Friday, August 22, 2014

Reconnecting at the Grady Fish Fry.

Summer finally broke hard this week, cutting through months of cooler than natural temperatures to remind us that the earth’s scorching is as inevitable as the rise and fall of the tides. It would come, of course, at the time of greatest heat within the Arkansas Delta – that felt over the deep oil fryers at Ned Hardin’s farm in Grady, a sweltering event that could be considered the ring of fire for Arkansas politicians.

Sure as the Gillett Coon Supper can be cold and snowy, the Grady Fish Fry is certain to always be a blistering event, if only for those being raked over the coals or standing over those hush puppies. For me, though, it was cool and sweet, like the watermelon served by older men, as much as one would want to consume.

Each year, hundreds travel to the shriveling burg to sit in the Hardin yard and consume catfish, fries, slaw and melon together. They’re also reconnecting – generations of Grady folks who have moved away or been swept up with jobs, lives and obligations to be elsewhere most of the rest of the time. They’re young, old and in-between, rural and urban, some educated finely and others blessed with common sense. And there’s no hurry at all.

Of course, that wasn’t my thought when I was stopped dead on Interstate 530 heading south from Little Rock. Construction kept me from the very start of the experience, and from purchasing my ticket and entering right at 4 p.m. I wasn’t certain if I would still be received, coming in a half hour late. I shouldn’t have worried.

The line of signs a quarter mile away from the Hardin farm confirmed my thoughts political – there was every manner of campaign placard along U.S. 65B out a ways from the entrance. There were already cars parked alongside the road, and I followed thusly, though I would find a few moments later there was more than enough space for me to slide into the sideyard. No worries.

I crossed the road and passed the cluster of law enforcement officers directing traffic. It took just a moment to purchase my $12 ticket and to get in line for the actual dinner. To get to that point, I had to brave a gauntlet of eager politicians with buttons, stickers and fans. They were all very nice.

This welcomed me at the ticket taker’s table.

It didn’t take much to get to the catfish, which was all under this long ancient pavilion. A couple of ladies were handing each person a plate, napkin and utensils.

And then, it was pick that catfish up with some fries and get going. While it had been about 10 degrees cooler than Little Rock outside the gate, it was muggy hot inside the pavilion. That didn’t keep me from catching some shots of that marvelous catfish and the men working over the hot grease.

I will be completely honest here. I’m not a huge catfish fan. I try to stay away from cornmeal breading and I don’t think everyone does a good job of frying fish. That being said, I hadn’t even gotten a piece on my plate before I had one in my mouth. Oh golly, that was good.

Sometimes food fits the setting – and that was certainly the case here at Grady.

At the end of the pavilion, there was a mechanized affair going on. This was the famed hush puppy machine I’d heard about. The late M.E. Argo, a machinist and Grady Lions Club member, made the hush puppy machine back in the 1950s in his welding shop. Now, I won’t tell you how it was made, because for one I don’t rightly know and for two it’s unique. Go figure it out yourself. I can tell you it starts with a marvelous batter…

which is then fed into this machine.

The mechanism pumps out two dribbles of hush puppy batter at a time into very hot grease.

Men with paddles slowly shepherd them down the trench, turning them and ensuring they’re all this deep orange brown at the end.

See for yourself.

Now, if it wasn’t for the heat, I could sit and watch this all day – but we’re talking molten lava air here, bubbling bursts of greasy, wilty breeze blowing forth. It was like standing over an open furnace – which, in many ways, it was.

Of course, I’m thinking all these nice young gentlemen in their white shirts and hats are just sweet as can be. It didn’t hit me until after I saw one particularly polite fellow assisting some of the oncoming diners that these guys are prisoners.

That’s no joke. The state helps the Grady Lions Club out by providing them with some labor for the day, along with the talents of the Cummins Prison Band, which blasted out hits from The Temptations and the Eagles (which would have been even better had they known all they words to "Lyin’ Eyes").

At other stations, you can get a beverage (water or iced tea – sugar’s on the table) and the appropriate accoutrements for your catfish (tartar sauce in packets, lemon or onion wedges and slaw). I picked up my slaw and had a seat.

Of course, the prerequisite shot of my dinner:

First off, I have to tell you, those hush puppies are addictive. They’re a little sweet and they’re small, easy to pop. I preferred them to the fries and the catfish and almost everything else – though the catfish was fresh, airy and clean. No muddy bits here.

Of course, once you’re seated, you’re fair game. I was approached by no less than six different politicians while consuming my repast. Mike Ross even sat down close to me and chatted with a couple of lovely ladies.

Asa Hutchinson was also working the crowd, as were a dozen or better candidates for state offices. In fact, there were booths outside the gates not only for different contenders but to register to vote as well.

I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, the spots of conversation here and there and the Cummins Prison Band (except for the aforementioned “Lyin’ Eyes,” the lyrics of which were apparently not made privy to the lead singer). There were gentlemen there twice my age who flirted and grinned, individuals greeting each other for the first time in a year or a decade, kids playing and all around folks marveling at their good fortune to be able to share such a comforting repast.

I couldn’t wait to finish my dinner, and went and found watermelon before I was done with my last fillet. Cold and sweet, melon at the Grady Fish Fry is served up under the proffered funeral home pavilion, as much as you can swallow.

This particular year’s event is the 59th occurrence. Each year it’s held at E. C. “Ned” Hardin’s place on what used to be the main drag through town. It’s run by and benefits the Lions Club, and it’s always a sellout.

The action never slowed down. The band would pause for a few minutes for a break, and the volume of the crowd swelled. At any particular point from five o’clock on, I could look towards the gate and see a significant line of individuals waiting their turn for catfish.

I never did open my tartar sauce packets. The fish was good, and I ate far more of it than I should have. I also talked Arkansas food with several individuals, lamenting the loss of Ed and Kay’s in Benton, wondering how Aron Phillips is going to do with Phillips Fish Market in Forrest City, debating whether Lackey’s or Rhoda’s or Pasquale’s tamales were the best and see-sawing over the merits of sweet versus unsweet tea. There were hundreds in attendance, yet I never met a stranger.

These community events may have become political just because of who attends them, but they are not political events per se. They are community gatherings, celebrations, homecomings – exactly the sort of thing you need in places like Grady, where the population has shifted away.

I could have stayed all evening, but it didn’t seem quite fair to take up the table space with so many waiting. Besides, the longer I stuck around, the more catfish I ended up eating, and as it was I felt like I needed to be rolled out on a wheelbarrow. Yes, the catfish is that good. If all catfish were that good, I’d eat a whole lot more of it.

Even today, hours later, I’m still craving those hush puppies and wondering if I could scooch a recipe out of someone. Next year, I’m taking my daughter. Hunter would be all over some hush puppies, and I bet she’d be dancing to the band.

Too late to go this year, but do plan for next year. Follow the I Like Grady Facebook page, and mark your calendar for the third Thursday in August. You’ll have a real good time.

For an intriguing story on the Cummins Prison Band, visit Kate Jordan's blog.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Glorious Bargains: Poppin' Tags in Southwest City.

Got twenny dollaz in my pocket.
Here’s a post for all you budget-conscious folks out there: first time apartment renters, college students pinching pennies, recently divorced dads and of course, hipsters. We’ve all gone through tight times, and sometimes there’s not money for everything. So I’m going to share with you the secrets of Southwest City… the old Geyer Springs area of Little Rock. That’s right, we’re going thrift shopping.

Cue Macklemore – wait, this is a friendly, safe blog. Cue these folks.

All right, the soundtrack is set. Let’s head to four destinations where you can find everything you need for a cool pad. All it takes is a little elbow grease and twenty dollars or so in your pocket.

*Note – For this exercise, I recommend the following: water, sweatband, clothes you don’t mind getting dirty in, a pickup truck, allergy medications (if you need them), an open mind. Also – most of these places aren’t air conditioned.

The challenge: like the song says, I got $20 in my pocket. This is freaking awesome.

Bargain den #1: Arkansas State Surplus

Open only on Wednesdays, this is the place where agencies around the state of Arkansas send their used stuff when they’re done using it. Items vary regularly. What you can always count on – there will be desks and chairs and file cabinets. Whatever else is fair game.

$20 item: 
Wooden storage lockers, vintage with lift-out shelf. Crafty much? These would be perfect for whatever crazy project you’re preparing to start.

Real steal: 
Five dollar six-foot-long.
This $5 couch. No, I’m not joking, it’s a five dollar couch. You know how quick that’d have made it into my college hovel, er, apartment? Don’t laugh, I grew up in a time where those big electrical line spools were acceptable dining tables.

What the heck is this chair for? No, don’t tell me.

Also, creepy CPR dummies.

I'm not so bothered by his weird grin as I am the fact that his lip has
apparently been stitched.
Chairs everywhere.
Also, chairs.
Details: Arkansas State Marketing and Redistribution is open to the public only on Wednesdays from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. The first Wednesday of the month, there’s also an auction. Sometimes auctions other
Vehicles, boats, tanker trucks - State Surplus has 'em.
Wednesdays. Some items appear for bid online here: Items must be picked up by 3 p.m. the next day. The guys will load your vehicle.

6620 Young Rd, Little Rock, AR 72209 * (501) 565-8645 *

Bargain den #2: Goodwill Clearance Center

Forget buying by the item. At Goodwill’s Clearance Center, items are purchased BY THE POUND. For $1.39 a pound, you can take all the clothing, books, toys, home items and linens you can carry. Mind you, these haven’t been washed or cleaned in any way, just sorted. The “good stuff” goes to Goodwill Retail Stores. However, if you’re willing to put your purchases through the dishwasher or laundry when you get home, you’re probably going to do fine.

$20 item: 
It took me about an hour to determine what I’d take home (we have a no crap arrangement at my house) but I finally came up with these items. My basket included a Capture Arkansas book in excellent condition, a copy of a Star Wars: Clone Wars kids book for Hunter, a Magnolia, AR church cookbook, a Styrofoam head, six matching Martha Stewart napkins in great condition, a 108” by 54” dusty pink tablecloth with ten matching napkins, a square green tablecloth with eight matching napkins, a Queen cream flannel sheet, two medieval-esque Halloween costumes, a Rarity Equestria Girls doll with no clothes on, a long red chiffon scarf, a purple knitted scarf and a white apron.

Real steal: The six Martha Stewart matching napkins weighed a grand total of six ounces, which puts their sale price at Goodwill Clearance Center at a whopping 52 cents.

I must admit, I don’t keep up with fashion, but lingerie made from upholstery fabric seems counterintuitive.

Pinocchio was nosey?  Damn straight he was!
Details: Goodwill Clearance Center is open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. I was told by a woman who called herself a regular (!) that it’s best to go earlier rather than later – the last outsorted bin is put on the floor around 3 p.m. You can also go to and bid on sorted items… such as 29 pounds of Legos. I kid you not.
7400 Scott Hamilton Road Little Rock, AR 72209 * (501)372-5100 *

Bargain den #3: Habitat for Humanity ReStore

Located in the former Cliff Peck Chevrolet dealership on South University, this place goes on and on and on. I’ve
been to other ReStores and this one takes the cake – combining the crazy stuff you’d find in a Savers or Goodwill with home improvement items. The deals can be significant, especially if you’re searching for ways to upgrade your domicile.

$20 item:
Working TV sets. Okay, that’s not weird, except there were maybe a dozen there, all in working order and all plugged in, showing The Weather Channel.

Real steal: 2450 ceramic tiles for $400. That’s about 17 cents apiece. Three pallets. DAAAANG.


Want some wool? This big box of wool, fur and leather scraps is in the carpet room for $4 a piece. All my re-enactor friends are now looking for their car keys.

Look at all that stuff!
Bonus soundtrack:  This will probably be in your head now when you go in.

Details: Habitat ReStore is open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can learn more about Habitat for Humanity’s mission at
6700 S University Ave, Little Rock, AR 72209 * (501) 771-9494 *

Bargain den #4: Carrie’s

Unlike our other stops, Carrie’s is an old fashioned flea market/consignment shop. Opened in 1991, it’s become my favorite Little
Rock stop for crazy stuff and decent stuff, too. I have furniture from the place, and antiques, and jewelry, and scarves. It’s very random. It’s also very clean and the air conditioning works, and there are buggies and if you get thirsty there are beverages for sale up front.

$20 item: 
This Exit emergency sign. There are more random things, but this one was exactly $20. I almost went with the stuffed four foot long Weinermobile, but it was a little more.

Real steal: 
Massive $20 cases of toilet paper. Hey, if you’re reading this article because you’re needing to furnish an apartment on a budget, this is the sort of stuff you’re actually going to need.

This kitchen set… I don’t even.

Details: Carrie’s is open Monday through Thursday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and 1-6 p.m. Sundays.
8717 Geyer Springs Rd, Little Rock, AR 72209 * (501) 562-8088

Check out more photos from my August thrift shopping expedition in this album on Facebook.

For more suggestions and your general questions, feel free to Tweet me @TieDyeTravels.