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Cornbread Nation

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.

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