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 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.

15 Responses to “Death of a barbecue legend”

  1. Kat says:

    Good job, Rex. Repeated calls to folks in the area… while I have yet to reach family or someone who works in the restaurant, the local cop shop and city hall both report it’s closed and they’re not sure it’s going to reopen. A friendly officer pointed me in the direction of JJ’s Grocery for the sauce. Won’t be the same, though.

  2. rexnelson says:

    Please keep us posted, Kat.

    I hope Shadden’s reopens.

    If not, we’ve lost a legendary outpost — Rex

  3. RWF says:

    Recently I posted that Shadden’s, in my opinion, was the best BBQ in Arkansas. If it does not reopen Arkansas will have lost a great treasure. I am very saddened by Mr. Shadden’s death and only got to meet him once while I ate there. What a tremendous gentleman and cook.


  4. A Clatworthy Among Yankees says:

    Even a thousand miles away I can smell the smoky aroma of Shadden’s barbeque and see in my mind’s eye the delapidated store on US 49 that I passed on every visit to my great grandmama’s house in Postelle a few miles up the road. Every time my yankee friends want to talk about “real” barbeque I break out my yellowed Arkansas Gazette clippings and pictures of Shadden’s Grocery and sing the praises of the King. Wayne Shadden, I don’t believe, ever thought about being the best. He just didnt know any other way to do it. He will be missed.

    The King is dead. Long live the King.

  5. Kane Webb says:

    Sad, sad news. Rex, I still remember our trips to Shadden’s and how honored I felt when Mr. Shadden was there. It’s a remarkable place and piece of Arkansas history and culture. I hope it stays open. I fear it won’t. As coincidence would have it, I’ve been trying to reach Levon Helm for another story. I spoke to his agent yesterday and passed along the news. She said he had heard and was heartsick about it.–kw

  6. Bliss West Baxley says:

    Wayne Shadden was a dear friend of mine.He was a kind and generous man. I am deeply saddened by his passing.

  7. Seamus says:

    I’ve been there a couple of times, and it’s definitely my favorite bbq in the state hands down. I had actually planned on driving there tomorrow from LR until I read your blog. I do hope that the store will reopen. Keep us posted.

  8. Liz Williams says:

    This is indeed a loss. I would love to have the sign for the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Any ideas about how we could make that happen?

  9. AllenK says:

    My wife sent me a text with the news of Mr. Shadden’s passing,and I was shocked. She got the news in an email and relayed it to me. I was truly saddened.

    The first time I went thorugh Helena area was in 2003. I don’t know why I hadn’t been before then. It was either then or passing through there in 2003 that I noticed Shadden’s and knew it had to be a great place. I started finding books and internet articles that mentioned Shaddden’s in the years since then. My wife started working for Southern Bancorp in 2008,and she has made a couple of trips over to the KIPP school with her boss. My wife’s boss had a tip from a friend about Shadden’s,and on the first trip over they stopped there. My wife came home with a bottle of the sauce and a little bit of leftovers. Oh man the hype was for real!

    On New Year’s Day this year,my wife and I got in the car and just started driving. I decided to head over to Pine Bluff and Stuttgart,and then up to Little Rock. As we drove, I looked at our atlas and decided to go to The Louisiana Purchase monument. We decided to try and eat at Shadden’s if it was open. It was almost 5 when we got there and it was getting dark,but Shadden’s was open.

    The store is just as everyone described. Mr. Shadden and the black lady were inside watching satellite tv which I thought was great! We ordered two sandwiches and two drinks to go. I loved the old drink coolers! That was the coldest canned drink I’ve ever had. We chatted with Mr. Shadden while we waited for our food. We talked about where we were from,what we were doing,Levon Helm,etc. I wish we had eaten our food there,but I wanted to try to make it to the Purchase monument before it got dark. I would’ve stayed and talked more if I had known he wasn’t going to be around much longer. I must say that that was some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had,and the sauce is heavenly. We still have half a bottle of it left. I think the total for our order including the sauce was a whopping 16 bucks.

    RIP Mr. Shadden!! You will be missed. I’m glad I got to meet him and eat there,and my wife feels the same way.

  10. Allie Young says:

    hey Rex, my name is Allie Young, i am 14 and i am one of wayne shadden’s great nieces. my family is really close to him and his wife and when he was still here i would probably saw him almost everyday and on weekends i would stay with him and his wife. he was so funny and somthing else you probably didnt know he LOVED agrivating his family in a playful way! he use to agrivate me ALL the TIME. and i really didnt like it but then when he got sick and wasnt doing it anymore i really wished he would get better and agrivate me again but he never got well to do it again. when i stayed with him and his wife, he always got home late since he kept the store open late and most of the time i would still be awake when he got in from working the store. usually when he got home he would always say hey gal what are you still doin up and my reply was uncle wayne its not that late. the store might reopen but we’re not sure if we are or not. i was also there when he died but not in there i was in the shower. his wife,sister, and my mom were also there to. he died peacefully so that was good. please pray for our family especially his wife bc she is really having a difficult time.

  11. rexnelson says:

    Allie: Thanks so much for your comments.

    A lot of us are indeed praying for the family.

    I hope you guys know there are people all over the South hoping the store will reopen — Rex

  12. Allie Young says:

    hey rex, just wanted to let you know that the store is not gonna repopen 4 a few years only if her son comes and works it. bc its to much work 4 aunt nita so she is just gonna rest from it 4 a while. sorry.

    Allie Young

  13. rexnelson says:

    Very sad news, Allie, but I understand.

    Thanks for letting me know — Rex

  14. Monty Rowell says:

    I realize this is late in coming, but I was terribly sorry to hear about the passing of Wayne Shaddon.

    Every opportunity I had when I was over in that part of the world, I would always stop. What a GREAT place and WONDERFUL food.

    Any idea at this point what will happen to this place ? I understand all of his children are out of state so I suspect there are no family members to carry on the tradition.

  15. Mark Francis says:

    Sad to just find out about Mr. Shadden. I’m very glad I was able to take my oldest son there before the end. Shadden’s was my favorite bbq joint in the state, by far.

    I was excited to find that wonderful sauce bottled and for sell at the local Edward’s Food Giant in Little Rock.

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