Monday, July 29, 2013

On the subject of tea.

I have a confession to make.  I was not born in Arkansas.  However, that’s a matter of my parent’s location at the time I chose to arrive in the world, not a matter of preferred geography.

Both sides of my family are from a little town in southwest Arkansas by the name of Gurdon.  Paternally of the Bear family and maternally a Waldon, my pedigree runs back some distance here in this state.

However, I have lived here in Arkansas since before I was cognizant of the places and people around me.  I grew up in Little Rock but spent weekends in far more rural locales, mostly along US Highway 67 south of the metropolis.  My college years were spent in Russellville, a town I fell in love with.  My first years in television, I lived in Jonesboro at the north end of the Arkansas Delta.

My earliest restaurant recollections are a mishmash – of special occasions at Brown’s Country Store and Restaurant in Benton, of vacation time trips to McClard’s Barbecue in Hot Springs, of smoked meats from Coursey’s in St. Joe and the birthdays of friends celebrated at Casa Bonita at University and Asher in Little Rock.  I recall when getting a “coke” (a name for any soda) was more expensive than having a glass of tea or coffee, and I remember when refills weren’t free.

And I clearly recall, even from my earliest days, that tea did not come sweetened!

At my Nana and Papaw’s house south of Gurdon, I always drank the tea because the well water had a hint of sulfur.  I can recall an adult I dined with in Little Rock having to ask for a sweetener for tea.   I can still remember the white bottle with the girl on it that my cousins played with one afternoon, seeing if it really made the tea sweet.  It did.  It was nasty.

Yes, when I was a child, I could add a packet (or two, what a scandal!) to my drink and mix it up.  I remember being told only kids did that, and that you didn’t drink your tea sweet when you grew up.  I can even remember being small and getting in trouble for dumping a sugar shaker into my beverage.

But sweet tea was not a part of growing up in Arkansas in the 1970s, or even the 1980s.  You wanted something sweet to drink, you got Kool-Aid.  Or a coke.  And those were special things.  They weren’t what was put on the table.

I don’t think it would even have occurred to anyone in my family to make tea sweet before my generation – not a whole pitcher!   My parents were Boomers, but their parents were Traditionalists, and they remember how expensive sugar was, especially during the second World War. Save sugar for cakes and pies. 

Which is why I’m bothered by the hard statement given again and again when referring to Arkansas cuisine as a fragment of Southern cookery.  I’m kinda put off by the statement that all Southerners drink sweet iced tea.  I don’t.  I might add honey to my hot tea when my throat is sore, but overall tea is meant to be tea – the specific infusion of leaves into water, served over ice.

Which brings me to my pet peeve – and that’s on ordering in a restaurant.  If I order tea, I should get tea – just the tea, no sugar.  However, this culture shift of the past couple of decades has convinced restauranteurs that sweet tea is the default.  Usually when I ask for tea and I get “sweet or un?”  I don’t get irritated.  But sometimes it gets me.  No, I don’t want UN-TEA.  I want tea, freshly brewed, forget that lemon (but I’ll take a fresh bit of mint if you have it and I’m in the mood).  I don’t want to give a lengthy explanation as to why I want my tea without additives and I sure as heck don’t need that little box of sweetener dropped off with the long spoon and straw.  I figure the restaurant probably washes its glasses, too – which means I don’t need that straw either – but thanks for the offer.

(deep breath)

I used to think this was just something I needed to be quiet about.  After all, sweet tea’s a popular thing.  McDonald’s offers it for a buck for a large sweet tea – oh, and by the way, there’s no guarantee they have any unsweetened tea available.  Have you tried that stuff?  It’s like upturning a sugarbowl into your mouth!  I know, I wrote a book about pies, I shouldn’t have a problem with sweet.  But you try it.  Egads.

Still, I’ve noticed lately sitting down with friends my age (I turn 40 in October, imagine that), most of them turn to just plain old tea for dinner.  And that makes sense.  Without that film of sugar on your tongue, flavors come through naturally.  There’s just enough caffeine to exist, no buzz really, and enough of a diuretic property to the beverage to make you drink more… tea.  It’s a perfect cycle of tea and the other word that’s a letter of the alphabet.

The other day, my daughter ordered tea with her meal.  And I could tell the moment she tried it, she’d been given the sweet stuff.  She made a face.   Yes, this four and a half year old who usually goes for milk or Sprite didn’t care for pre-sweetened tea.  I don’t know if that means anything or not, but I thought I’d throw it in there.

So readers, especially those of you from without the borders of this excellent state, pay heed.  The South may claim sweet tea as its table wine, but here in Arkansas the tea pours freely… as it should… without the taint of sugar.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On the subject of catching birds.

My daughter, at the age of four and a half, is full of questions. They range from the normal “why is the sky blue? Why do cats scratch?” to the inane “why can’t you eat bees?” She also asks a lot of permissions… “Mama, may I play in the tent?” or “Mama, could I go climb that tree?” I think that’s normal at her age.

But there was one question she’s asked me that started a conversation I can relate to you. Hunter asked me when she got in the car from school…

“Mama, is it okay if I catch birds?”

Now, on the surface, it may not seem like something you’d want your child to do. Many parents might just think it’s not possible for their child to catch a bird… but I know better. See, I was a bird-catching child. And I know a thing or two about catching birds.

“Hunter, I want you to listen to me. I can’t give you an answer right away.”

“But can I?” she asked.

“Just hear me out,” I told her as we turned out on the street.

“Back when I was about your age, I asked the same question of several people around me. And the general answer was ‘no.’ Some of my more skeptical aunts and uncles flat out told me I had no business even trying – and what would I do with one if I did? I figure they all thought I’d never be able to do it.

“But one day I was out in my grandmother’s yard… it was hot, maybe August, and it had just rained. I saw a couple of mockingbirds fly down and start going to town in the grass… probably pulling up earthworms that had come to the surface with the wet. I decided I was going to try.

“Now, I wasn't going into this without a little research. See, there were a good number of cats in my life, all outdoor ones, and I’d been watching them. I noticed how still a cat would get when a bird came by, and how their eyes never left what they were after. And I noticed how they’d be motionless one moment, and then pounce and the bird would never know what hit them.”

Hunter was silent, considering this. At the next stoplight I looked back to see if she was listening. She was staring at me.

“Mama, do you know how to pounce like a cat?”

I laughed.

“It’s not about me pouncing like a cat. It was about me being still. I went out on that lawn. I just kinda slowly shuffled out towards the birds. When they’d look up, I’d freeze like a statue. And when they looked away I very slowly moved. When I was within 10 feet or so, I slid down to my knees and crawled a little closer.

“And when I was close enough to see the pupils in their eyes, I grabbed. And I’ll be darned but I got one.”

Hunter, by this time, was enthralled, and that moment she let loose with a series of excited questions. “Did you keep it? What did you do with it? Did it try to fly away? Was it pretty?”

“Hang on, love. And no, I didn’t keep it,” I told her. “I had grabbed it with both hands, and when I loosened my grip I could see this little bird’s head through my fingers. He was gray on top and orange on the belly and he was just frozen. I thought I might have hurt him. And while I was trying to think of what I was going to do next, he pooped on me.”

That elicited a roar of laughter from the girlchild, and I laughed right along with her. She giggled and repeated “he POOPED on you!” several times. Did I mention she’s four-and-a-half?

“Well, Hunter, I let him go. It surprised me! And I had to go get the water hose and wash down my hands and shorts. But now I’d caught one, I was going to try to catch another.

“And I did. Oh, how I did. I caught mockingbirds and sparrows and cardinals, and I’d look at them and they’d look at me and I’d let them fly off. I had friends my age, Hunter, who I got to see when my mom would take me over to their houses, and I’d catch a bird or I’d tell them about catching a bird, and they’d tell me how I wasn’t supposed to touch birds and how they might have cooties and how baby birds would never again fly with their mama birds. But did I listen? Well, no.

“My friend Jason, he wanted to catch a bird, but he couldn’t so I caught one for him. And he kept it in a shoebox. But you know, birds are meant to fly, and this one kept in a shoebox died.”

Hunter got quiet for a minute before saying “I’d never keep one in a shoebox.”

“Nor should you,” I answered. “A few birds, like parakeets and macaws and toucans, if they live here they have to be in a cage because they can’t make it out in the world here. The climate’s not right. They’re pets. But birds that fly in the sky every day? They’re free, and it’s okay to look but not to keep them.”

“But mama, can I catch a bird?” Hunter asked again.

“Can you? Well, maybe you can but that doesn’t mean you should. When I was maybe eight or ten, there was one day I caught a bird when my mom wasn’t home. I wanted Mom to see that bird and see how good I was at catching birds. And I thought, ‘I could put it in a box or a crate, just for a few minutes until Mom gets home, and it’ll be all right and I can let it go then.’ And so I took the bird inside.

“That was a bad choice. I just made inside, and when I went to shut the door I accidentally loosened my hands just enough for that bird to escape. It flew all over the house, through every open doorway, trying to get out. And the problem is with a bird in the house like that, is that they know someone’s trying to catch them so they don’t settle down, not unless they can hide up high somewhere. And after I tried getting that bird back in my hands a while it roosted atop a curtain rod and just stayed there. And then Mom came home.”

“Did you get in trouble?” Hunter asked.

“Well, not right away,” I answered. “That bird was quiet, and I thought to myself ‘if it stays still tonight, I can get it down tomorrow.’ So I didn’t say anything to my mom.

“But about time dinner came around, that bird wasn’t as scared any more and it came down, swooping down through the dining room just as dinner was done. My mom hollered and shouted. She went and got a broom and went after it, opening up the doors and finally shooing it out. And then I got spanked.”

“You got in trouble,” Hunter answered.

“I did. But even that didn’t keep me from catching birds.”

“Do you still catch birds, Mama?”

“Well, funny thing about that. When I got older, I got interested in other things. There was school, and in the summer there were friends to hang out with and music to listen to and stories to write. I stopped catching birds for fun and just went about my life.”

“Aw.”

“But it came in useful. There was one day when I was working at Today’s THV, back in the early aughts when I did the morning show. And we had this weather garden, and there was a sliding door that separated it from the studio. And one day this bird just soared straight in through the door, in through the studio and straight on to the newsroom. And the newsroom there had very, very high ceilings – so when someone would try to shoo it out, it’d just fly up high and back again.

“Well, the show started, and I was the only one in the newsroom. And I noticed the bird swooping down again. I watched it, and I saw it go up under Tom’s desk. That was back when his desk was right next to the studio doors. I went over there, pulled back the chair slowly, slid down to my knees and pounced… and got that bird. And I walked it out the door and through the studio out to the weather garden, where I let it go.”

“Did it ever come back, Mama?” Hunter asked. We were nearly home by this point.

“Well, I don’t know. It was just a little gray and white bird and I couldn’t tell any difference between it and any other birds.”

“I hope it came back,” Hunter told me.

“Thing is, Hunter, it’s all right to catch birds. It’s all right to try. I wouldn’t do it at school, where there’s not a lot of room to run on the playground and there are things to fall over. But I won’t say no. Just remember… if it was free in the firsthand, it was probably meant to be free.”

When we got out of the car, Hunter asked “could you catch a bird for me?”

“No, love, I can’t,” I told her. “It’s your turn to catch the birds.”

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Herb's Creamland: The Heart of Ashdown.

This is one in a series on historical restaurants in the state of Arkansas. For a look at the Arkansas restaurant timeline, click here.

By all accounts, Herb McCandless was a good man.  It's something to be good once in your life, or for a time in your life.  But Herb was good for at least 59 of his 85 years -- as evidenced by the restaurant he leaves in his name.

I didn't think I'd be writing a little bit of an obituary when I visited Herb's Creamland in Ashdown last week.  All I knew was I had to make the pilgrimage before I sat down and finished my second book, because Herb's fit into it.  

McCandless opened his very first restaurant on May 1, 1954 at the corner of Dupree and Highway 71.  It was a whitewashed affair, a drive-in with a couple of windows where folks could come up and order their choice of burger or sandwich or such.  Over the years Herb's would move again and again -- until it ended up in the red building with the white shutters along Dutch Webster Road.

There's not a lot fancy about Herb's.  It's a classic drive-in restaurant -- though today it's all sit-down-and-eat with a kitchen on the end.  The walls of the place are decorated in high school and Razorback memorabilia with Route 66 overtones and articles and photos from a simpler time.  The menu itself seems like it's tucked in a time warp, with prices just as low as they could be. Still -- the prices today can't beat the original prices -- such as the six dogs for a dollar on family night from an aged poster in the dining room.  

Today's menu is crammed with four pages worth of edibles, from burgers and plate lunch specials to Ark-Mex fare like tacos and burritos.  Amongst these is the original Herb Burger.  McCandless served the same burger since the beginning:  a slightly peppery smashy served with lettuce, pickle and mayo on a buttered and toasted bun -- a true drive-in burger if ever there was one.

The restaurant has a reputation for naming dishes after folks, though I'm not on the "in"side enough to know the jokes about them.  Most of them aren't on the menu, but you will find a Randy Dandy there.  I don't know for sure if it's named after Randy Needham, the guy who manages the place today, but the sandwich is a good deal -- corned beef, ham, turkey, Swiss and mozzarella on a hoagie bun
with choice of condiments for $4, complete with chips and a pickle spear.

It's very reasonable, like most of the stuff on the menu.  And it's evident that the whole matter is a home-grown operation.  For instance, I took the option of having fried squash with my meal instead of fries... I could have gone with fried okra or a number of different
vegetables.  With three of us, food and drink came in at about $15.  It's a good deal, and the community appreciates it.

While I was there, I learned that Herb's has always been open to all.  Though it came into being in the 50s, it was never segregated.  I also heard McCandless wouldn't turn away someone because they couldn't pay.  The Creamland wasn't the only thing he ran -- he also operated a pizza joint, a laundromat and more during the years.  His contributions were substantial to the Ashdown community.


I mentioned the obituary.  I can't do justice to it -- I never met Herb McCandless.  I understand he came in every day, six days a week, to pick up lunch for the folks at the paper mill -- but he had already long gone for the day when I darkened the door July 3rd.  Sadly, less than a week later, he was standing on a trailer attached to a parked truck.  The trailer was struck by another vehicle, and McCandless was thrown.  His obituary and life remembrances are located on this website.

The restaurant will go on to serve the community.  His wife, Helen, may continue to come in and hand-batter the onion rings.  I doubt Ashdown will ever forget him.
This article brought to you by First Security Bank. For more great Arkansas stories on food, travel, sports, music and more, visit onlyinark.com.

Herb's on Urbanspoon