Kat Robinson takes a look back at Arkansas's oldest festival and the history of peaches in The Natural State... plus a preview of what's happening this weekend at the Johnson County Peach Festival.
Can you imagine Arkansas summers without peaches? The fuzzy fruit with its almost syrup-sweet flavor is scrumptious to the pit… but it wasn’t always available in The Natural State. Peaches weren’t cultivated until after the Civil War, as farmers looked to diversify crops to avoid the treacheries of a single crop economy. Orchards popped up all over central and western Arkansas and along Crowley’s Ridge.
There’s also a peach eating contest… and you’d be surprised how fast a child can eat a peach.
Seriously, they can gobble that flesh off the pit quick!
Make plans now to head up there July 24th through 26th… and if you need more information, call (479) 754-9152 or check out the event’s Facebook page.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
Monday, July 14, 2014
My former places to enjoy a good cuppa and write a bit have evaporated these past two and a half years. Sufficient Grounds, which became The House, is now The Pantry and no longer a coffee shop -- and Gellattes has just evaporated. Guillermo's, where I wrote most of my work in 2011, had been steady but with Hans Oliver no longer running the show I suspected things have changed.
If I were the sort not to try new things, I would have been quite disappointed and maybe have made my way back home, since most the other local places where I might consume coffee would be closed on a Sunday. But I was undaunted -- and moreso, I was looking for a place to write.
The first really big new idea came in the coffee itself. I'm a black coffee drinker. I might drop in a cube or two of natural sugar if it's available, but if I am seriously working I want it black and strong. And yes, there are espressos and cappuccinos and mochas available -- but what entranced me was the idea of pour-over coffee. I mean, what does that mean?
cup in my hand before I wrote my first word of the day -- but it does make for a very individualized experience.
The barista working offered me choices -- a house blend, a medium roast and the option to have either made stronger. He also grinned when I asked for my black coffee. Other places people have smirked when I ordered -- thinking I might load it up on the other end with add-ins. I don't think that was the case here.
Speaking of cases -- there was a case below the coffee area full of bottles of Loblolly strawberry lemonade. Now, what rock have I been under that I haven't known about such a thing? Don't answer that -- it's for another post.
I watched my coffee being made -- filter being placed in a ceramic filter cup, a tablespoon of fresh grounds dropped in, a young woman slowly pouring water over the grounds and watching the water flow through to the cup below. It was very modern and fresh and clean and bright, almost like a commercial. This was certainly not my usual coffee experience.
And... people watching. Yes, there were a lot of people coming through. Families with small children. Older folks with books, younger folks with computers, couples digging their way through newspapers.
And I felt like some weird pretender. Indeed, when I looked away from my wide laptop I noticed there were just as many eyes on me in my old tie dye blouse with my hair swept back as there were people for me to quietly ponder. These folks seem so urban, so hip... I'm just not in that class, am I?
Don't get me wrong... it's a very nice, very clean coffeehouse with good products. But it may be too much -- I mean, it's perfect for someone wanting to meet another someone for quiet conversation or to go through the paper, but it's about as far away as gumbo soil and highway miles as I could get.
That's not a problem. If I were writing a novella about life in a coffeeshop, it has potential. Those rustic-bread paninis also have potential. LOTS of potential. In fact, enough that I almost considered getting one. But by that point my back was achy and my resolve to write about barbecue joints and hot summer afternoons had faded, and I had to go get it back. So I fled.
Well, sorta. I planned to flee. And then I wrote this piece instead. And then I stayed -- despite the gradually frustrating patio chair and all the eyes. I stayed, because though it might not be what I'm used to in a coffeeshop, it did offer fabulous coffee and a really remarkable chocolate croissant.
See, a lot of my personal choices for a coffeeshop are about comfort -- physical comfort. When I can find a good pairing of coffee, available electricity, a place where I can sit where I won't be bothered and a nice selection of edibles, I've hit the jackpot. Mylo is a little short on those electrical outlets and comfy chairs... but it does have a comfortable vibe -- which I witnesses as individuals kept coming through the door, sitting and talking with each other.
Even this end-of-day oatmeal raisin cookie... which was delivered to me... close to closing time. Yeah.
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
But Farrell's wasn't our only sweet treat delight back in those heady days of the 1980s. I'll elaborate in a moment.
|See, even Bill Clinton liked Farrell's.|
Down on the first floor at the north entrance, there was an awning that spread out into the hall. If you passed under that awning, you could step down into a land of pure fun, where both waiters and waitresses wore striped shirts, vests and hats and an ice cream extravaganza was waiting for you.
Farrell's Ice Cream Parlours started in Portland, OR in 1963. At its zenith it operated restaurants in 32 states across the United States. The location at McCain Mall in North Little Rock was one of the more successful stores. But after a purchase by the Marriott group in the 1970s, it became an individual franchise; it and two other stores owned by the same person (in Little Rock and Oklahoma City) closed in 1984.
Swensen's didn't have all the bells and whistles of Farrell's, but it did have the Earthquake, which reminded me so much of this scene from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.
to TCBY -- but that didn't stop the growth. By 1986 there were over 400 stores. By 1987 there were over 800 stores. The company grew so big and so fast, it was a marvelous investment.
It left its mark on Little Rock -- literally -- for a while, the tallest building in the state was the TCBY Tower (which was later the Metropolitan Tower and is now the Simmons Bank Tower).
I can remember the original This Can't Be Yogurt theme song, but I'm not going to sing it for you. I did, however, find a clip of the commercial where they announced another name change, to TCBY Treats.
So, here's the thing. You may not be aware of this, but Farrell's is still around. After just about every location closed down, there were two -- one in San Diego and one in Eugene, Oregon. In the late 1990s, Parlour Enterprises got the rights to develop new stores from The Kirin Group (which had bought the rights to develop more stores from Marriott), and new locations came about. Today you can enjoy lots of different ice cream confections at seven locations in California and one in Hawaii. Food Network even declared the super sundaes at Farrell's one of its top five decadent desserts.
But that doesn't answer the original idea for this post. Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour was part of the draw for my generation, a reason to choose McCain Mall over other shopping sites. Having that nostalgic Music Man-style eatery with its big ice cream creations return would be one step in creating a nostalgic destination for Gen Xers... pair it up with a showing of Flashdance, the original Star Wars trilogy or Xanadu and a before-the-show visit to Mr. Dunderbak's, and you're just a fashion mistake away from a time warp.
So should Farrell's return? Or should Purple Cow consider a McCain Mall location? Is there a different ice cream magnate you'd rather see there?
For more reading;
Farrell's Memory Page
Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour Restaurants
Swensen's Ice Cream
Purple Cow Restaurants
Friday, June 20, 2014
The boats wet on as far as the eye could see -- hundreds of them -- as the sun set. When the sun escaped the sky, a thousand tiny bulbs illuminated on the surface of the water, front and back markers for every watercraft. They multiplied as more came into the bay, as individuals turned on strings of tiny lights or big blue LED bars, even a black light or two. Green on the back, incandescent white on the front, out and on and on, six hundred boats or more becoming a sea of sequins in the night on Beaver Lake.
It was a Friday night, July 5th of 2013, the day after Independence Day. The drive took hours. We rode up from Fort Smith through northwest Arkansas and then down from Garfield on the long peninsula into Beaver Lake. The road dwindled from a two-lane to a two-lane without shoulders to one without a stripe to a dirt road curling back and forth between trees, narrowing further.
The lodge sat into the side of the hill, two stories of log-clad majesty at the top of a story-tall concrete staircase. Inside the office, large fish on the wall and a big dining room off to the right that smelled of 1985 and cedar and such.
But on the other end, there was a splendid, surprising diner that served up burgers and steaks and daily late lunch specials with wine or when it was open. It was not when we arrived, but big eyes and big cameras brought out a couple of slices from the case, a blood-red strawberry and rhubarb filled slice and one of pink-tinted peach slices under a hand-rolled, hand poked lattice top crust, perfection. This place should have been in my pie book.
But we hadn't come for pie; fireworks were what we sought, great blossoms and flashes of fire in the nighttime sky. And though we wouldn't know it for a short while, we had arrived in the right place.
The Simrell family has owned the property since the 1970s, but Ventris Trail’s End Resort was just built in 1997 – a lodge and a collection of cabins nestled into the woods on one of the lake’s many peninsulas. The show we had come to see had first been presented in 2002. It wasn't just folks on the shoreline shooting off what they’d found at a roadside stand.. no, it was quite different. Jody Simrell met us at the lodge and started telling us about the inspiration -- seeing a grand fireworks show at Epcot Center one year and thinking about how grand it would be to have that sort of display over the big lake at home. The original idea was to bring a little attention to the resort and let people know it was there; it had turned into something much bigger.
The lodge is at the top of the ridge that runs the length of the peninsula, while the action to create the show are on the lake's banks. Jody took us in a golf cart down to the shore and marina to show us the speakers. I was surprised they weren't larger -- but he assured me they'd be able to be heard across the water. "They can also tune to 100.9fm," he reassured me.
We got back into the cart and headed further out along the peninsula. When the road got too rough and steep, we walked, careful not to let the flint chips roll under our feet.
Jody was careful not to step on the wires near the mortars. Grav talked him into picking up one from its tube, and he did, carefully, like an ancient tribesman picking up a severed head by its hair. The resemblance was uncanny thanks to the size of the mortar, bigger than my head and about as oblong and round. Grav asked him to smile, and the effect was similar.
We went back to the lodge one more time to make sure we had all we needed (and for me to take an important break) and headed back to the marina, where we met up with Larry, Jody's brother. He had us sit up front on the pontoon boat and the family that had boarded moved to the back, a young couple with a redheaded girl that looked to be about six and a pudgy toddler of maybe three. There was also a guy in a red Hawaiian shirt by the name of Jeff who was gray and balding on the top but generally good natured -- and a couple of younger guys.
The young man jumped out and pulled the pontoon in to shore. His wife brought forward the toddler, who was really wrestling to get out of her arms by this point. She handed the little girl over, then climbed over herself. The redheaded girl did not want to go, and was given the option to go back to shore. She climbed out, and I heard her ask her dad where they were going, and I knew tales of adventures were being spun.
Cruising back into the island, we saw the family again, sitting together tightly on a blue quilt, the man perched on the cooler. The talk of adventured had ceased and you could sense a dreary exhaustion, perhaps from the fight. The toddler was quiet now, rocked back on her diapered bottom with her back to the cooler, finally at peace with the decision to go there.
We nestled through the boats and swimmers to an optimal site about the time the sun crept down the other side of the peninsula, leaving the twilight blues to claim water and sky. Anchor pitched, one of the two young men on the back of the boat jumped into the water and shored us up so the front end faced the site of the fireworks.
But the wind kept sliding us around, and finally Larry untied the anchor and maneuvered it to the back of the boat. We were finally set even for the show.
Motor off, idling done, we sat and watched the night claim the lake. Boat after boat came into view, and as the glow faded from the sky each would turn on its lights. There was a sparkle about it, an undulating wave.
I've heard of an oriental experience where keel boats slowly float through a conglomeration of phosphorescent luminaries on lily pads -- and this was similar, the sensation of floating and quiet and fellowship. Though most boats were packed with people waiting for fireworks, with anything from two to ten on each, there was a silence, a bare murmur as folks waited.
Impatient, some took to lighting their own fireworks on far beaches, exploding quickly and brightly far away ,briefly disturbing the hush – but near silence would fall again just as rapidly. Chinese lanterns were released here and there -- a blue one, a red one, a white one. One of the blue ones came down directly by the boat closest to us, almost unnoticed by the people within resting before the show, lulled into a watery lullaby by the rocking and the sloshing.
One more single mortar exploded above our heard, and then, suddenly, a call was made for the pledge of allegiance, and after the first two words a thousand voices joined in, echoing over the water. The cadence of human voice was more powerful than a sea of tympanis, stronger than a military drum core. This was an impromptu community more than a thousand individuals strong, maybe two thousand, bigger than many of the burgs that lined the lake, and they were united in this rite of ceremony.
At the end of the pledge, God Bless America blasted out from the speakers, accompanied by the first choreographed round of pyrotechnics. The noise around us became palpable as all those voices hushed by the majesty of the incoming night suddenly came alive again, enthralled by the pageantry above. Grav took up his camera, and I did too, and we aimed our lenses skyward.
Without a break, the music segued into Wayland Holyfield’s “Arkansas You Run Deep In Me.” This classic from the 80s might have seemed out of date elsewhere, but here it gave me goosebumps. Here I was on an Arkansas lake, surrounded by others who had come out for the show… the beauty of it all was remarkable.
One song after another drove the display, which continued through each piece. You could hear the music echoing from the shore and from radios on many of the bobbing points, Santana’s “Monster” and Celine Dion and even a piece Jody Simrell had written and performed. Though we had started seated in the boat we’d all risen to our feet, even Larry and Jeff, as the concert had progressed. It grew in intensity and never slacked.
The momentum came to a head as the opening to a Mumford and Sons song began. As the boys started to harmonize about how they would wait for you, I stood by Grav shooting and them put my hand on his back. The darkness hid most of our features, but I could see him smiling, too.
One last amazing, considerable volley of fireworks, a loud blast, and then silence. The show had ended just as quickly as it had begun. Hoots and hollers started to come from the crowd, followed by thunderous applause. And then some bugger turned on his headlights and blinded half of us.
As Larry aimed us at the shore, we saw those bobbing lanterns on the water start to recede. Everyone we passed and talked with agreed it was a far bigger and better show than the year before. We made it in, and while guys held the boat tight I was aided off the craft by an elderly gentleman with the pomp of a footman to the queen. I prayed my water legs wouldn't send me and the camera equipment into the drink.
We foraged on ahead in the semi dark up the hill, me following Grav -- who lead us not up the driveway but over the children’s playground instead. We both forced ourselves onward, knowing we had a two hour drive ahead of us. We saw Jody and overheard he need to go down to get us. He asked us how we liked the show and we just grinned at each other, speechless for just a moment. There were dozens of adjectives in my head, but none seemed adequate for what we had seen.
Last year’s celebration fell on July 5th, which allowed us to see other shows the nights before and after. The coordination and effort the Simrells put into their show place it in a category all its own. You should go. It’s… beyond words.
Click here to head to the Ventris Trail’s End Resort website. And if you’re out on the water, head to Marker 8 on Independence night. You won’t be disappointed.
To get there by land from Garfield, take Hwy 127 toward Lost Bridge. Just past Across the Creek Restaurant, turn right on Ventris Road, which you'll follow 6.3 miles to Trail's End Road. Turn left and look for Simrell Drive. Follow Simrell Drive through the gate. Signs will get you the rest of the way there.
To get there by water, head southwest of Ford's Creek or northwest from Cedar Bluff -- it's across the river from Martin Cemetery. Or, just use your handy GPS to find the Point 8 Marker.