No one knows just how old Jones’ Bar-B-Q Diner is, but Mr. Harold Jones says the recipe goes back 150 years or more. What he does know is that his grandfather and uncle made and sold barbecue from the same recipe he uses today. Everyone agrees that the place was open in 1910, so we can at least surmise that the Marianna staple is past the century mark.
Harold Jones’ grandfather used to go downtown on Saturdays and sell barbecued pork from a washtub out of what folks called “The Hole in the Ground.” On Fridays, he and Jones’ grandmother would sell it out the kitchen door at their home at California and Florida Streets.
Jones himself has been in the business since 1968, in what started out as a little one story building on Louisiana Street… a flat-topped one story building opened up in 1964. “I was 14 years old, when they let me outta school when there was too much to cook. Me and my brother got out of school to do it.” Over the years add-ons were built, including a second story where he sleeps when he’s not home with his wife Betty.
“The governor, he sent me an autographed photograph,” he continued, waving his hand towards the wall by the guest book, where a smiling image of Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe looks out into the diner. “Day he came in here, he brought a whole lot of people. They packed in like sardines, but
Every day it’s still three dollars a sandwich, six dollars a pound. Sandwiches are made on Sunbeam white bread, always the same – lay down the plate or aluminum foil, put down a slice, heap a mound of pork on it, drizzle on the thin sauce, dollop with sweet coleslaw, top with another slice and wrap. When there’s not someone waiting, Jones keeps making them. He wraps each one in foil and deposits it in an electric roaster.
Butts – pork butts, that is – are put on a wire rack in a makeshift pit about eight by 16 feet – that rack looks just like the inside of an old style box spring mattress. The coals come from an old fireplace a half century old or better, hickory and oak burned down until they just gleam red on black from the gray ashes, shoveled into the pit. That’s the only heat the meat will get – the slow heat from hot wood, hot made charcoal. A plywood cover on a pulley goes down and the meat smokes.
Out in the dining area, there’s a guest book. It’s a little yellowed but it’s still somewhat new – the smoke probably colors it a bit. Just flip the pages, and you’ll see a random smattering of places beside the names… Stuttgart, Arkansas right before London… New York City. Yemen. Alaska. Memphis. San Francisco and Beirut, Lebanon and Israel and even Japan… a collection of handwritten testaments from travelers the world over who have come to this little two-top diner that’s not even on the main highway in a small hometown in the Arkansas Delta.
Grav had never been, but I had – several times, in fact – which is only equaled in strangeness with the fact that I can’t eat what Mr. Jones sells. I’m allergic to pork. Still, I’d been selling the idea of the place to my photographer for a few days, and when we got out of the car I knew the sale was closed. Grav started popping around shooting the exterior with an urgency of needing to taste what he was smelling. I’ve rarely seen that in humans – usually it’s reserved more for cats hearing the sound of an electric can opener.
It’s not that I haven’t had the chance to experience the sauce. The day Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State came out, Kim Williams had brought up Mr. Jones’ good meat. It was the Second Friday Art Night in downtown Little Rock, and Historic Arkansas Museum (which was hosting not just my signing but a second signing and the debut of a Delta art show) was feeding folks his barbecue and fried pies in celebration. Kim also brought along a couple of whole smoked chickens… and Grav and I had our share bare-fingered in the upstairs catering kitchen with a little squirt of sauce here and there, quickly consuming what we could before folks started showing up. It was just as fulfilling as any fine dining experience had been.
But still – it took standing in that little parking lot to trigger that reaction. And when we got inside, he was full of questions.
Which was good, since Mr. Harold (I have just started to think of him that way, since that’s how Kim refers to him) is quick to answer them. Recognizing the guy with the camera in hand as a newcomer, he stepped out of the kitchen and started talking about the place. He reached up with one hand and plucked a box off the wall above the kitchen window, a black shadowbox frame with a ribbon and a medal in it.
It’s also a new thing. Before the spring of 2012, no one could imagine such an august award for the place. They just knew the barbecue was good – and cheap. And consistent. Since the nomination, Mr. Harold has been profiled by CBS Sunday Morning, talked with reporters from every variety of press and broadcast and welcomed visitors from Paris, London and Japan. It’s not uncommon for journalists and bloggers to just pop in unannounced. He takes it all in stride.
Still, here he was answering questions he must have answered thousands of times by now from yet another guy with a camera. I just took notes and watched.
And after showing off the medal and replacing it on the wall, Mr. Harold stepped back into the kitchen, answering even more questions along the way. He stepped back to the counter and proceeded to make yet another sandwich – foil, bread, ‘cue, sauce, coleslaw, bread, wrap, roaster – and another – foil, bread, ‘cue, sauce, coleslaw, bread, wrap, roaster – just automatic as you please.
I just saw a grown man fall in love. It was a beautiful thing.
And I heard him say something he doesn’t usually say. Grav will tell someone their food is the best in the area, or one of the best things he’s eaten that day, but rarely will he utter words like these: “your barbecue is about the best I have ever had.”
A young woman opened the door and peered in. She noticed me standing there, and Grav and the big camera, and hesitated.
“Can I help you, young lady,” Mr. Harold called out to her.
“I wan a sannich,” she called back, finally sliding in and closing the door behind her.
“Wi’ slaw or wi’ out?”
I could see him making the sandwich the entire bit of conversation, not taking his eyes off her until he went to squirt on the sauce. He had paused that bare second to hear whether she wanted the slaw, and when she answered it plopped down on that meat and the bread was slid on over. It didn’t take him but a second to wrap it and pass it out the door of the kitchen, and she handed him her three dollars in the same motion. And she was back out the door.
Grav asked the guy showing off the pit, “so, do you like this barbecue?”
He chuckled. “I’ve eaten so many over the years, sometimes I might eat one, sometimes I might not.” And that seemed to be a pretty good answer.
Back in the restaurant itself, we were making our farewells when one of the regulars came in. He grinned and offered testament himself. “I was telling him the other day I ate his father’s barbecue… and every time someone comes in with a camera, he goes and raises the prices!” Both men laughed; the prices haven’t gone up in a long time, and Mr. Harold Jones doesn’t seem to be giving any indication that they’ll change any time soon.