Thursday, October 29, 2009

Define "Liquid."

I see many strange things around here. This one kinda defies my logic. Saw this on the interstate on Wednesday the 28th between Menifee and Plumerville westbound on I-40.

At first I wasn't sure what it said, perhaps it was something cute, I don't know. But as I drew closer, the message became clearer.

I know it may be hard to see on the chrome, so I'll enhance it.

I think the funniest part is the tag line under "Hauling Liquid Chicken."

My guess is that it's chicken scat, but who knows? I can't imagine that it's liquefied chicken -- wouldn't that still be edible?

And for the record, by Googling "Haulin' Liquid Chicken," I can see that I'm not the only one dumbfounded in the search for a meaning to this phrase.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Stop In at Atkinson's Blue Diamond Cafe in Morrilton.

Wes Holden suggested I check out Morrilton's Blue Diamond Drive-In, and since I was headed that general direction I decided to take him up on it. Good suggestion, Wes.

The menu contains a lot of what you might expect from a drive-in -- lots of burgers, hot dogs, fries.  But it also contains things like Pat's Patty Meltdown -- a patty melt with a heaping pile of grilled onions instead of bread -- and The Shaner, a club sandwich that apparently rivals The Stoby for its three meats, two cheeses, and all the fixings.  I went for the daily special and more... on the jump.

The cafe offers a special each day for $6.49 -- a main dish, choice of two sides, and bread (a roll or cornbread). Wednesday's was Hamburger Steak. I chose the creamed potatoes and the macaroni and tomatoes... and enjoyed a comforting and delicious Arkansas meal. The caramelized onions in the gravy made the burger steak and potatoes pretty darn good, and the cornbread was just slightly sweet. And it has been ages since I had macaroni and tomatoes -- it's been far too long since I've had this Arkansas dish of stewed tomatoes and spices with pasta.

But the real treat was dessert. I had just about settled on the Strawberry Shortcake (after all, Blue Diamond is also an ice cream parlor) when the waitress mentioned that two sorts of pie were also available. She talked me into it (she, and the compounded days of rainy weather that called for a warming of the soul). That thick slice of chocolate meringue pie was a decadent yet filling dive into the easy chair of the taste buds for me -- a rich and firm chocolate custard that wasn't too sweet topped by a buttery meringue that clung to its custard counterpart like a good meringue should. The homemade pastry crust was also welcomed.

You'll find Atkinson's Blue Diamond Cafe and Ice Cream Parlor off the Highway 95 exit in Morrilton -- past the Pizza Hut on the left. And if you want to know what the daily special is, check out their Facebook page.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pumpkin Time.

For those who listened to my bi-weekly appearance on KARN Newsradio 102.9fm yesterday, thank you. Here's that link to pumpkin patches all across Central Arkansas (courtesy Little Rock Family Magazine, which puts up with me and my lists!).

And the list of great places to get pumpkin-related items?

Madea’s Home Cooking off Woodrow St. Exit of I-430
*Savory bread that comes with the Light Lunch... is divine. I bet you could talk them into giving it to you without the plate, but why not go for the grilled tilapia, carrots, cucumbers, and boiled eggs with that heavenly grilled pumpkin bread? Outta this world good.

Franke’s Cafeteria
* The classic pumpkin custard... or one of the umpteen other pies they have there that's just as good.

Chip’s BBQ
*Seasonal only, but how can you go wrong with Little Rock's place to get your holiday pies? Grab some cheesecake while you're at it.

Ed’s Custom Bakery, Conway
*Buttery pumpkin in a buttery crust. Know what I'm sayin'?

Café Soleil in Eureka Springs
*Pumpkin Ravioli isn't just a good idea, it's a savory admission of guiltless pleasure.

Guillermo’s (coffeeshop off Rodney Parham @ I-430, next to Chili's)
*Won't smack you in the face with "oh lawd, how in the world am I going to finish this dayglow orange sugar beast" like that national chain we've all heard of.

Maple Pumpkin @ Brown Sugar Bakeshop
*Rich, moist, and decadent. Will make you want to put up your feet in front of a fireplace.

Pumpkin Spice at Cupcakes on Kavanaugh
*Pretty, delicate, and surprisingly spicy.

Capi’s in Pleasant Ridge Shopping Center
*Pray it's a day that pumpkin mousse is being offered... the four desserts change out daily. A deep glassful of velvet for the tongue.

Za Za’s in the Heights
*Decadently rich and almost too much, this deep dive into smoothness will stay with you for the rest of the day.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Last Hurrah of Festival Season.

Every small town in Arkansas seems to have some sort of event, some defining bit of celebration saying "yay, our community is here! Come join us and have a good time!" The celebrations run from the very big (Riverfest in Little Rock) to the very small (countless area picnics and gatherings almost too small to mention) but they are there and they're part of what makes that community unique.

In Yell County, it's been the Mount Nebo Chicken Fry for more than 60 years. Used to be, the event was held atop Mount Nebo outside of Dardanelle. But three years ago it came down the mountain and found a new roost on the banks of the Arkansas River at Dardanelle's Riverfront Park.

Why? Chamber of Commerce folks say it's because folks weren't really willing to drive up the mountain any more. Could have been volume, too; I've made that hairpin journey many times myself, and it's about the worst place you can imagine to get stuck driving in the rain. Well, outside of a washing gulley...

But I digress.

This year, the Chicken Fry was more than a sit-down dinner and activities all around. It was also a carnival, for the first time ever. A carnival, complete with concessions and games and amusement rides, no joke. Plus the event had been expanded to two days.

Well, naturally, I wanted to go see what it was all about. It has been years since I went, and the cloudy bits of my memory mostly recall children on a playground and grease-tipped fingers holding onto a meat-wrenched bone in a state park pavilion.

After paying my $2 parking fee and finding a spot I set off across a vast field towards the attractions. First thing I noticed was an apparent obstacle course. This was a setup by the National Guard, who provided cool looking pedal cars for kids to try out on the track. An unusual recruiting tool, sure, but it looked like fun.

I passed by many vendors selling all sorts of wares. Here were the locals -- one man was marketing his photography studio, another was selling knick-knacks, a third pet clothing. Their popup tents perched in the tall grass as they huddled behind tables in coats, jackets, and even blankets to sheer off the startling cold.

I think the cold surprised everyone. After all, the festival is usually held in September, sure -- but no one expected this sort of cold in the middle of October. The cold front sitting on top of the area was simply augmented by the wind sweeping off the river.

The tarps from the popups flapped in the breeze, and on the wind you could hear the hum of electricity and the occasional scream or holler from a child on one of the amusement rides. But there was something else, something that sounded like a badly tuned golf cart puttering along on a spent spark plug. This noise dragged me along past the tents and their bright and colorful wares.

The noise came from a small brown-clad tent with two windows cut into one side. The effort was to mask what was inside, but you could see through the mesh this incredible contraption... two large old fashioned ice cream tubs hooked up to a belt and generator. On this startlingly cold day, a gentleman was selling homemade vanilla ice cream for $2 and $3 a cup. And people were lining up for the frosty treat. Ah, free enterprise.

I passed by other vendors selling everything from Mexican food to barbecue, past the stage where the bleachers sat idle and empty, past even a hopeful entrepreneur selling hot chocolate and popcorn. There was a big red and white tent ahead, and I knew my goal had to be under its top.

And I wasn't disappointed. Several ladies welcomed me under its vast awning, and asked me if I was hungry. Well, of course I was. And after handing over my $5 toll, I was rewarded as they filled up a tray with eats for me... creamy coleslaw, cold baked beans, chicken fried rice, a marinated chicken leg quarter (I could have chosen a breast instead), and a couple of fried chicken tenders. There was even a gentleman at the end of the stretch of tables who poured me a glass of iced tea. I carefully balanced cup and tray and found a place to sit.

Of course the Chicken Fry is about eating... eating with your community. And in years past I had recalled jockeying for space at a crowded picnic table, elbowing my way in so those elbows would have plenty of room for grabbing a chicken leg or two and going to town. Yet there were maybe a dozen people spread out amongst the dozen tables huddled under that second tent. At first I thought it might be the time of day, but a quick check of the time showed 12:16 on a Saturday, prime time for lunching. Perhaps once again the cold was to blame.

After my prerequisite photographing of my food, I found myself wondering where to start. I found the slaw to be nice hefty slices of cabbage in that sweet creamy sauce, the beans to be sweet and smokey, the rice to be unexpectedly on the spicy side and lovely and warm. My apprehension about the lack of fried chicken parts (tenderloin pieces aside) was quickly crunched away with the deliciously marinated leg section I had been given. Pink meat with flavor still warm from the grill was enough to make me not miss that breaded crust any longer. I eagerly demolished it and began on the tenders, which I wrapped with the given slice of bread and used to sop up bean juice. I even enjoyed the pickle.

Ah, but gluttony!

As I consumed the repast, I watched people passing by. The shock of the cold had stirred lots of people, some of whom came out to battle the river wind with quilts and overcoats. I was startled by the appearance of a trusty from the local jail, emptying trash. Talk about community punishment... the poor young man doubtlessly felt shame being out here at this annual event, wearing the bold gray and white stripes of the criminally convicted, having to bear the eyes of folks who might recognize him. I chose not to photograph him. Whatever his crime, he is doing his part in serving his sentence, and need not be immortalized in an outfit he'd probably soon rather forget.

Fed and chilly, I went off to search out other entertainments in the park. I passed by more vendors with Walking Tacos (taco filling and veggies piled on top of Fritos in a bag), corn dogs and funnel cakes, and Strawberry Shortcakes on their marquees. A pizza vendor's offerings scented the air with the richness of sauce and seasonings. Kids played in a nearby house of mirrors with a Mardi Gras theme.

Carnies hollered at passersby offers of "a prize every time" with booths to pop balloons, throw a ball into a basket or use coins to knock other coins off a ledge. One called after me, asking "Janis" to stop by and shed some tie-dye luck at his booth. It made me giggle.

The "midway" as it were was about a dozen carnival rides, and it had apparently just opened. For $15 one could purchase an armband to ride all afternoon, but few had actually come out at all at this point. A lone girl rode a ride for tots, while half a dozen clambered aboard The Eclipse, a more daring cross between a Tilt-A-Whirl and a Flying Saucer that would unsettle more tepid souls as I.

The sun was poking through more now, and its radiant heat started working back the chill. More people were coming out now, and the sound of hollering children and parents calling after them was carried on the dampened wind.

I wandered back to the staging area, where still again no one was standing around. Yet the announcer's booth was bustling, as a lady announced that three members of one family had signed up for the "Lovely Legs" contest. That was a familiar name; the little contests that one might boast of for the next year was just one thing I remember... there had also been a chicken catching competition at one point, but I saw no live chickens in sight anywhere. I wondered when the chicken calling competition would begin.

The Lions Club was selling raffle tickets, and I was sure tempted to purchase one for a chance at $400 worth of beef.

I wandered along, stopped by and talked with the folks at the Chamber of Commerce trailer, and wandered on out towards the vendors one more time. A cluster of Cub Scouts were selling Boy Scout popcorn, and I took home a tub.

I wish I'd had more time to spend on the banks of the Arkansas River, but pressing matters and other assignments complicated my day.

As we all know, some things change and some things remain the same, and I found myself noticing the things that hadn't changed from my last visit to this festival years ago -- the happy and friendly women serving the chicken; the local high school students in their sweatshirts chatting, some paired up and "going together" and some of the local football guys talking shop; children with sweets and grins; the spirit of free enterprise represented in booths of colorful quilts and cloth constructions. Much the same as other festivals, sure. Alas, as fall widens and winter nears these little community festivals will fade away, only to resprout mid-spring to once again herald towns large and small and their residents and their most popular food products. Here's to such festivals, long may they endure.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Competing In The Cooking Arena.

One of the many facets of the Arkansas State Fair... the special contests. These range from photography contests to family ice cream making competitions, and they're a good chance to show your stuff.

I decided to once again participate in the Arkansas Farm Bureau Rice Cookoff this year.

The rules are simple -- bring a main dish, salad or dessert that includes rice as a main ingredient.

You have to make it in advance; while there are stoves available to heat up your dish, you can't make it from scratch right there.

You have to provide your own serving implement and you're expected to do a bit of display. And you have to have your recipe out for show -- no hidden ingredients here.

The contest began at 10:30am on a very rainy Tuesday morning. Participants can set up in the half hour before the contest begins. Most register in advance on the Arkansas State Fair website (if you register before the online deadline, the registration is free). Others fill out their forms the day of and pay the $5 entry fee.

Some just come in and put down their entry and go. Others spend several minutes just setting up the presentation.

The judging is based on taste (30%), appearance (25%), the originality of the recipe (25%), and ease of preparation (20%).

Once the entrants have set out their entries, the ring is cleared and the judges enter.

And while the judges are judging, many of the entrants stay for conversation and for a Pampered Chef demonstration.

This year no one left after the entries were in. The deluge outside discouraged trips outside, and the midway and food court was closed. Instead, batches gathered here and there, peering at the entries for the different contests around the Arts & Crafts building.

It took a while for the judges to get through the multitude of entries, but eventually the judging was over, and the winners were announced.

In salads, first place went to Emma Williams with her Pineapple Rice Delight, a creamy cherry and pineapple concoction that can be served either as a congealed salad or as a dessert.

Second place was Karen Kirkpatrick's Rice Taco Dragon Salad, a Tex Mex style tortilla dip.

Third place was Flo Whitfield's Fruity Delight, a really spiffy combination of Rice Krispy Treats with fresh fruit and canned pineapple.

In desserts, Karen Kirkpatrick's Pina Colada Pie took first place. The combination of pineapple chunks, whipped topping, rice and coconut in a graham cracker crust and topped with chocolate covered maraschino cherries was divine.

In second, Bonnie Ferguson's Surprise Balls. Tried them, and really they are a surprise. You just don't realize they're rice creations.

And in third, Emma Williams' Blueberry Crunch, a lovely crunchy fruity mix.

And in main dishes, Karen Kirkpatrick's Cheesy Chicken Squash Casserole was tops. What a great way to get kids to eat squash... I couldn't taste the squash itself, but I could sense a late zesty bite.

Emma Williams' Corn Croissants took second. I had to pass on them because they contain sausage, but they sure looked good.

And Ruth Williams' Beefy Rollups took third. Nice choice for a quick handheld lunch.

The overall winner? Karen Kirkpatrick's Pina Colada Pie.

As I mentioned, I entered myself. This year I entered in the Main Dish category. I chose my Chicken Biriyani recipe. Though I didn't place, I did enjoy sharing my creation with others.

Competing at the State Fair is a lot of fun. I enjoyed this contest, and was just thrilled to enter and win a few ribbons in the photography contest. Perhaps I'll post those photos later.

The Arkansas State Fair continues through Sunday. Hopefully the rain will hold out a bit longer so we can all enjoy the experience.