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“In Through The Back Door”

Congratulations to John T Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, for having his article on Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna nominated as one of three finalists for the prestigious M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. The award is presented by the James Beard Foundation of New York, an organization founded in 1986 to celebrate, preserve and nurture this country’s culinary heritage and diversity.

Beard was a cookbook author and teacher who championed American cuisine. He died in 1985, but his spirit lives on as the Beard Foundation conducts education initiatives, food industry awards, scholarships programs for culinary schools and more. It also maintains the historic James Beard House in Greenwich Village as a performance space for visiting chefs.

John T’s article ran in the Oxford American. A couple of disclosures — I’m the chairman of the Oxford American board of directors, and I spent a long time urging John T to check out Jones Bar-B-Q. So I’m not exactly an unbiased source. But John T deserves the award for a great piece of writing.

How could one resist a story that starts like this: “A white man clutching a brown paper bag stands in the dirt-and-gravel lot that fronts Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in the Arkansas Delta town of Marianna. Grease splotches the bag, a stain that envelops the bottom and flares up the sides. The man appears to be 60, maybe 70. His face is wide and jowly. His hair is thick and comb-raked. He wears brown pants, a white shirt and a baby blue windbreaker. He could have left a couple of minutes ago, could have jumped in his pickup and driven away, eating a barbecue sandwich from a foil wrapper, fighting the collapse of the two slices of white bread that contain, for the moment, a mound of hickoried and sauced ham and shoulder. But the man lingers. The grease spreads.

“He stares across the neighborhood. At rusted-out and busted-up trailer homes. At carbon-smudged chimneys that stand where clapboard bungalows once stood. At bottle-strewn ditches, flush with crabgrass and bull thistle. The man is no barbecue pilgrim, questing for lost tribes and forgotten temples in this once-prosperous cotton kingdom. He’s likely a native. The man appears at ease in this neighborhood, the one that some old and intransigent whites still call ‘Niggertown.’ Just as he appears at ease across the levee and down the blacktop in his neighborhood, where sentry pines and picket fences frame tidy farmhouses.”

John T quotes the great Southern writer John Egerton as saying that “before schools, churches, sports teams and even other restaurants in the South got around to lowering the barriers of racial segregation, many of the region’s best barbecue pits maintained a thriving interracial trade.”

John T said his time in Lee County led him to begin thinking of barbecue “less as a cultural product and more as an ephemeral indulgence, entered into lightly, exited from easily.”

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner has existed in some form since the early 1900s. A firm opening date cannot be established, but John T said it might be “the oldest black-owned restaurant in the South, and, perhaps, one of the oldest family-owned black restaurants in the nation.”

Walter Jones was the name of the founder. His son, Hubert Jones, later ran the restaurant. It’s now operated by Hubert’s son, James Jones.

James Jones told John T: “My brother and I would cook out at the farm, where we raised our pigs. My father would sell the meat in town at this place they had. They called it the Hole in the Wall. That’s what it was. Just a window in a wall where they sold meat from a washtub. That was it until he opened this place in ’64.”

Jones quietly hands each sandwich out a small service window that John T said calls to mind “both a ticket booth at a porn theater and a Catholic church confessional.”

“I can’t remember when I didn’t smell like smoke,” Jones says. “That’s the price you pay. That, and a lack of sleep for going on 20 years.”

John T did well in capturing the essence Jones Bar-B-Q Diner of Marianna, a true Arkansas institution.

Winners of the James Beard Foundation journalism awards will be announced May 2.

On May 3, the foundation will announce its restaurant and chef awards. I’m disappointed that neither of the two Arkansans nominated for Best Chef in the South — Lee Richardson of the Capital Hotel in Little Rock and Miles James of James at the Mill in Lowell — made the list of five finalists. Both are great chefs. Their day will come.

The five finalists for Best Chef in the South are Zach Bell of Cafe Boulud at the Brazilian Court in Palm Beach, Scott Boswell of Stella! in New Orleans, John Harris of Lilette in New Orleans, Christopher Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham and Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami.

Meanwhile, back to the old debate as temperatures reach 80 for the first time this year and April dawns: What’s your favorite barbecue restaurant in Arkansas and why?

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