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Back to Grady (and other Arkansas favorites)

At the first of every year, I mark the annual Grady Lions Club Catfish Supper on my calendar.

It’s always the third Thursday in August. Always.

It’s always in the Ned Hardin pecan grove.

And it’s almost always hot.

Commonly known as the Grady Fish Fry, it’s among my favorite annual events. I’ve written about it before.

In an election year, the politicians flock to Grady. Among congressional and statewide officeholders and candidates, I saw Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Sen. Mark Pryor, Rep. John Boozman, Jim Keet, Shane Broadway, Mark Darr and Beth Anne Rankin there last night.

There likely were others who left before I arrived or maybe I just just missed seeing them. The event begins at 4 p.m. and ends at 8 p.m. As I said in a post at this time last year, the Grady Fish Fry marks the unofficial end of summer for me. Bring on football season.

I also mentioned last year (but must mention again) what is perhaps the most fascinating contraption in the state — the famed Grady hushpuppy machine, constructed decades ago from pieces of equipment found on area farms. One after another, the huspuppies come out of the machine and are put into the hot grease. If they ever stop using it, it should be donated to the Smithsonian as an example of American ingenuity.

I had a great visit last night with Sherwood Haisty, 85, a Lions Club member who has been a part of 40 of the 55 fish fries. He told me how the members of the Lions Club once worked for days in the hot sun setting up tables, bringing in the products, etc.

Then somebody had the bright idea of asking the Arkansas Department of Correction for help. For years now, it has been a mutually beneficial relationship.

For the Lions Club members, there’s a captive workforce, if you will.

For those who work at the nearby state prisons, there’s a carrot they can dangle in front of inmates — in exchange for good behavior, you can get out for one night and receive a great meal in the process.

Those men from around Arkansas in their white prison garb who are handing out slices of watermelon, filling glasses of iced tea and cleaning off the tables are now just as much a part of the event as the giant pecan trees in the Hardin grove. And the prison band sounded better than ever last night. The lead vocalist has true talent.

Think about it. There are politicians shaking hands. Inmates wearing white and guards wearing blue. A pecan orchard. People cooling themselves with the funeral home-style fans handed out by the politicians. Catfish. Hushpuppies. Watermelon. It just doesn’t get more Southern. It’s like something out of a movie.

Sadly, as the population of rural southeast Arkansas grows older and smaller, we lose members of the Lions Club each year. Rev. Clyde Venable passed away in 2009. Earlier this year, charter members Bill Blankenship and R.C. Johnson died.

Hopefully, there’s some young blood in the area to keep this landmark event going.

A lot of people help out. Hardin Farms supplies the watermelons. Simmons First supplies the plates. St. Michaels Farms supplies catfish. I could go on and on.

Money raised from this annual event (it’s $12 each for all you can eat) allows the Grady Lions Club to provide college scholarships, pay for eye exams and pay for glasses for those who could not otherwise afford them.

The fact that I’ve attended the Grady Fish Fry for almost 20 consecutive years got me to thinking about favorite places and activities in our state, many of which I’ve written about on this blog before. Here, in no particular order, is a list of some of my favorite places to visit and things to do:

— Spending Saturday afternoons at A.U. Williams Field in Arkadelphia watching the Ouachita Tigers play football. This is what I grew up doing, and I frankly can think of few things more important to me than those college football Saturdays spent in my hometown.

— Eating oysters at the oyster bar at Oaklawn Park before returning to my seat for the feature race.

— Walking slowly down Central Avenue in Hot Springs after a big breakfast at either The Pancake Shop or the Colonial.

— Wading in the Caddo River at Caddo Gap.

— Walking around the vibrant downtown squares in Magnolia and El Dorado.

— Counting the deer while driving at night from Monticello to Arkadelphia via Warren, New Edinburg, Fordyce, Princeton, Manning and Dalark.

— Crossing the Mississippi River at Greenville just in time for supper at The Cow Pen or the LakeShore Cafe near Lake Village.

— Having lunch on a summer day at the R.A. Pickens & Son Co. (which has been around since 1881) commissary at Pickens.

— Eating a cheeseburger and visiting with Bobby Garner at the Sno-White Grill in Pine Bluff.

— Standing next to the levee in downtown Helena visiting with Bubba Sullivan before going over to the Delta Cultural Center to say hello to Sonny Payne.

— Watching the sun come up and the mallards come in on a cold morning at the Piney Creek Duck Club near Monroe.

— Crossing the White River bridge at Des Arc and remembering days spent at my grandparents’ house there when I was a child.

— Driving from Searcy to Georgetown just to have fish at the Georgetown One Stop.

— Ordering the strawberry shortcake in May at the Bulldog in Bald Knob.

— Eating a steak at Josie’s in Waldenburg on a late fall Saturday night when the duck hunters are in town.

— Having fried squirrel during the Sunday night wild game dinner at Gene’s in Brinkley.

— Stopping at Craig’s in DeValls Bluff for a sliced pork plate and medium sauce. Walking across the highway to buy a pie.

— Pulling into Murry’s between Hazen and Carlisle just as the sun is setting with fried catfish on my mind.

— Drinking a cup of coffee and browsing at That Bookstore In Blytheville.

— Sitting on the end zone deck as the athletic director’s guest and watching an Arkansas State football game once the Ouachita season has ended.

— Floating the Eleven Point River or the South Fork of the Spring River with Dennis Whiteside while catching smallmouth bass.

— Watching a Travelers game at Dickey-Stephens Park on a Sunday afternoon in the spring when the temperature is still nice.

— Driving from Mountain View up to Calico Rock on a fall morning when the leaves are changing colors.

— Having a picnic at Tyler Bend on the Buffalo River.

— Walking through the Gov. Rockefeller exhibits while reading everything at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain. Stopping afterward to buy honey at the unmanned roadside stand where they trust you to leave the correct amount of cash.

— Having Sunday brunch at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs.

— Sitting on the front porch of Carnall Hall on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville.

— Driving through the Pea Ridge National Military Park on a winter afternoon.

— Standing in the parking lot of St. Mary’s Church at Altus just to enjoy the view.

— Watching the mountain climbers while sitting on a friend’s deck near Mount Sherman in Newton County.

— Finally getting inside the Slovak Oyster Supper after a cold wait outside.

— Driving by the state Capitol on Christmas Eve to see the lights.

— Walking across Markham Street with the happy crowd after a Razorback victory inside War Memorial Stadium.

— Having breakfast in downtown Kingston after admiring the old bank building next door.

— Buying cookies and bread at Klappenbach’s in Fordyce.

— Buying tomatoes in the summer at the produce stand in Biscoe.

— Sitting on the fourth-floor deck of the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs.

— Letting Lee Richardson cook for my wife and me at Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock.

— Walking down the boardwalk to see the Louisiana Purchase monument.

— Watching the Golden Gloves boxing matches with my son at the North Little Rock Community Center.

— Attending lectures at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

— Walking under the giant pecan trees along the Ouachita River near by boyhood home at Arkadelphia.

There are more. Many more.

What’s on your list?

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