Meadors on the value of having the OA on campus. But if we do, we’ll just lock him in the room with Marc and Warwick for the day. They’re true believers. When the door is opened, Dr. Meadors will be a true believer, too.