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Fried crappie at Gene’s

In the June issue of Arkansas Life magazine, the short biography of me on the contributors’ page states: “He says he would choose fried crappie for his last meal.”

Hopefully, I won’t be choosing my last meal anytime soon.

But I stick by the choice of fried crappie. Last night, Arkansas Life executive editor Kane Webb and I made the drive to Brinkley and Gene’s Barbeque on North Main Street so we could hang out in the famous back room of the restaurant with owner Gene DePriest and duck hunting legend Wiley Meacham.

Here was the deal: We would bring Gene 50 copies of the magazine’s June issue. In exchange, he would feed us fried crappie.

Let me make one thing clear: You cannot go to Gene’s and order crappie off the menu. It’s a game fish. It’s served to invited friends at no cost. It cannot be bought.

The catfish and buffalo ribs on the menu are great, though.

The fried crappie on my plate must have weighed at least two pounds. I left nothing but a pile of bones.

I also finished off a huge baked potato, a bowl of slaw, some pickles, hushpuppies, sliced tomatoes and green onions fresh from Gene’s garden.

I went to bed a full but happy man. My wife gave me this compliment: “You smell like an onion.”

Gene wanted the extra copies of the magazine because there’s an article by yours truly (with some wonderful photos by Little Rock’s Michael Juliano) titled “Eat Anything At Gene’s: Wild Game Sunday Nights Are An East Arkansas Tradition.”

I should also make clear that you cannot just show up on a Sunday night and pay to be a part of this event. Again, it’s illegal to sell wild game. You would have to be invited as a friend of Gene’s.

But if you’re ever lucky enough to be invited, say “yes” quickly.

There’s a seven-page spread in the magazine. You should pick one up if for no other reason than to see Michael’s photos.

I will quote from the first of the piece: “It’s shortly past 5 p.m. on an early spring Sunday, and the side parking lot of Gene’s Barbeque in Brinkley is crowded with pickups. You park behind a truck with a bumper sticker that proclaims ‘Proud To Be An American.’ The folks getting out of these trucks are all men. And they’re all headed for the side door of the restaurant rather than the front door.

“In the front room of Gene’s Barbeque, which draws travelers from nearby Interstate 40 and locals alike, few of the tables are taken at this early dinner hour. But in the back room — the room where the Brinkley Rotary Club meets, the room where former Congressman Tommy Robinson and his sons accosted a banker (receiving statewide media coverage in the process), the room that has been the scene of everything from political fundraising events to the occasional card game — things are hopping.

“With the exception of a waitress who walks in and out from time to time, it’s all men. Some are watching the large flat-screen television in the corner as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is played. Baylor is trying to upset Duke, and those in the room seem to favor Arkansas’ former Southwest Conference rival. Others are visiting with each other. Some seem to be meditating, perhaps dreaming of the feast that awaits them.”

Back when the restaurant was operated by Gene’s brother, it was known as Sweet Pea’s. On July 1, 1994, it became Gene’s. The restaurant hasn’t been closed since. It’s open on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving Day. It even remained open a few years ago when a fire damaged a large part of the restaurant and forced the closure of the main dining room. The kitchen and the back room weren’t badly damaged, so Gene used the back room as his dining room until the rebuilding process was completed.

Soon after taking over the restaurant, Gene began holding the Sunday night dinners for friends.

Back to the Arkansas Life story: “One regular attendee of the invitation-only affairs describes the menu as ‘whatever Gene shot, caught or ran over the previous week.’ There might be venison one week, squirrel the next, rabbit the next, catfish and buffalo fish the next. The rule seems to be that if it can be cut up and fried, DePriest will give it a try. Two visitors on this Sunday night tell him about bringing home a limit of sandhill cranes from a Canadian hunting trip and what an excellent meat it was.

”’They call it the rib-eye in the sky,’ one of the men says.

“Across the room, the basketball game has ended. Duke has vanquished Baylor, and CBS has moved from basketball to ’60 Minutes.’ The story being aired is about the commercial harvest of shark fins for Asian consumption.

”’Hey, Gene,’ a visitor yells out. ‘Would you cook shark fins if we were to bring them in?’

”’If you bring it in, Gene will cook it,’ another man answers before DePriest can speak.”

I’ve attended the Sunday night dinners several times a year for more than a decade. The menu on the night we worked on this story was fried rabbit, rabbit gravy, wild duck, wild goose, fried Irish potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, cornbread dressing, turnip greens and sliced onions.

Here’s how Gene explains the start of the Sunday night dinners: “I was killing a lot of squirrels. My wife wouldn’t cook them at home. I started to cook them here at the restaurant and invite friends over to help me eat them. It just kind of mushroomed.”

I put the following paragraph in the story while imagining ladies in the Heights, who pick up the magazine to see what parties Phyllis Brandon attended, getting queasy: “During squirrel season, which generally runs from early September through the end of February in Arkansas, fried squirrel is served most weeks. One elderly man, who attended the weekly dinners until just before his death, would bring his own pliers and ice pick from home. The pliers were used to crack the squirrel heads that Gene would cook for him. The ice pick was then used to scrape out the brains for consumption. Visitors from Little Rock would simply refer to him as the Squirrel Head Man.”

Gene lamented the fact that “a number of the regulars have died. The man who ate the squirrel brains was 87.”

I enjoy these Sunday night wild game dinners because they seem to be a throwback to another time, a time when small towns across the Arkansas Delta were filled with businesses that existed to serve the tenant farmers who raised cotton there; a time when winter meant daily hunts until it was time to plant the cotton again; a time when Sundays offered a rare chance to relax, eat a big meal and visit with friends.

On the Sunday night that we put together the magazine story, I asked my duck hunting mentor Wiley Meacham about the saying that the dinners consist of whatever Gene shot, caught or ran over.

“You know, he does put an awful lot of miles on that Lincoln,” Wiley said with a smile.

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