Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Saving the Transylvania Burger.

For years, travelers along US 65 heading south to Tallulah have passed by the tiny burg of Transylvania. Truthfully, there's not much to Transylvania -- just an empty elementary school, a nearby prison, a cotton gin, a small community and the Transylvania General Store. Many have stopped in at the General Store for gas or a cold drink under the bat adorned water tower -- and they've discovered a cultural rarity.

They've discovered where baby bats live.

But they've also discovered Transylvania's darkest and most edible secret -- the biggest and best burgers to be found along US 65's North Louisiana corridor.

I discovered the great burger about six years ago on a trip back from Jackson, MS. My traveling companion and I hadn't had much to knosh on for breakfast -- the hotel offerings were limited to corn flakes and creamer (no milk!) and we were hongry. We were holding out for Lake Providence and the promise of po-boys at The Dock, but the rumbling in our tummies lead us to pull in early.

And we were surprised to find more than just a general store. Here, you can find fertilizer, diapers, a meat counter, knick knacks, and Aspercreme, all within a few short aisles of each other. But more important, you could find your way back to the counter and order yourself a burger.

Sure, there were other offerings -- fried chicken, pork chops, turnip greens, sausage gravy biscuits. But the burger listing was incredible -- and we were to find, the burgers themselves were quite impressive.

Because this was where you found the Double Dare Outrageous Burger.

That's not to be confused with the double cheeseburger or any of the other available meat-on-a-bun combinations. No, the Double Dare Outrageous Burger was more than a man could eat in a sitting -- or two men, for that matter. It was a thing of beauty -- and for the reasonable price of $10.90, it came with fries and could feed a family of four.

And there was no doubt where the meat came from -- because to create the incredibly large burger, one of the counter girls would yell across the store, and the meat counter guy would bring over a hunk of ground beef in a rubber-gloved mitt, on a styrofoam platter, to be taken and seasoned with just salt and pepper and thrown on the grill.

We learned over the years that if we stopped for lunch, to bring a cooler -- we'd order one burger, cut it into quarters, each munch on a quarter and stick the remaining half in its clamshell box carefully taped up right inside. It was a meal that kept on giving.

The Transylvania General Store had its other delights, too. For one, there were tons of souvenirs -- lots of magnets and aprons with gumbo recipes and notes on how to make the perfect praline, Panola pepper products, T-shirts and coffee mugs that proudly proclaimed you'd been to Transylvania (LA), and oddities of every sort. Just enough stuff to draw your interest while you waited on your burger to cook.

Sadly, though, you can't get the Double Dare Outrageous Burger right now. On a visit in late October, we found the counter quiet in the back. The menu now just lists simple eats like single and double burgers and breakfast biscuits. And it isn't open on Sunday.

Turns out... this was a dream... a lovely dream that lived for several years because of a family from Michigan. A young couple fell in love with Transylvania and moved down. The woman was a teacher at the elementary school -- and she and her husband and her father bought the General Store back in 1999. But then the school closed down, and the daughter and her husband moved to Pennsylvania. Her parents continued to run the place with love and care -- but recently her mother passed away, and now her father is selling the business.

That man is 75 year old Moses Bender. I talked with him in the quiet store. There were still items on the shelves and lots of souvenirs, but the meat counter is dark and there's nothing cooking on the grill today. He says he loves the place, too -- but it's too much for one man to do. Besides, these are his golden years. He has three daughters and 11 grandkids and they're a thousand miles away. And maybe, just maybe, someone might come along and live their dream here, too.

So the Transylvania General Store is up for sale. I didn't ask how much he was asking for it, but I took down the number -- (318) 559-4811. He told me there was one guy interested in buying it -- but that if that sale goes through, the lunch counter will close for good. And that's a real shame.

Mr. Bender did tell me that the Transylvania General Store has been there since 1958... and hopefully whoever takes over will continue the tradition. He says it's always been clean and a good place in the community, and that it doesn't sell tobacco or alcohol. A real family sort of place, if you know what I mean.

Besides -- someone needs to care for the baby vampire bats.

No -- I wasn't kidding. On the counter just inside the door, a black box contains something remarkable and unusual to the area -- something you just don't find every day. Any given day, you can drop in and visit the baby vampire bats.
Just be careful. That's what the screen is there for.

You can find the Transylvania General Store in the big curve through town on US 65 between Tallulah and Lake Providence. Hopefully, it will still be there when you go.

Beans and Cornbread and so much more.

War Eagle Mill is known for a lot of things. It's a great, honest-to-goodness real water-powered grist mill. You can purchase all sorts of neat staples like ground cornmeal, thick cut oats, and organic ground whole wheat.

It's also greatly known for the variety of jams, jellies, and syrups you can find on its shelves.

And it's the center of two giant regional craft fairs each year -- fairs that rival the Arkansas State Fair in size.

But what you might not know is that there's a restaurant looming in the third story of the War Eagle mill.

The Bean Palace is a tribute to all those great grainery goods that pass between the stones of the mill. Here's where you'll be able to devour the things that provide that lovely scent wafting through the entire Mill.

The restaurant serves up breakfast and lunch every day, items made without preservatives or chemicals or any of that mess. Here's where you'll find some fantastic food that won't keep your body living on weeks after you're dead.

My traveling companion of the day (my mom, this time) and I journeyed up to the mill on a lovely Sunday afternoon in September, when the weather was just a touch warmer than comfortable but the wind kept it pleasant. The drive up is gorgeous... instead of taking the Pig Trail from Ozark, we decided to journey further up and take I-540 to Springdale and cut over.

First warning -- Mapquest will get you turned around to get there. It says to take Highway 412 to state Highway 303... and turn right. Don't worry, I've already emailed them. If you go right when 303 crosses 412, you'll take a very scenic drive away from War Eagle. Keep going about 1/3 mile down the road. You'll see the big sign steering you left.

And that's a really pretty drive up 303, through the hills and over the War Eagle River. In fact, there's a point where you can look out right and see the sweeping valley below. Beautiful.

This will also take you right over the single lane bridge next to the Mill. But I also found later that you can get there much quicker if you take Highway 12 out of Rogers and turn left on War Eagle Road 98. It'll take you through the Hobbs Conservation Area, but you'll still make it there just the same.

Of course, after all that winding, you will probably need use of the facilities. And I must say, the outhouses are some of the nicest outhouses I've seen, if you don't mind the ducks and geese.

The Bean Palace is not handicap accessible -- there are no elevators here, just a single wooden staircase traveled with care. Don't worry -- there aren't that many reports of falls.

This was once the attic of this building -- but now it's been converted into a fine dining establishment, complete with tables and benches and memorabilia from times passed. You'll find photographs on the wall and bits of the story of the War Eagle Mill.

Each day, the Mill has a special -- and today's was Cornbread Chicken Pot Pie. The cooks here know how to tantalize you -- there's an offering set out on a display counter right next to the stairs, to show you what this delightful wonder is.

You place your order at a counter, where you'll get all sorts of questions -- like "Italian cornbread or regular?" (Italian comes with spices), "sure you don't want beans?" and "which dessert are you going to try?" Unfortunately for me, the beans contain ham, which is not friendly to this author, but my companion of the day tried them. Me? I had to have some of that cornbread pot pie.

After placing our order, we loaded up on fresh iced tea from a plastic vat and stared out at the bridge over the river. Several Corvette owners had gathered in the area over the weekend, and they seem to enjoy the curves on the road to the Mill.

We sat down with our meals at a red and white checkered table. Straws were available in countryware pitchers, and napkins were close at hand.

And the food... well, let me tell you what. Maybe it's the lack of preservatives, or the freshness of the product. But the cornbread tasted like corn... like it was meant to taste. The chunks of chicken were large and plentiful, and the gravy was thick with what could only have been real, honest to goodness chicken broth. This is food that's never seen a can.

My companion told me the beans were just as good, cooked long enough to dissolve on the tongue yet not enough to fall apart in the bowl. And cornbread made the perfect accompaniment.

Around us -- visitors from several states, including Oklahoma, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. One Corvette owner was talking about the great ride from Eureka Springs over to Harrison on 62, then down to Russellville on Scenic 7, back to Ozark on 64 and back up the Pig Trail. A biker who'd stopped in agreed with him. It seemed a little unusual to see a guy in leather and chaps talking with a blonde in a polo shirt, but what the heck -- the food really brings people together here.

Mom, er, my companion insisted we try the Blackberry Cobbler. Already plump as a tick from the cornbread pot pie, I defered... but once the smell of the dessert delight reached me, I couldn't resist. We spooned up bubbling portions of blackberries and pastry with cold melting bits of real vanilla ice cream... and savored the purple goodness. I about hurt myself on it, but no regrets -- it was wonderful.

After dining, we both took a round through the gift shop on the second floor and the mill on the first floor. There are all sorts of Arkansas products here, but it's the big bags of milled grain resting lazily on the wall shelves in their calico bags that draw your attention. You can find almost anything to bake with here -- even mixes already pre-mixed for your breadmaker, if that's all you want to mess with.

There are also such culinary delights as blueberry syrup, jalapeno jelly, and even corn suckers available. Before I left, I had to grab myself a couple of big bags of thick rolled oats. For those of us who know the difference between these hot bowls of nourishment and Instant -- you know why.

War Eagle Mill's Bean Palace Restaurant is open seven days a week from the first of March to the first of January, excepting Thanksgiving and Christmas Days. It's also open during weekends in February. For more information, call the Mill at (866) 492-7324 or check out the website. And if you can't make it up there, you can also order grains and goodies -- and try out some of the recipes on the website -- they're tried, true, and tasty.

Additional images from this article found at wareaglemill.com.

Bean Palace Restaurant at War Eagle Mill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Temple To Comfort Food.

There are some restaurants that have kitchy relics of the past plastered on the walls. There are some that claim to have good Southern food. There are even those that claim they’re down home good.

Ann’s Country Café doesn’t say any of that. It doesn’t have to.

The tucked back eatery on 79 in Pine Bluff is across the street from two other eateries -- Leon’s Catfish and El Sol. In comparison, it appears from the street to just be older. But inside, you’ll find something else.

Not that there are high dollar amenities. When you hear “country café” you might think of calico and gingham and curtains in the window. Here, it’s country -- as in crossing the country. The décor is classic highway -- gas station signs, cola signs, and more. And it works here.
Take your seat in any of the red and yellow booths that line the walls or the green tables for four -- and you’ll find out more about this place -- namely, the prices. As in, they’re pretty darn low.
My traveling companion and I stopped in one afternoon in October for dinner on the road. He was looking for something light -- I wanted comfort food. We both got what we wanted. Right off the bat, we had ourselves a couple of thirstquenching drinks -- hefty servings of cola and iced tea in big tumblers. Our waitress and hostess sat down club crackers and butter while we waited for our food. I noticed one of the older men at another table dutifully buttering his crackers as he waited -- maybe it’s a local thing.

Our food came out much quicker than I expected. My $5.75 plate dinner special included country fried steak, creamed potatoes with white gravy, corn, macaroni and cheese, and a hot roll. Other choices available this day included catfish, chicken strips, green beans, and baked beans.

I didn’t realize the size of the endeavor I was undertaking at first. But after a while, I realized that my chicken fried steak took up far more room on the plate than anything else. Part of it was artfully concealed under the mashed potatoes. We’re taking about a slab of steak larger than my hand. Good eatin’. And it was tasty, too. The macaroni and cheese was tender, the corn buttery, and the potatoes seasoned (it bothers me when there’s absolutely no salt in potatoes, the way it bothers me to see a dog without a collar roamin' about in the city).

My traveling companion’s light salad choice from the Dieter’s Menu was also a surprise. For a dieter -- there’s a big old hunk of chicken salad, tangy and slightly smoky -- a welcome surprise. It was served on a bed of lettuce and tomato with hard boiled eggs.

I must say -- while he was able to consume all of his meal, I left far more of my dinner than I would have liked. This was a meal for a big man, and it got me good.

While we ate, we listened in around us. No need for music here. There was a TV turned on in the corner, but most of the people in the restaurant were engaged in a bright conversation about who did this and that. This is certainly a local favorite. Our hostess asked if we were from out of town,
and was surprised to find we’d come down from Little Rock for this treat.

If you get a chance to go, block out some time. You’re going to want to check out all the neat memorabilia on the walls. And if you have a group -- there’s a private sitting area there for you too.

On a separate visit, I did try the Reuben -- a pretty decent Reuben for a good price. It comes with big thick fries meant for dipping.

Ann’s Country Café also celebrates the fact that you can order breakfast any time -- and its nine different omelets. They also make a mean eight ounce burger (that’s half a pound for the unawares).

And don’t worry about saving up too much. With my rather large repast, the salad plate and drinks, our meal came to less than $14.

You’ll find Ann’s Country Café at 3714 Camden Road, just off I-530 on Highway 79, west of the interstate and east of the high school -- right over from the Holiday Inn Express. Open 6am to 8pm Monday through Friday and 6am to 2pm Saturday and Sunday. The number is (501) 879-0057.

Between Pine Bluff and Sulphur Springs.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Ghosts of Booger Hollow.

Back in the days when Arkansas was known more for the concept of hillbillies than Wal-Mart, back when the population was under a million people and Dogpatch USA was our big northwest Arkansas attraction, there was Booger Hollow.

It was built in 1961, along the winding roadway of Scenic Highway 7. Highway 7 rolls up gracefully from Russellville to Dover, and then somewhere about Pleasant Grove decides to act up and try to buck cars off its back for the rest of its journey to Harrison. Well, not really, but it is a fine windy and hilly road -- and one of my favorite stretches of roadbed in Arkansas.

The Booger Hollow Trading Post isn't in a hollow. It's actually on a hilltop several miles away. And yes, the community really is named Booger Hollow.

Rural Arkansas magazine published a short piece on Booger Hollow in March 1970. It says the community got the name because it was right between two cemeteries, and it was a good idea to take a friend with you if traversing the area at night. The term booger in this case came from the words boo and bogus -- not the nasal affectations of the mucus-ly afflicted.

Whatever the reason or the cause, Booger Hollow quickly became representative of the Arkansas stereotype. And as a young 'un in the 1970s, I didn't care.

A trip up to Dogpatch USA could not be completed unless the mandatory stop at Booger Hollow had been made. Sure, there was the photo-op outside the Double Decker Outhouse. But inside the store were goodies of all sorts... hillbilly pickins to rival anywhere else on earth.

There was the Hillbilly Chicken Dinner -- a wooden box that you opened to find a piece of corn glued inside (for the chicken, silly!), the Hillbilly Lighter (another wooden box with matches inside), and lots of examples of the Hillbilly Corn Cob Pipe. There were jams and jellies and honey all canned in Arkansas, and postcards with all sorts of hillbilly things on them. The adults checked out the quilts and the figurines and the handwoven white birch baskets, but for us kids it was a time to pick up those neat triangle puzzles you play with at Cracker Barrell today and Sassafras Drop Candy.

And there were the hams, big robust country hams salted and smoked and served up on sandwiches at the Booger Hollow Chuckwagon. They smelled of salt and dripped with your choice of dressing, mayo or mustard or a little barbeque sauce some days.

In later years, the Chuckwagon came up with another delicacy, the Boogerburger, and folks who had stopped to eat at Russellville's Whatta-Burger might try to gorge and sample this one too, or take it on the road.

I remember the Booger Hollow Trading Post fondly... as a kid, I collected rocks (this probably explains a lot about me) and there were always some Arkansas crystals or tumbled stones I could add to my collection. And there would be the occasional Hillbilly Pet Rock or rock ring that seemed really cool to a kid at the time.

Years passed, and times changed. At the end of 1991, Bill Clinton decided he wanted to be the next President, and reporters came to Arkansas to find out more about the Man from Hope. And Booger Hollow Trading Post became a sort of testing post for the opinions of the "working class man." Several of the different national networks sent reporters to check out this place, population seven, "counten' one coon dog." And for a while, there was a boom.

In 1991, I was a student at Arkansas Tech University. I would meet my future husband there, and for fun on a lazy Saturday afternoon now and then we'd make the drive up to Harrison and back along Scenic 7. We'd stop in at Dogpatch USA, which by this time was breaking down, the trams closed, the lower amusement park now open to drive through so you could check out the vendors. And we'd stop on the way back at Booger Hollow to catch a cold drink and sometimes a sammich, and some of that good honey with the honeycomb inside.

Years went by. I graduated, moved and moved again, and quit making that trek up Highway 7. By the mid-90s, Branson had started to bloom and bustle, and Dogpatch USA was closed for good. AHTD had been working meticulously on knocking the curves out of US Highway 65, and the more direct route from Little Rock on up became more popular as longer stretches were made four lane and the speed limit was increased. And Scenic Highway 7 started to dry up.

This past August, my husband and I on a whim made the trek up Highway 7 again, just to see what had changed. We knew about the demise of Dogpatch USA. But the closure of the Booger Hollow Trading Post surprised us.

So I started doing research, and promised myself I would go back with a camera later and catch some photos before it disappeared for good.

It turns out, Booger Hollow wasn't a victim of time or change, but of property ownership. Now, there are several different stories I've been told, but I have been able to discern this much. In 2004, owner Charlotte Johnson was approached by a couple of different people aboout buying the property and keeping it open. One of those people was David Standridge. But she didn't sell it to him... she sold it to a couple out of Green Forest (at least, that's what it says at the Pope County Courthouse). David ended up buying land closer in to Dover for his own enterprise.

Now here's where it gets iffy. A couple of people have told me that the purchasers didn't make the payments, and Johnson got the property back. And I've even heard that the land under the Trading Post went back to someone else.

Regardless, the Booger Hollow Trading Post closed... there were a couple of attempts to reopen it but it's now been officially shut down for three years.

I didn't know about the land battle and stuff when I went to visit the property on a very foggy day in October, 2007. All I knew was I wanted to find out more about what happened.

The fog seemed to suck everything up that day -- the sound from the road, the view -- it even appeared to suck the very highway itself from existance about 50 feet ahead of drivers.

The signs still mark the way. From about 10 miles out in either direction, white signs with red borders and lettering herald what were the proud products of Booger Hollow -- hams, quilts, and more. The signs keep drawing you onward to a disappointment.

I scouted out along the road for the attraction, wondering what I would find. And then, it showed up so quickly I nearly missed the turn.

There stood the old red buildings with their white trim, wearing the fog like a memorial shroud or the very fog of distant memory. Perhaps I was just dreaming this? No, the humid day slicked my skin. I was really here.

A carpet of wildflowers has engulfed the step up to the front porch. All the signs are still on the front door, and the mats are still out. With the condensation on the window, you might mistake that "Closed" sign for a mark that someone is coming back.

But there's a window busted to the left of the door, a small window on the lower left hand side. And peering through it, I could see rows of empty shelves, the memory of what used to be inside betrayed by my eyes.

Well, nothing left inside.

I decided to walk back to the outhouse -- it was hard to see if it was still there because of the fog. I managed to catch a very pretty picture of the old "smokehouse" (really, this was way too small to ever have been a real smokehouse, right?) and bench protruding up through the fog and the wildflowers.

Indeed, peering through the fog, I could see the outhouse still standing. I crunched the gravel with my feet, walking back over to the popular facility.

Other than the fading paint, the outhouse is none the worse for wear. Heck, it's an outhouse -- how bad can it get? It still seemed as "functional" as it was in the good years.

From here I took a shot back at the rest of the Trading Post. It seemed so lonely and quiet. And abandoned. But if you made the day sunny and added some cars in the parking lot, I don't believe you could have told. This is, after all, a tourist destination -- and with people, there would have been a big difference.

I walked back around the front of the building, still trying to figure out what had happened. The doors to both of the "flushy" restrooms in the tiny building next to the store were standing wide open. There was an old ice cooler on the front porch of the Chuckwagon. But still, no signs as to what had happened here.

I decided to check around back, just to see if I could find something more. I was surprized there wasn't a "For Sale" sign, or mention anywhere of why it was closed. That bothered me.

I rounded the back corner of the Chuckwagon, and was surprised to see the remains of a burned out building. Was this a separate kitchen, a smokehouse, or a home? Hard to say.
Pieces of burned wreckage are scattered through the weeds, and what appear to be refrigerators or the like lay like overturned beetles in the grass. Just one wall of this structure is standing.

I turned to walk back, and noticed a door open at the back of the building. My first thought was "I can't go in there," but curiosity got the better of me. At least I would know.

The door lead into a lean-to portion of the building, and some items still remained inside -- a bed frame, Christmas garlands, a set of Chicago Bears glasses (this puzzled me a whole lot!). There's been some water damage to the roof, but otherwise it just looks abandoned and empty.
I was surprised anything was left -- with that door standing open for who knows how long, anyone could have just come in and taken stuff. Though, I have to admit, what was left was an odd lot. There were empty shelves, racks, and some discarded items here and there.
Signs were still up from some last sale. There were doll stands and a display of Arkansas native tumbled stones, still trapped behind Plexiglas mounts. And though there were no skylights or electricity, the fog outside acted like a fluorescent lamp and left a pale wash on everything.
I suppose the items left behind had little meaning for whoever was managing the place last. Perhaps these were things that couldn't be sold off, or were broken or had no value to the seller. The cash register was gone, but overhead fans remained, and old lights hung like spiderwebs overhead.
And yet there are still some signs of what used to be here. I captured a shot of a Hillbilly Coffee Mug on one shelf, and wondered to myself how much one would charge for such an item.
I crossed over to the Chuckwagon. Here, the tables are gone, but there are still drink coolers and baskets beside the walls. The room was much cleaner than I thought it would be. Perhaps the whole operation closed down in 2003, once the tourist season was over, and everything was cleaned up for the dormant winter shutdown. I wonder if the people who worked here knew that Booger Hollow wouldn't reopen for business. There were boxes of nicknacks on the floor, half spilled, as if the person hauling them out decided it wasn't worth picking them up when the box split. The little kitchen was neat as a pin.

I walked back over into the main store, and walked towards the back. And there, to my surprise, was a pamphlet case about half full of Branson fliers. All sorts of shows being advertized -- and no one to take one and stick it in their bag or purse to peruse later. The Arkansas map above has started to deteriorate, but the rack remains.

And this was about the time the moaning started to unnerve me. From the moment I walked in, I had heard noises. I knew logically it was nothing more than the creaking of the old boards in the wind of the dank weather... but it felt like people were still there. Somehow, it seemed like echoes of what used to be there, the customers asking the locals about Arkansas, being told cornpone jokes and sold trinkets and jam. And in a way, it was like the building was mourning the end of those days.

Will it be the end? I have no idea.

I went back to the back door and let myself out, yanking the door hard shut. I tried it, and it wouldn't budge. I hoped that would be enough. While I'm naturally curious, I know there are other people out there who would be less scrupulous, and perhaps take what's left inside -- or worse, vandalize the place.

By the time I made it back around the building and got into my car, my shoes were soaked from the condensation on the grass -- and my camera batteries were low. I looked back one last time and hit the road to head home.

On the way back, I stopped at Chigger Hollow. It's on the same side of the road, several miles closer to Dover. This is the place David Standridge built when it became apparent that he wouldn't be able to realize his dream of owning Booger Hollow. It opened earlier this year. Inside, it's neat as a pin, and there's all sorts of stuff -- ceramics and crafts and shoes and, oh yes, a supply of Hillbilly Souvenirs and a rack of jam and jelly. He says the flea market was going to come later, but instead it's here now, and the whole place is developing. Though there's not much traffic on Highway 7. I get the impression that this undertaking is more a lifelong dream than a moneymaking venture, and I can understand that.

As for Booger Hollow, I miss it. I want to crawl around in my memory and visit it the way it was 20, 30 years ago, when there were never less than five cars in the lot and the smell of smoked meat hung in the air. I don't know what will happen to the old building or its contents, but I can only hope someone else will eventually be able to reopen it and bring back that charm. I suppose a lot of it will have to do with the real estate battle for the land, and whether the tourism traffic will ever pick up again on Scenic 7. Whatever happens, I'm glad I got to visit while it was still vibrant and alive.