Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Peas are in! First PurpleHull Peas of the Season Harvested Near Emerson.

The Arkansas standard for crowder peas, the majestic PurpleHull Pea, is a celebrated plant in my family. Seasons can be marked by them. The beginning of true summer, that is to say mid-June, is met with the first harvest of peas on the plate, usually boiled up with a bit of animal fat and served with fresh onion slices. New Year’s is celebrated with them (rather than the Yankee tradition of blackeyed peas), and the remainder of the saved-back crop gets used up usually before Lent begins. For me, May is pea-free, unless I am fortunate enough to come across them in one of my favorite home cookin’ restaurants.

Jerry Freppon of Emerson holds the first
"mess" of Emerson Purple Hull Peas of
the 2012 season. Freppon enjoyed a meal
of fresh purple hulls on Memorial Day
evening.
This year will be different. I just heard from Bill Daily, the PurpleHull pea guy. Bill’s big schtick is promoting the heck out of the Emerson PurpleHull Pea Festival, which is held the last weekend of June. I opened my messages this morning to see the smiling face of one Jerry Freppon... proudly holding a mess of prepared peas... fresh peas. Oh my.

Bill relates the following:

“Jerry Freppon of Emerson and his wife Jane enjoyed a meal of fresh purple hull peas Memorial Day evening. That’s because, to be best of anyone’s knowledge, he once again produced the season’s first ‘mess’ of Emerson Purple Hull Peas.”

Now, Jerry’s done this before in a way... he plants early, watches the crop closely and can usually be counted upon to be the first farmer in the area to harvest peas from the vine. Last year he pulled in that first crop on June 4th. This year, though -- May 28th.

PurpleHull peas in May? That’s unheard of. I mean, my south Arkansas relations usually start shelling (not shucking, shelling -- there’s an important distinction there) around mid-June. But to proudly bear a purple-tinted thumb in May? Inconceivable?

“It’s pretty remarkable,” Bill says. “We often have trouble getting enough peas ripe in time for the festival, and here he is with ripe peas a full month before the festival.”

Freppon says his motivation to raise the first peas is simple. “Nothing tastes better than a plate of good ole fresh purple hull peas.” He planted this batch on March 14th, in the middle of those strange near-90 temperatures we experienced at the tail-end of winter. He also plastic-sheeted his peas at the start of germination to protect them from birds and to keep the ground warm. Bill says peas don’t do well unless the ground is at least 60 degrees.

I am tempted to head south and see who else has themselves some peas ready to go. I still have a couple of Burge’s smoked turkey thigh bones and some homemade stock and I sure wouldn’t mind putting them to use bubbling about in a simmering pot of peas. That’d about make me plum happy today.

It’ll be interesting to see when the grand old PurpleHull pea makes it to our local farmers markets. I’m also curious to see if they beat the blackberries. I’ve already sighted some Johnson County and Pope County peaches, and they have been on the juicy side, much like the already-gone strawberries we got in early this year.

If you’re interested in celebrating the PurpleHull pea properly, make plans to attend the Emerson PurpleHull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tillar Races June 29th-30th.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Burger Joint of the Week: Ed Walker's Drive-In.

There are a lot of places around the state that proclaim the largest this-or-that. When it comes to single-patty burgers, you won’t find one larger than the Giant Hamburger at Ed Walker’s Drive-In in Fort Smith.

Ed Walker’s is known for a lot of reasons. It’s the only place in Arkansas where you can drive up and have an ice cold beer delivered to your car, for one -- thanks to the double threat of being grandfathered in for an old rule and being in a border city. For service, you just pull up and flash your lights when you’re ready to order. The restaurant is also home of the Ed Walker’s French Dip Sandwich -- a nice, tender mess of fall-apart good roast beef on a tight French roll that’s served with a savory jus for dipping.

The restaurant started out in 1943 as a little place to catch one of those great French dips. There are some who claim moonshine also came out of this location, but lips are sealed with a wink on that account. In the 50s the restaurant was expanded, and Ed Walker himself had a bedroom on the back side of the place... right where the center dining room is today.

At 69 years old, Ed Walker’s is one of Arkansas’s oldest restaurants; it’s one of the few that still sits in its original location. The restaurant has been expanded several times and now even has a small in-house bakery in the back that supplies bread and buns to the restaurant and to the recently purchased sister restaurant down the street, Miss Anna’s on Towson. In fact, the famed pies from Miss Anna’s (formerly Goodson’s on Towson) are now sold at Ed Walker’s.

I’ve enjoyed the French dip sandwich before. I’ve also tried this massive burger on numerous occasions, starting with my first encounter in December 2007. It’s not a small burger by any means, and in my personal opinion it’s meant for sharing.

My dining companions and I placed our order by phone in advance -- and for good reason. A mammoth single patty burger containing five pounds of meat takes a while to cook through -- and the whole shebang can be 30 minutes from when you order it to when it comes to the table. We arrived 20 minutes after we ordered, so we asked for some Texas toothpicks (battered and fried jalapeno and onion strips) and nibbled on them with some Ranch dressing. We also had second thoughts and ordered a simple regular ⅓ pound cheeseburger and fries to have a means of comparison.

And then out came the burger. Now, it’s a little different from what I had experienced before, in that it had a different sort of bun. Used to be, those buns were made by Craig Family Bakery in Van Buren; these days, Ed Walker’s bakes its own sourdough type buns. This time we’d had all the toppings put on the burger (the default is to order them on the side so different members of the party can add what they want). The massive burger had been sliced into eight pieces and was served up with a pie server.

To give you an idea of the burger’s size, you have to see it with the smaller burger. Grav Weldon took this photo of the regular ⅓ pound burger perched atop the larger, Giant Cheeseburger we had ordered. More scope? Each of the eight slices contained roughly 10 ounces of meat -- that’s nearly 2/3rds of a pound!

But the bigger question is -- how did it taste? Well, that's the thing. This burger isn't just big, it's tasty. The meat on both burgers was nicely salt and peppered with a little onion powder flavor. But the thicker patty managed to come out far more juicy. That's not the only difference. While the regular 1/3 pound burger had the right amount of drive-in smash-patty flavor with crispy edges to the meat and a nice melt from the cheese, it was on a typical bun and served with typical toppings (the default is mayo and mustard, both). The larger burger's more ovoid construction (face it, you cannot really adequately smash five pounds of meat and still have it fit on a 12" bun -- that much meat would be the size of a tabletop), paired with a texturally complex yeast pulled and airy bun and a generous application of American cheese... the bigger burger is better.

There's also the financial application here. The meat equivalency would be 15 burgers -- since a regular burger is 1/3 a pound. A regular cheeseburger and fries is $6.25 -- which means for the same amount of meat you'd have to pay a whopping $93.75! Of course, if you factor in the French fries, it'd be likely half that, but still. My recommendation? If you take a crowd, just order the dang giant cheeseburger and some side items. That'll do it, and you'll end up saving money.

Did we finish the burger? No. The four people who dined on that burger that day didn’t get through but about half of it, and there were leftovers shared around. Now, you can, if you’re crazy enough, get that burger for free if you eat it with all the fixings, with an order of fries or onion rings and with a beverage in 45 minutes or less. I hear it’s been done, but I don’t see how.

If you’re in Fort Smith and want to experience this big burger, bring a crowd and head to Towson Avenue for a bite. Ed Walker’s is open every day from 10 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. For more information, call (479) 783-3352.

Ed Walker's Drive-In & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 18, 2012

Go Early, Go Often to the Greek Food Festival.

This weekend is the annual International Greek Food Festival at Little Rock's Greek Annunciation Church out on Napa Valley Road. It's the 28th year for the event. I've been going since it was pretty darn small -- and since I was pretty darn small. And I've learned a few things.

The biggest thing about going to the Greek Food Festival is to get there early. That's not to say you' won't have a good time whenever you go, but you'll do better to find those Greek dishes you really want if you head over there on Friday afternoon. That's because the baklava, butter cookies and such will all sell out before Sunday afternoon, mark my words. It's not that the folks at the Greek Annunciation Church aren't trying to meet the demand -- after all, they start working on those pastries six months before the event! -- but that they're so popular there's no way to make enough for everyone to take home so much.  I try to visit early, usually Friday around noon, so I can go on in to the air conditioned hall on the property, peruse the wares and pick up my sourota. That way I know I'll be able to take home those fabulous pastries.

The next thing to know about is the parking. It's free. It's not just free across the street, it's free down the block. There's parking at several locations and trolleys to get you to the front door of the festival. Still not comfortable enough? As far as I know, the International Greek Food Festival is Arkansas's only food festival that offers valet parking. I kid you not! For $10, follow the signs to the festival and let someone else do the parking while you go about your eating and relaxing.

A third thing to know about: the festival is a great place to shop. There's the market, which offers Greek cooking specialties such as oil, vinegar and olives. There are Greek costumes, toys, those fascinating little dolls that live inside other dolls, scarfs, lamps, paintings, jewelry and more. This is a great place to shop for that person in your life who has everything.


Another thing to note -- while there's a lot of food available to eat right there, you can also take home frozen pastichio (think Greek lasagna), tirapetes (cheese-filled triangles) and spanikopita (spinach and cheese filled triangles). Over by the end of the pastry section there's a man with a cooler who will sell you frozen goodies to put in your freezer and cook up later. The kids will never know how you managed that fancy Greek cooking months from now!
There's also the drive-thru. See, the International Greek Food Festival is the state's largest food festival, and there's a big demand on what's available. For some, the only reason they go is for a hot gyro plate. You can get a gyro, a k-bob, hummus or pastries without ever leaving your car.

My last bit of advice -- go often. There are so many things to see and do at the festival, it's hard to choose just a few. Go shopping. Come back and eat and enjoy the entertainment. Return the next day. It's a unique experience and it's tasty, too.

I just gotta mention -- that pastichio platter is $10, comes with a block of pastichio, a square of spanikopita and some Greek salad and a half a pita. The pastichio? It's light and airy on top and full of flavor, thanks to a homemade bechemel sauce that ties cheese, ground beef and pasta together.

For more information on the International Greek Food Festival, check out the event website.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Burger Joint of the Week: Wink's Malt Stand

There are a lot of dairy bars and drive-ins out there that could be interchangeable. That’s not to say the burgers from such a place aren’t any good -- they usually are. Those sort of burgers are marked by good quality meat, a nicely seasoned grill, a smashed patty, fresh toppings and a traditional bun wrapped in wax paper.

Wink’s does all that and more. The burger stand, which has been around since 1968, serves up a series of amusingly-named burgers, plate lunches, tamales and such with pie, shakes and malts and whatnot for dessert. It’s located in an old yellow building at the corner of Washington and Redwood in North Little Rock. I ventured there on a Monday afternoon looking for something good to eat.

Wink’s only does walk-up service, the sort that comes with a number on a small tab of paper. If you stand at the front of the building after you order, others are likely going to think you are in line. In fact, I was the only person who sat outside my car waiting on my order. The day was too pretty to waste in my opinion. That lead me to stare directly at a coconut meringue pie set exactly at eye level on the other side of the glass. Until this point in time I was unaware that Wink’s did pie; I knew only of the legendary malts, and thanks to my current diet that wasn’t on my menu for the day.

My order took about 15 minutes to prepare. My number was called, I picked up my white paper bag and headed for the car -- where I pulled out my burger and fries and photographed them before dumping half of said fries all over the passenger side seat. Well, there you go.

Now, Wink’s sells burgers and cheeseburgers by name -- Small, Jumbo, Elephant and Whimpy. The Elephant, with its three four-ounce patties, is actually heavier than the half-pound Whimpy, so I chose that. I mean, let’s go with the visual appeal here. The Elephant with cheese cost me $4.80, while a small order of fries ran $1.90.
I could have gone with tator tots, onion rings, fried okra, slaw, bean, spicy corn nuggets or fried green beans instead. The fries are crinkle-cut and golden brown. I have a soft spot for crinkle-cut fries, even though I know they come frozen. Something about the extra surface area gives them the perfect blend of crisp and soft, and these were good examples. They came with four ketchup packets and a packet of salt, the latter of which was completely unnecessary.

The burger? The wax paper was already shining from the grease within. Once I released its toothpick I could see three patties that weren’t quite the width of the bun, organized to cover that bun-space. They sorta looked like sausage patties when you flatten them with a spatula. There was a slice of American cheese melted onto one of them, and they sat between buttered toasted seedless whitebread buns on top of an ample bed of lettuce, tomato, pickle and white onion. Mayo was the default condiment.

It looked like a burger that could have been conjured elsewhere -- but it was not. There was a flavor to the patties, a nicely varied but not overdone spice heavy on the onion powder and reminiscent of Cavender’s Greek Seasoning -- but still not Cavender’s. I suspect, being a 44 year old dining establishment, that Wink’s has its own proprietary spice blend. It was marvelous.

Still, the Elephant Burger lived up to its name. I got through a third of it and wrapped the rest for a later date. I’m going to have to go back some other time for my chocolate malt, and perhaps a piece of pie -- Wink’s sells coconut meringue and lemon icebox every day, and sometimes it sells egg custard, peanut butter, caramel and something called peanut butter luster.

You’ll find Wink’s at 2900 East Washington in North Little Rock. It’s open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10:30am to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday. (501) 945-9025.

Wink's Dairy Bar on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 14, 2012

Osage Clayworks: The Potter in the Old General Store.

Just off U.S. 412 between Alpena and Huntsville, you’ll see an old building standing to the south. The old Stamps General Store has been located there since 1901, but the business closed down decades ago. Still, the store is busy today as home of the Osage Clayworks, a thriving pottery business.

When you first drive up, you may see a dog or cat on the porch. There’s a sign on the door letting you know it’s okay to let them in. The place has its own cats and a friendly dog, too. Newt Lale will be the first to tell you that the cats won’t knock anything over. They’ve grown up between the stoneware mugs and plates on the shelves. They grace the building like ghosts in an old house.

I dropped by a few weeks ago to learn more about the place. I made my first visit back in December, when I was searching out Arkansas-made products for my friends for Christmas. Several of the folks in my circle received hand-cast sponge dishes that had been molded on leaves found around the property.

Though it was early in the afternoon, there wasn't a soul outside enjoying the pretty April day. When I walked up the steps I saw the sign that said "It's OK to let the dog in." This time around, there was no dog (there had been in December) but there was amongst the dishes in the window a longhaired cat, enjoying the sunlight.

I browsed quietly after greeting Newt. He left me to my own devices, which was peering at and taking photos of all these clay creations. He's told me before, and he told me again -- everything in that store is original. See, when he was looking at the property, he saw it was full of old stuff. Many of the items the general store sold still sat on the counters, and the cabinets and furniture hadn’t been moved since the last day of operation. Turns out, the family was willing to leave every antique, every oddity and cereal box and glass-front curio – as long as they were left there like a living museum. Newt agreed, and moved his potter’s wheel in. That’s been decades ago, and today every countertop and every shelf is covered with objects wheelspun and fired and glazed right in the old building.

Those cats? They’re experts at dusting. And there’s lots to dust – from gigantic tureens with lids and handles to tiny pinch-pots and rag holders. There are mugs of all shapes and sizes, plates and bowls and spoon rests and saucers. There are art objects and vases and lambs and just about anything you can imagine made out of clay.

I'd made it around to the other side of the store and was still trying to decide on a gift for a dear friend of mine. Meanwhile, the fluffy cat from the window had carefully made his way across the floor, silently stalking about before taking two leaps and landing atop an old glass case on the main counter. He stretched and spread out, king of his jurisdiction.

A couple had come in by this point, and Newt had started up a conversation, sharing the story once again about the store and its contents. The folks, who were from out of state, showed great interest, especially when Newt sat down at the wheel to throw a pot. It doesn’t take him long to make a pot, that's for sure. He’s been at the wheelthrowing for nearly 30 years. It's fun to watch. He'll sit down right at the wheel in the middle of the store and thump a lump of red clay onto the turntable in front of him. Then away the wheel goes, and he smacks the clay with water and works it up with his hands, first forming a depression in the center and then shaping the outsides with his palms. As he presses, the clay rises up above his fingers, and he expertly turns it down again. Within a minute a pot is formed, and he stops the wheel, cuts it from its base with a piece of wire and sets it to drying. These pots will cure for a while until he has enough to run the kiln. They’ll then receive a glaze and go back in the kiln. The final product is hardy, dishwasher and microwave safe and surprisingly hard to break.

He made a joke with the tourists about how people will ask him how much he charges -- and when he says that pot will sell for $35, they'll poke their mates and say something along the lines of "hey, he makes $35 a minute." Which of course Newt responds to with a mention that yeah, that's all it takes to throw them, but they require a lot more work... and then there's the selling.

The old general store is the perfect place to display his pottery. The unique mugs fit separately each in its own cubby that used to be the postal boxes that served the town. Every surface is utilized for something. And where there aren't pots and plates, there are items from the old general store, cereal boxes and implements of whatnot and an air of being placed out of time.

After making my selection, Newt expertly wrapped the piece in a slice of local newspaper, dropped in a postcard and took my money. When I went out, I let in a shorthaired cat that seemed to know where he was going.

Osage Clayworks is located at 22 CR 966 in Osage – though the mailing address is Alpena, which is actually 11 miles to the east. It’s open now and then with varying hours; best thing to do is either call ahead or call when you get there and Newt will come on over and open the door. (870) 553-2513. Don’t forget to let the cat in -- and to check out the website.


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