Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Yes, the pie is really that good.

A lot of people have written about the pies at Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets in Keo. The little restaurant’s been mentioned in Southern Living and consistently ranks at the top of the perfect pie list for a lot of my readers. I hadn’t been in ages, so I felt I really needed to go.

I went early -- too early, in fact. Got there about a quarter after 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. I parked down the block and caught up on email from my laptop while I waited. I’d been there a little while when I noticed motion to my right. I looked up and noticed about a half dozen people waiting outside. It was 10:39 a.m.

I kept watching for a bit, as more people arrived. By ten til there were more than a dozen, and a minute before eleven a couple of big vans pulled up. I realized my discretion at having parked so far away may have been ludicrous, so I went ahead and headed in.

Inside, I captured the last open table, a four-top next to the hallway to the back. I did glance towards the back. A few tables were already full, and the ones that weren’t had place cards reserving them for large parties. I quickly dashed back to the seat I’d found and planted myself there. It was 11:04.

The interior was comfortable, an old style storefront, one of the last remaining on the stretch of street bypassed by the highway some years back. Giant glass-front cabinets occupied two whole walls of the front room, and a significant barback with mirror graced the third. The tables were wooden topped cast iron affairs, and they were all dotted with hungry folks eyeballing the pie list. The cases held items for sale, like jams and home crafts and figurines.

My waitress flitted by like the breeze, taking orders from a nearby table of seven before sweeping over and delivering a menu to me. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized almost breathlessly. “Do you need a minute?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Need a drink?”

“Iced tea.”

“Sweet or un, hon?”

“Un, no lemon.”

She smiled and moved on to the next table, handing out menus to the three ladies there and soaking up drink orders. Then she disappeared into a hidden section of the restaurant.

The rattle of conversation increased. No one seemed upset about the pace or the fact that it was quite packed inside. It was now 11:20 and no one in the front room had received any sort of sustenance. But no one complained. That, to me, said a lot about the place.

Not that there weren’t people who gave up. I saw twice where groups of four to six came in, took one look and left. Their loss. There were a dozen people waiting in the front of the restaurant, and it looked like there were a good number of people outside, too.

My waitress returned with her notepad. “Have you decided?”

“The Keo Klassic. Oh, and could you describe your caramel pie?”

“It’s a burnt sugar custard under meringue. I like it.”

“I’ll have that too.”

She grinned and turned to the next table to pick up its order. The pie had been a hard choice. The coconut pie at Charlotte’s has been ranked the top coconut pie in the South. Well, other people had talked about that. Then the chocolate -- well, I’ve had an awful lot of chocolate pie in my life. I love egg custard, too, but I hadn’t had a caramel pie before. I wondered if it’d be like butterscotch. I promised myself if I managed to make it through the repast I’d already ordered that I’d ask for a piece of egg custard, too.

My eyes were drawn to the delivery of a chocolate milkshake to the group table across the way. The tall glass screamed of dairy delights. It was the first dessert I had seen pass that morning, and it made my stomach rumble. Most of the tables were packed with people nursing beverages and none of the tables had real food yet. But that was fine, since most of the tables were abuzz with conversation.

It’d taken 15-20 minutes just to get that drink order and here it was 11:30 and I was really starting to feel hungry. I heard the hostess, Kimberly, taking orders over the phone. There seemed to be just as many call-in orders as eat-in ones, and I couldn’t imagine just how busy that kitchen must have been.

I just marveled -- all those people waiting, all the ones already seated wanting food, what kept them there? Was the reputation of the place really that good, or was it the food? For heaven’s sake, it was a Tuesday morning -- not necessarily the busiest time of the year, eh?

Kimberly came over and bussed the table next to mine as she took an order on the phone. My eyes wandered back over to the specials board, which was advertising a Fresh Fruit Plate with watermelon, strawberries, grapes, pineapple, bananas, cantelope and poppy seed dressing with a choice of chicken salad, tuna salad or cottage cheese and garlic biscuits to boot for $8.25. I was starting to see this special speed by me on its way to other tables.

All at once two of the waitresses swept into the room with meals for the group of seven on the other side of the front room. Grilled ham & cheese sandwiches, round burgers and clubs were dolled out, each with their cursory stack of rippled potato chips and a hearty slice of pickle.

The line had been constant, staying at even numbers despite the small influx of people as tables became available. At 11:40, few had received their meals but still there was no complaint. I heard my waitress tell newcomers at another table “Cobbler is Thursday, remember?” and give her wan smile again. I noticed she was taking dessert reservations with each dinner order. Apparently there is some small fear that a particular type of pie might run out before the customers get the chance to order.

In the back, it’s a different story, where the big tables reserved early on were being served. The noise level never dipped, conversations continuing in-between bites of sandwiches and salads and of course the inevitable pie.

There was a plunk on the table, and I looked up from my notepad where I had been quickly scribbling notes to catch glimpse of my waitress and her earnest smile. “Your sandwich will be ready in a minute, hon,” she beamed at me, refilling my tea. I smiled back and picked up my camera.

As I snapped away, I overheard one of the ladies at the next table mutter “it’d taste better if she ate it.” I smiled in their direction, and they nodded back. It was hard to shoot, with that decadent layer of meringue all full of bubbles and the custard… I shot it, but I couldn’t wait for the rest of my lunch. One bite, and I knew I’d chosen well. That lovely burnt sugar taste of the custard, a caramel made from scratch and not some melted lump of stuff from Kraft, a gorgeous taste that could make you cry. The meringue, firm and yet able to grasp the custard well, was toasted on top, almost burned but not quite, attaining a burnt sugar essence in its flavor. All of this sat on top of a lovely hand thrown butter crust that mated well to the whole pie. I could not help myself. I had to dig in.

Mere moments later my plate arrived, and I looked up at the waitress guiltily. She just smiled. I’m sure I’m not the first person who’s passed through the doors at Charlotte’s and eaten dessert first.

Well, I had to work, you know. This is, after all, what I do. I put down my fork and started shooting the sandwich under its cover of rippled potato chips. The Keo Klassic’s ($5.95) The nice crust made by the parmesan garlic batter on the grill was crispy, while the bread underneath was still white and fluffy. The thin layers below spoke of tastiness -- Monterrey Jack cheese, smoked turkey breast, tomato, white onion, avocado and another slice of Monterrey Jack. It was all somehow smooth and juicy at the same time, holding together with each bite. It was soft in the middle, and warm, and like this incredible interpretation marrying grilled cheese and a fresh turkey sandwich. I adored it.

I was halfway through the first half of the sandwich, and watching the line up front. One of the waitresses announced “be sure when you get through the door you get your name on the waiting list.” You wouldn’t think of reservations for a down-home establishment like Charlotte’s, but it really is that popular. I heard my waitress tell the table next to mine that a church group of 22 had come in and had stalled up the orders a bit. The ladies at that table waved her off, not concerned about the time it had taken to receive their order. Time’s not a big issue for most diners here, I came to find.

I was about halfway through the sandwich when the waitress came to my table. “Can I get you anything else?” she asked as she freshened my tea.

“Egg custard, please. To-go.”

“You got it!” she beamed. She pulled out my check, marked it and flipped it onto the table. I finished my sandwich and returned my attention to the pie, which had been calling my name throughout the meal. It was just as good if not better.

I heard another waitress call for a party of eight to follow her to the back about the time my egg custard arrived in its little clamshell box. I couldn’t help but photograph it right then and there. Then I took one more swig of my tea and hopped up to get in line to pay. There were, after all, people waiting. My table was bussed and ready to go before I even got to the head of the line.

My repast cost all of $16.42 -- $3.75 for each slice of pie and $1.75 for my tea. A couple of bucks handed off to the ladies at the next table to hand to my waitress when she came back around again and I was out the door. Another dozen people were standing around and sitting on provided benches, calmly waiting their turn despite the 90-something degree heat.

It’s amazing to me that such a humble place receives that sort of attention. I should have expected it -- after all, when I mentioned on Facebook that I was in Keo there was a collective swoon of pie lovers. But nothing prepared me for the volume of people I would see pass through those doors.

If’n you get about Keo-way and want a good meal, drop in. Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets is at 290 Main Street -- yes, it’s off Highway 165 but don’t worry, there are signs. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday and you can always order a whole pie by calling (501) 842-2123. Trust me -- $20 is not too much for one of those pies. Give it a shot.


Charlotte's Eats & Sweets on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dinner on the farm.

I apologize for the tardiness of this post. It took some time to recuperate from the Farm to Table Heritage Tomato Festival out at P. Allen Smith’s Moss Mountain Farm compound Saturday night. It was, needless to say, an experience.

We were guests of the event, invited to come and represent the Arkansas Times and the Eat Arkansas blog. We were late - these things happen when you’re married to someone who’s married to a radio job. But no worries. There were plenty of things going on. We were guided towards a choice of tours -- of Smith’s house or gardens or a walk along a ridge to a tomato tasting. Well, you know where I was going to head.

A short walk later and we entered the garden, where a long tent had been erected. Underneath, a table with different stations of tomatoes to try. We sampled several: Japanese Black Trifele, Druzba, Cherokee Green. I found myself drawn to two varieties in particular, the Cherokee Purple and the Black Cherry. The setting in the garden provided a unique atmosphere and a view down to where the new rose garden is being put in, overlooking the Arkansas River. Attendants offered water and wine.

We took a mule-drawn carriage back to the main area and proceeded to the back of the house, where people wandered about gawking. My Yankee husband had to find some place not to melt in the 100 degree heat, so we followed others into the basement of the home, where the AC was on high and the company was friendly.

I left him there and did my usual curious gawking through all four floors of the structure. The lovely suite above the roof with the beds for the children was charming. I laughed at the Romanesque statue with the fedora in the master bath and marveled at the kitchen wing, airy with three sides of windows and a gigantic island. I want that kitchen.

After cooling down a bit we joined others outside under the big tent where the dinner was being set. Unfortunately the seats on the shaded side of the tent were already taken, so we found a couple across from each other on the sunny side. I found myself using Paul as a sunblock to the evening light coming straight in my direction. The tables were set out in a giant U shape and covered with burlap sacking. Spaced out amongst the diners were different varieties of tomato and several watermelons.

At each place there was a tiny dish with two watermelon balls and a spicy material. We’d later find the melon to be super sweet, and the spice to be a cayenne blend -- very spicy and a great counterbalance. It’s another idea I have to steal!

There were also aluminum foil covered cast iron skillets here and there. Within were cubes of cornbread. We also found ramekins of what turned out to be an herbed butter. The cornbread was just slightly sweet, of the yellow meal variety, very soft (I’m guessing shortening had been used in the preparation) and tasty enough. The herbed butter, though, really elevated the cornbread with flavors of tomato and paprika.

The tables filled in and wine was served. The wine came from Presqu’ile Winery in California, which I found had ties to El Dorado through its winemakers. Our hosts spoke and shared with us what we’d be eating and more information about the homestead and the event, which was sponsored by the Oxford American, a fine publication I rather enjoy (and might eventually be good enough to write for, if I'm lucky). I won’t bore you with it all -- there’s a lot of information about Moss Mountain Farm on the website; eventually, I’d like to get back there with a professional photographer and bring you a much better story about the facility. Back to the event.

Wait staff brought us our soup course, a gazpacho made from heirloom tomatoes, pickled peaches and cucumbers and what tasted like a little dill. The cool of the soup was so welcome with the deepening of the sun in the sky. By this point we were all sweating, the near-100 degree heat still permeating every surface. The lovely 2009 Sauvignon Blanc was somewhat refreshing and well matched with the soup, but I found myself returning again and again to my water glass.

We struck up a conversation with a couple next to us, and discovered that they were involved in the Heritage Poultry project. Fascinating, what you discover about things. We discussed my unfortunate pork allergy, and how genetic blandness and lack of deviation might be to blame (I still have no idea a certain cause to my allergy, just that I don’t have the same allergy for wild boar). The Moores (I hope I heard their names correctly -- it was loud and hot!) are out of Fort Dodge and had come down the night before from Lee’s Summit, MO for the event. They shared Iowa talk with my Iowa-born husband and I shared places they could visit in Arkansas.

The local bluegrass group Runaway Planet struck up and entertained us with ancient favorites from our state, completing the feel of the farm. I could hear toes tapping under the conversations around me.

Our next course arrived, a cheese and salad plate featuring a hand-pulled mozzarella stuffed with a handmade mascarpone cheese, served with a dry-cured country ham and purple and cherry tomatoes. I was thrilled that it was served in a way that I didn’t have to worry about my allergy. Paul told me the well-aged ham was just salty enough with a nice smoky flavor that well complemented both the sweet and meaty tomatoes and the slightly salty and sweet cheese. I loved the cheese. The warm saltiness of the mozzarella paired so well with the light and cool mascarpone inside -- yet another idea I want to steal and make myself. I loved the balsamic vinaigrette on the plate, just enough to add tang to the dish.

The light was fading now, and the temperature finally started to drop. Wait staff darted back and forth, filling water glasses and offering a nice buttery 2008 Chardonnay that went so perfectly with the cheese. It was round and robust for a white, very drinkable. Paul and I also discovered its delicious ability to pair well with the large plate of cherry tomatoes that graced our table. We shared our discovery with others, and the cherry tomatoes were passed back and forth between us all.

As the light fell out of the sky, Venus became apparent in the western sky. Waiters flashed between us and lit candles on the table, and wine stewards graced us with a 2008 Pinot Noir, its deep red tones reflecting a little purple against the burlap in the candlelight. As the heat ebbed away there was a sigh through the crowd. Conversation continued, and anticipation built.

Our dining companions were telling us about the chicken for the main course. Chef Joshua Smith (the chef from America’s first farm-to-table restaurant, Local Roots CafĂ©, had already told us about the savory preparation we’d be experiencing -- heritage farmed chicken that had been brined, grill charred and then baked at 200 degrees for four hours with potatoes from gardens on the ground, locally grown corn, leeks and onions from the garden on site. It sounded fabulous. When asked where this chicken came from, our companions were not just able to tell us where the chicken came from (a specific heritage farm just outside of Kansas City) but what sort of bird we’d be eating (a breed called the Jersey Giant).

We were expecting more plate service, I guess, but what came to the table were large ceramic bowls full of the prepared chicken and vegetables, with spoons for serving. We served ourselves and each other family-style from the bowl, which was emptied quickly. After my mandatory shots (more taken just because it was very dark and I wanted to make sure there were shots you could see too, dear reader) I poked my chicken with a fork and came back with meat that fell off the bone.

And I have to tell you something. I have eaten a whole lot of chicken in my life. I’ve eaten it fried, boiled, roasted, broasted, grilled, barbecue and fresh out of a tandoori. But the flavors I encountered with this bird were like nothing else I’ve ever had. I’ve been blessed with another opportunity to try heritage bird but the slow roasting and care given to the preparation had apparently rendered this bird something ethereal, so savory and with a depth of flavor I hadn’t encountered before. The concentrated flavor of the bird carried over to the vegetables and likewise back to the poultry. The flavor of leek was evident in the skin. I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed a piece of chicken quite like that in recent memory.

The quickly emptied bowl sat there for a few minutes, and we mentioned to each other how we wish there were more. Like genies out of the darkness waiters appeared at our elbows with more bowls and more bird, more to share and lust over. I guess I went kinda crazy. Though the heat had previously zapped me and curtailed my appetite it had risen with the cooling winds and I found myself with more meat on my plate. I think my total came to a couple of thighs and three legs, three long legs you’d never encounter at a grocery store, almost as long as turkey drumsticks. Yes, my friends, the chicken was that good.

I had been skeptical about the pairing of a deep red with chicken, but it was a good pairing, certainly due to the rich flavor the heritage poultry holds within. But I did keep finding myself drawn back to that Chardonnay. It was splendid -- which is saying something, since I’m just not much of a wine drinker.

A bonfire had been started on the east side of the compound, and some of the diners were floating that way. I couldn’t go, though. I’d listened closely when Chef Smith had addressed us, and I was looking forward to his interpretation of a Goober cluster. It had taken much strength within me to keep myself from gorging myself further on the chicken, but I had to save enough room for this final course. Finally it was delivered, and in the low light I could only tell it was a mousse of some sort. A shot with the camera revealed the light meringue to the side, the lovely layers of chocolate mousse and the introduction of both peanut butter mousse and a fine malt powder. It was so delicate yet so well balanced. I craved more.

And I got more. A few minutes after everyone had been served the wait staff came around again with another round of the same dessert. Was I good? No, I was not. I consumed a second one with vigor and happiness. It was excellent and I would easily order it again.

The evening was waning. I was surprised to consult my timepiece and discover it was after 10 p.m. Unfortunately, our childcare time had run out and we needed to return home. We made our salutations and headed back out across the field to our vehicle. As we pulled out onto the gravel road that would lead us back to civilization, fireworks popped in the air behind us, white and pink and accompanied with the appropriate contented sighs of a well satiated crowd.

Yes, it was hot. I found that my dress had become somewhat plastered to my skin by sweat, and I know I wasn’t the only one. But the concept was sound, the meal was excellent and the setting was beautiful.

There will be another chance for you to enjoy the experience coming up this October. I bet it will be absolutely perfect. For more information, keep an eye on P. Allen Smith’s website.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Grapes betwixt my toes.


I make no bones about it; I’m a rather large fan of the homegrown small town festival. There’s something about walking amongst people who have grown up together, lived together, enjoyed life together that brings out the best in a community. Far better than the open alleyways of carnival barkers at fairs or rubbing elbows with the hoi polloi at high class society events for me.

One that holds a special place in my heart is the Altus Grape Festival. Held each year on the town square in the belly of Arkansas Wine Country, it’s an unassuming little festival dwarfed by bigger things on the calendar (this year, by the World Championship Cardboard Boat Races in Heber Springs). But it’s very special, and this year I’m going back.

I’m no stranger there. Many times have I parked my car along the square in Altus or in grass in a nearby lot, gotten out of the car and stretched and headed for the action. Action, in this case, takes place mostly on a single city block separated from Highway 64 by a small access road. Altus City Park is a nice piece of land, dotted with trees on its south edge and outlined with little community streets and buildings. There’s a gazebo, and across the street on the south side you’ll find Kelt’s, one of my favorite pubs in the world. Considering where I’ve been across these United States, that’s saying something.

The trick is to go early in the morning and make a day of it. The festival activities all get started Friday night around 5 p.m. and last all day Saturday. I like to go early Saturday morning, leaving the house before daybreak and arriving while there’s still dew on the grass, while everyone’s still waking up and getting about putting out their wares and their samples and stuff for the day.

There’s always grapes, even in spare years like 2007 when the late rain and freezes knocked back the crops to almost nothing. There are muscadines, big thick skinned Arkansas grapes that make you pucker and drool. I love muscadines with an eerie passion, recalling the days when finding a vine out in the woods meant not just quick joy but months of jelly at the table. There are always baskets of both for sale, from pints to quarts to half bushels if you want them. It’s prime picking for folks who want to put up their own jams and jellies or who want to try their hands at winemaking.

And of course there’s wine, not just from the Post Familie or the Wiederkehrs or Mount Bethel or Chateaux aux Arc or even Cowie from across the river in Paris -- but from amateur winemakers from all over the state, competing their hearts out, hoping for that ribbon of validation from the judges to certify that they done good in that arena. You can always tell the winners, their beaming faces usually accompanied by hands holding bottles offering samples.

And the samples… the wineries have them, and plenty of them. While the cups are small, I’ve never seen anyone forced away from the counter, and I’ve sampled many myself.

And there’s the grape stomping, of course. It’s part of the Bavarian tradition, the same that brought the ancestors of the Post and Wiederkehr families across the ocean to settle in these rocky crags north of the Arkansas River. Close to two centuries ago the first settlers came through the River Valley and sent back word of the black soil, the strange temperance of the hills, the endless sunlight. The families came and took root here -- and through the generations those family ties have remained strong. A few years ago I was speaking with Joseph Post about the phenomenon, and he pointed out to me that there were family ties between all the wineries, some by blood and others by marriage.

But I was talking about the grape stomping, which usually takes place on a stage where the world can watch you. I’ve watched with envy the fun the participants have in the endeavor, no sense of shame holding them back from rolling up their jean legs and dancing around like purple-tinted banshees in the tubs. I’ve watched, but never joined them. Something kept telling me that there’s a sense of propriety that every television producer should have, to not become part of the story. So I abstained.

I realized something this year, though. I’ve been out of that medium for a while now. I’ve shared my experiences and explored this state and points beyond with relish, and the fears I had about embarrassing myself are long gone. So yes, I’m going back to Altus this year. And I’m going to join the dance where the juice dribbles between one’s toes. I’m going to the grape stomp, and I will do it without inhibitions. Because there’s a comfortable place you can find in the little burg of Altus, and this festival represents every piece of that comfort. Go, enjoy it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

12 Hours in Dinerland.

I’ve recently bemoaned the fact to my friends that Little Rock lacks a locally owned coffee shop that’s open 24 hours a day. I mean, yes, we have the chain operations and such, but we don’t have a local place that has its own soul. Other cities do -- big ones, yes. Little ones, too. And then there’s Fort Smith, which brings me to Benson’s.

I was working on assignments for a couple of my publications. It was late. We’d been run out of Joe’s Italian Restaurant, my friends Grav and David and I had been, after spending hours catching up together. We arrived around 10:30, picking up after parking our cars where we’d left off after boarding our vehicles and heading up Rogers Avenue. The lot was crowded but that was okay, there was parking next door. We walked right in and headed to the only free booth big enough for the three of us, back in the left-hand corner.

We were almost immediately met by a waitress with glasses of water, asking what we wanted. I needed coffee, and I got it, hot and black served up in a brown melamine mug with a white lining. Not an eyebrow was raised at the three of us chuckling away, talking about old friends and Doctor Who and places we’d travel. Come to think of it, we were actually quite normal.

I knew my Fort Smith trip was going to take me to Benson’s. I’d asked for recommendations on my Facebook fan page and two names came up repeatedly, Benson’s and Calico County. I just didn’t know it was going to happen that night. We were still stuffed from Joe’s and I kept thinking any moment now our party would break up and we’d all go home. But David and I see each other, what, maybe every other month at most. And Grav, well, he’d been away for years.

We weren’t the only ones catching up. There were a couple of girls at the bar who kept peppering the grill guy with questions. The other end of the restaurant was packed, all six booths, and the jukebox was howling country periodically. From time to time someone would swipe one of those little yellow signs on the counter and put it on their table. We were curious. On a run back to the restroom (we were, after all, drinking massive amounts of coffee) I caught a glimpse and laughed. I brought it back to the table to show the guys. It clearly said: OUT SMOKING. DO NOT CLEAR AREA. That was worthy of a photo.

Or two -- honestly, it was intriguing. I’d never seen that before in my life. Neither had Grav, and he went back a few days later and got a much better, much more artsy photo than I can manage with my little camera. But I digress.

Benson’s reminds me of my college days, spending time in a diner and pissing the night away while enjoying the company of friends. It got rowdy from time to time, but never too much, and there was always someone standing on the other side of the glass from us, lighting up. As we reminisced, the restaurant filled and emptied around us a couple of times, like the tide and the stages of the moon.

We got a little silly, of course. Nothing like a little shot of youthful memories to convince you of doing silly things, like photographing everything on your table -- salt shaker, coffee cup, silly signs. Our waitress just kept bringing that hot pot of coffee over and over again, never clucking her tongue at us. I’m sure she’s seen it all before.

We finally broke up about 1:30 that morning, having had one of those great seven hour conversations you don’t get many times in your life. We’d enjoyed it in the orange-and-brown interior of a kitsch loaded restaurant that smelled of grease and bread, and it had been fine.

But I had not accomplished my goal. I planned to come back after my usual 6 a.m. wake-up and return to the place. I hadn’t counted on the fact that I wasn’t used to staying up all night any more, and ended up sleeping until nearly eight. Then I had to update Eat Arkansas, answer some emails, get my ducks in a row. I winced when I saw the clock on the way out of my hotel room -- 10:34, the day already wasting away.

I knew I didn’t have to worry about missing breakfast, though. Benson’s offers its entire menu, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When I once again darkened the doorway it was at the end of the breakfast rush, a little before lunch rush would begin, and I had my choice of places to sit. I decided to take one of the little two-person booths. I also knew I didn’t want coffee. I hadn’t drank that much coffee in ages, and my stomach ached from the abuse.

I did know what I wanted, though, and when my waitress came over I didn’t even have to look at the menu.

“What’ll you have, hon?”

“Chocolate milk. And sweet potato pancakes.”

“One, two or three?”

“Pardon?”

“Do you want one pancake, or two, or three?”

I thought for a moment, then decided to split the difference. “Short stack. Two.”

“All right! Won’t be long.”

She had a bounce to her step that didn’t seem probable, a lightness about her that revealed she liked her job more than she let on. She was the only one working, and though there were some seats open it was still hustling and bustling. I watched her dance on over and pass the ticket to the grill guy, then head over to the fridge and pour a glass of milk. Chocolate was added by bottle, and she left the long-handled teaspoon in the drink when she brought it to my table.

The crowd had changed. There were more professional sorts, some blue collar folks, They were here to grab a bite before heading somewhere to accomplish something. I’d been there a good 20 minutes before someone went and leaned on the jukebox and dialed up a tune. Heart’s Greatest Hits, I’m guessing, Barracuda followed by Crazy On You. There was a steady stream of customers who washed up to the register to pay up before sliding out through the foyer and into the real world.

I sipped my chocolate milk and took notes, listening to the hiss of bacon on the griddle and the shuffle of feet under booths. My waitress came back over with a bottle of syrup and eyed the camera. I nodded and smiled.

A few minutes later the restaurant was all but empty. The ebb and flow of customers had reached low tide, and except for one booth’s worth of people on the far side of the place and a couple of folks at the bar, it was quiet. I picked up my camera and took a few shots here and there.
The waitress looked back over at me. “What are you doing?” “Just taking some photos. It’s what I do.” “Well, all right then.” She left me alone and I found my way back to my seat. I jotted down a few things to remember for later. I looked up, and she was there with a big plate in hand. She slid it in front of me along with a metal ramekin of margarine and a packet of silverware. “Anything else I can get you?” “I’ll be sure to let you know,” I told her, absorbing the sight before me. It smelled like Thanksgiving. I could hear the shuffling of feet as another wave of customers hit the foyer ad entered the building, but I only had eyes for the two 8” rounds on my plate. They were more than pancake brown, they were ruddy and still somehow golden in their simplicity. I snapped a couple of shots, then contemplated the butter and syrup, adding a little and trying for that all-important establishing shot I always quest to achieve. The perfect round of margarine with a glistening crown of maple syrup from the provided squeeze bottle made a picture too good not to tease the tummy. And I kid you not, it was difficult. It was very hard for me not to just dig in. But dear readers, that’s the sort of thing I do for you. After all, what good would it be to tell you about these pancakes without a photographic representation to share? I even turned up the edge at one point to see the color underneath -- a delicious orangey-brown reminiscent of pumpkin bread. Well, the moment of truth. A couple dozen photos taken, and it was time to try them out. I noticed as I finally pressed the side of my fork down on the two pancakes that my waitress was watching me. I stabbed the piece I’d cut with the fork, raised it her general direction and smiled. And then I tried them. I encounter a lot of pancakes in my travels. Call it an occupational hazard. I’ve had some strong on the cornmeal and some that had no cornmeal at all. I’ve had examples I swear came directly from the Krusteez bag. I’ve had thick ones and thin ones and some that are big as your chest. But this is the first time I have ever had sweet potato pancakes. And even though they had cried out at me with the words “Southern Delicacy” I was not fully prepared for the wonderment that rolled over my tongue. I will admit, I love sweet potatoes, but that day I found a new favorite way to have them. They smelled of cinnamon and nutmeg and tasted like someone loved me. They were pliant and perfect and sprung back at the touch, and they tasted like November. I found myself adding more syrup, the maple being the perfect accompaniment to the dish. I was happy. I sat there for a while once I’d cleared the plate, quietly contemplating the dregs of my chocolate milk and willing myself the initiative to get up and do something. The rain had finally decided to stop threatening and actually spit at the world, and the parking lot was growing damp. I looked at my indecipherable ticket, pulled a ten out of my pocket and headed for the register. “So really, why are you taking all those pictures?” my waitress asked. “I have this blog, and I take pictures of everything I eat,” I told her honestly. “That’s kinda cool! How many pictures have you taken?” “About 60,000 so far.” She looked at me a little oddly, so I hastily added “but I’m just a hobbyist. I’m more a writer than anything else.” “Well, I think it’s neat.” “Thank you!” She started to hand back my change, but I deferred it, instead asking for a receipt. Outside I carefully tucked it away and blinked my eyes, turning my head back from looking over my shoulder to the rear-view mirror as I attempted to pull backwards into traffic. The parking lot, after all, is rather small. Later I’d be talking with one of the folks at the hotel I’d met on the elevator, and mentioned I’d been to Benson’s. “You try the Chump?” “The Chump?” “The Chump. You know what it is, right?” she prodded. “Not a clue.” “It’s not on the menu. I hope you’re going back, you need to try it.” “Okay then… I will.” I haven’t been back yet -- I had many other restaurants in the area to check out. I did nearly find myself going at four the next morning, but somehow convinced myself it wasn’t necessary. Benson’s has been there for forty years. It’ll likely be there another 40. I’ll be back. You'll find Benson's Grill at 2515 Rogers Avenue in Fort Smith. They do take call-in orders, but honestly, why? Go have a seat and a cuppa and a conversation with someone. (479) 782-8181. Benson's Grill on Urbanspoon