|Crowley's Ridge from Highway 14 near Weona, January 2014, sunset.|
|Fields north of Grady viewed from the Arkansas River levee,|
The fingers of the Delta stretch right up the Arkansas River to Little Rock – even to its State Capitol Building, which looks out on the long flat from the first rise in town, the first undulations of mountainous terrain behind it and on through the city’s Hillcrest and Heights neighborhoods.
To the north, the long endless plain knocks up against the first low ridge of the Ozark Plateau, just to the west of old U.S. Highway 67, its new expressway laying on the flat from Bald Knob on north, the roadbed only rising to clamber over the White River and the occasional overpass to where it still lays
incomplete, its original route still busy but quieter than its decades past, smooth and unbent up through to Pocahontas and the Black River, then calm again on its straight shot through Corning to the Missouri Border.
|Sunset from Highway 49, just north of Louisiana Purchase|
State Park, October 2014.
|Woody's Bar-B-Q at Waldenburg.|
|Jones Barbecue Diner in 1964, before the construction of a|
|Cotton ready for harvest near Pine Bluff, October 2012.|
|Lackey's Tamales at Smokehouse BBQ|
I didn’t grow up in the Delta. I was forcibly introduced to it by circumstance.
As a child, I grew up between the wood-knitted environment of my parents' homegrounds in Clark County and the budding urban sprawl of Little Rock. Family vacations were invariably taken to the west, either north up to Jasper and Dogpatch U.S.A or south to Texas. There were summers spent in Hot Springs. My college years, I planted myself happily in Russellville, savoring my first stretch of adulthood in the River Valley, making those Scenic Highway Seven runs up to Harrison and back or down to the Spa City, summering along Lake Ouachita and venturing as far out as Fort Smith to meet and spend time with new friends.
The summer I graduated college, I threw my lot to the wind. I was a radio broadcasting major, and I was ready to cut my teeth beyond my Little Rock hometown and see where I would land. I sent out 90 cassette tapes and resumes to places as far away as Wisconsin, Michigan, New Orleans and St. Louis. 89 of these tapes, I assume, went to program directors and news directors at radio stations. The 90th tape went to a station called KAIT, which had placed an ad in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for a news producer.
I didn’t know until I pulled up for my interview on a September day in 1995, that I had applied to a television station in far-off Jonesboro. I apologized to news director Harvey Cox for taking up his time. He asked me if I knew how to tell a story, and when I answered yes, he told me he was looking for storytellers, not “people who do TV.” That lead to three years on Crowley’s Ridge, in the largest city of the Arkansas Delta – which didn’t hold anything to the upbringing I’d had in Little Rock.
|Sunset in Dumas, March 2014.|
|Pickles, peppers and such on the counter at Gene's|
Barbecue in Brinkley.
I was also awakened to a dining scene unlike what I’d left behind. While yes, I did try about every restaurant in Russellville in my time there, the fare was very much focused on the diner culture merged with a quiet college scene and rural, country tastes. Jonesboro offered something far different – especially in its wide array of Asian restaurants and its extraordinarily low food prices. In those three years, I sampled many a restaurant.
|The lone Dog N Suds holdout in|
I left Jonesboro in September 1998, roughly six months after the terrible tragedy at Westside Middle School – the shooting of kids by other kids there the hardest blow to my young news seeking sensibilities. Though I visited a few times in the following year, it’d be another decade before I’d truly explore it again, and then it’d be something entirely different.
|An old postcard for the still-operating Country Kitchen.|
|Mammoth Orange Drive-In in Redfield.|
|Shooting a plate of Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales,|
March 2011 (photo by Grav Weldon).
After the success of Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State in 2012, History Press entrusted me to write a second book about the oldest restaurants in the state. The project got out of hand. When I realized that I was maybe halfway through with the book and well over my word limit, I contacted my editor and pleaded for a change – to make this overall effort into more than one book.
The first, Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley, came out in November 2013, and the reception was warm. Seems there’s a real desire by food lovers to find out not only where their food comes from, but where their food traditions come from as well.
|Lunch at Kibb's BBQ, Pine Bluff.|
Digitally manipulated photo by Grav Weldon.
|Elvis Presley had breakfast at The Coffee Cup in West|
Memphis before reporting to Fort Chaffee to serve with
|Cotham's Mercantile at Scott.|
Digitally manipulated photo by Grav Weldon.
Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta and utilize it in your efforts to familiarize yourself with the Arkansas Delta. The many weekends of research across its span have opened my eyes and drawn me into discussions I’d never thought I’d have about preserving and protecting this cuisine and these extraordinary spots on the food map.
Postscript: When it came time to submit my manuscript, I was way over in length and had to cut something. There were hundreds of nicks and tucks throughout the book, but I couldn't bear taking out the restaurants featured within, nor slicing through the narrative of highways and the stories of the towns throughout the Arkansas Delta. So I did something different. I removed the introduction to the book. Rex Nelson's foreword was more than sufficient for covering most of the points I was trying to make.
Here, for your enjoyment, is that introduction in its entirety.