Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Peachy-Keen in Clarksville.

I love me some peaches. I can do serious damage to a quart box of the yellow-red fruit. For me, the juicier the better. They’re best eaten wearing an old t-shirt while sitting on a porch swing, or on a tailgate. Pits go out in the yard and may become a tree someday if you are lucky, I’ve always thought.

And even after this weekend, I still love peaches. And I still love the Johnson County Peach Festival. I just don’t know when I’ll get back around to eating peach cobbler again.

See, I was afforded the honor of judging the peach cobbler contest at this year’s festival, an honor I planned to relish. And I did. But boy... well, you just read along.

The setting: Clarksville, Arkansas, on the square. Each year the community comes out and enjoys itself fully with a celebration of all things peachy-keen. Mind you, not everything is about eating a peach -- some things have far more to do with the community, mind you. The whole mess starts out with a beauty pageant to figure out who’s going to be the Miss Johnson County representative to the Miss Arkansas pageant. There’s also the selection of Peach Miss and Peach Mister. This is a tradition that has stood the test of time.

Photo by Chuck Haralson
There are the great sports celebrated, too, such as the early-in-the-morning greased-pig races. Photographer Chuck Haralson went to Clarksville early just to catch that. And boy, what a spectacle -- young folks trying to capture a little pig that’s been well lubricated. An event full of laughter, that one.

Photo by Chuck Haralson
Most of the Friday morning events at the festival are focused on two things: children, and doing things before it gets too hot to do anything. There are terrapin races and frog jumping contests, both packed with local kids who bring their own champions.

Photo by Chuck Haralson
Thing is, used to be they could potentially do these things later in the day, rather than at 8:30 or 10 in the morning. That’s because the festival used to be in early June. Well, a couple of years ago I went and found that there was a total of a single box of peaches already off the trees. That was back in 2009, and peaches were hard to come by. So now the festival is held the third weekend of July, and there’s a hope for peaches to be about.

One of the first things I noticed when I got there late in the morning was that yes, there were peaches around. While the peach fried pie tent I’d enjoyed before was absent, there was peach tea, peach ice cream and just plain peaches all around. Seems that Wal-Mart stepped in this year and donated a bunch of peaches... and everyone was distributing them. You couldn’t turn around without smelling them, and you couldn’t step from one booth to another in the vendor area without being offered one.

There were a lot of vendors, too. Unlike some places where the vendors are lined up along roadways or in a fairground, they were all packed onto the courthouse lawn -- which meant they benefited from the shade of trees. This also meant if you needed to use the facilities you could go into the courthouse and enjoy your, um, relief in air conditioned comfort. Mind you, business as usual was underway at the courthouse, but the staffers there were courteous and kind.

Mind you, around noon it had already surpassed 100 degrees outside, and there was a sort of passive waiting about the whole thing. A couple of vendors had those great neck wraps available that hold cold water right against your neck. Several were offering free water for passers-by.

There were also a great manner of crafts on display, from elaborate woodcarvings to nameplates made from cut-up license plates, crocheted baby doll dresses to flower head bows, and a whole lot of tie-dye to boot. There were concessions, too -- corn dogs, fried potatoes, walking tacos, cotton candy and snowcones all around. And jellies and jams and bandanas, too.

Now, when the heat started to get to me, I did duck across the street to a new enterprise called Fat Dawgz BBQ and Something Sweet. This little eatery smelled wonderful and was serving up not only barbecue but a fine selection of pies. I passed on the peach cream pie for something even colder -- a wedge of frozen peanut butter pie with a homemade chocolate drizzle. It wasn’t quite frozen, which was good because I value my teeth, but it was cool and creamy and light and the girls at the counter gave me a gargantuanly large cup of ice water to go with it. 25 minutes of that and I was hydrated and ready to go.

I met up with Chuck on the front porch of the courthouse steps, and we waited for the big exciting competition to begin -- that is, the peach eating contest. I’ve seen some kids go to town on these peaches before, and this time was no different. There was, however, a bit of confusion on how peach eating was supposed to be done. Check out the video here for more on that.

After the heat, the judge in the affair checked mouths and hands to make sure all the peach matter was gone before declaring a winner. There had to be an eat-off between the top eaters in the 6-12 year old range. Those kids... well, first time around they just absorbed those peaches. The younger kids took a little longer.

I will advise you this -- if you plan to participate or have a child participating in this activity, be sure to wear shoes you don’t mind washing off with a waterhose. There will be sticky around.

Afterwards, a great crowd flowed into the courthouse for the event I was there to judge, the cobbler competition. I should tell you, I was not expecting what happened. Back when I covered the event in 2009, there was but one cobbler and one jam entry in the festival, and it took no time to determine winners. In fact, when I was on the phone with the festival folks before the event I was assured that I was in good shape, that in 2011 there were some eight cobblers, and I’d be all right.

So you can imagine my trepidation when I sat down and was told that there were 15 -- count ‘em, 15 -- different cobblers to judge. It also became abundantly clear to me that I was in a rare group of individuals judging this competition. After all, it’s not every day you get to share a table and some cobbler with a gaggle of teenage beauty queens. I kid you not.

And if you thought peach cobbler would be boring, think again. There were biscuit dough cobblers and cobblers made with lattice crusts and those packed in pastry dough. There were some made with ripe and almost too sweet peaches and some made with under-ripe ones. Some were very tart. Some were a little fluid. But each had its own merits.

The first place cobbler
And as I sampled each one I reminded myself that I needed to pace myself. I knew I could manage 15 bites of cobbler. I figured it out to be about twice as much as I’d get if I’d ordered peach cobbler for a dessert somewhere. And besides, I hadn’t had a real lunch yet.

The second place cobbler
Boy, I had made a mistake. Not only had I already eaten a slice of pie before we got started, I failed to take into account the possibility of having a cobbler-off -- that is, having to judge a couple over. So, 17 bites of cobbler later, a winner and a second and third were selected

and we were all released. And the general public descended on that long row of cobblers. See, when the competition is over, all that cobbler matter becomes fair game, and the organizers dole out vanilla ice cream to go with it. Everyone’s happy. Everyone piles in, tries what they want and cleans the plates as it were.

Except man, I could barely move. It was so much. SO much. I stumbled down the courthouse steps, got me a T-shirt from the festival and a great little peach pin and a couple of neck wraps. I chatted with folks and felt this sensation in my gut. I was stuffed to the brim with peaches and cobbler crust, and... well, I had to get an antidote. The folks with the Diamond Drive-In out west of downtown on Highway 64 set me up with an enormous cup of iced tea and a WOW Burger for the road. It was an antidote, for sure... but it sure took a while to wear out of my system.

There were other activities of note -- a fishing competition, a cardboard boat race, dancing in the streets and a parade. And so much to do for the kids, like the inflatable slide and that great little train that drove the kids all over downtown.

I love the Johnson County Peach Festival and I will be back. But I think I may just have to get a substitute stomach if I find myself honored with eating peach cobbler again for these good folks. At least they were kind and found other judges for the nine different peach jams entered for competition this year!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Go Swim at Natural Dam.

With the summer winding down and the mercury rising, it's time to go find an old fashioned swimming hole. If you have the time, head to Natural Dam. The tiny town on Highway 59 lies about 15 miles north of Van Buren, nestled along the highway by Lee Creek. There’s not much to what you see from the highway, except stretches of farmlands that spread out to the edge of the Boston Mountains.

You go to Natural Dam this time of year for the swimming. The 200 foot long dam spans the width of Mountain Fork Creek, just a short jaunt upriver from where it pours into Lee Creek. There’s a concrete ford that goes across what would normally be a steady stream of water below it. Thanks to the lack of rain, there’s barely a trickle anywhere below the stone break.

But above it is one of the most serene and cool spots in the county. The shelf that forms the top of Natural Dam angles down and back, making it just as accessible to swimmers as any wave pool at a swim park. The water is clean and clear, and you can wade in more than waist deep and still see your toes. It’s cool water, too, fresh from springs up the ridge.

There are a few places where the water still trickles over. On my latest trip I saw a couple catching fish and putting them in bags right there... little blue ear bream and minnows, for the most part. Below the dam face, there were pocket pools of water with darting minnows all about.

There is a generous parking area south of the dam, under the shade of trees. There’s also a few paths that have been worn into the woods on the east side. This is a great place for a picnic.

What, you didn’t pack provisions? No worries. Just on the other side of Highway 59 lies a little restaurant and convenience store. Inside, you’ll find all sorts of

supplies, cool beverages and a full service lunch counter. And there are restrooms, which is great if you have to pee or change, because there are no facilities out by the dam.

I suggest a slice of walnut pie -- they make theirs sweet and somehow miss the bitterness of a traditional walnut pie. It's served up on a hand-rolled crust, too.

The natural dam at Natural Dam is located on the west side of Highway 59. Heading north, look for the signs after you cross the Lee Creek bridge. Hazve a good swim, and be sure to wear your sunscreen.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Highway 65 Sandwich.

I get crazy ideas in my head every once in a while, and this qualifies as one of those “onces.” I wanted to see if I could make a really good sandwiches with nothing but locally sourced ingredients that could be gathered at restaurants, smokehouses and the like all along Highway 65 -- in particular, the section that runs through north Arkansas.

US Highway 65 takes you from just south of Branson, MO through some of the most varied terrain in Arkansas. There are the peaks of the Ozarks around Harrison and Marshall; the cliff faces and valley of the Buffalo National River; the rolling hills of the River Valley around Greenbrier and Conway; wooded pine forests just outside of Little Rock and the long stretches of endless farmland of the Delta through Dumas and McGehee before skipping off from the Mississippi River at Lake Village and crossing into Louisiana just south of Eudora. All along this major corridor are some of the great and unique foods that make Arkansas what it is -- a repository of culinary treasures and heritage foods.

I have no good reason for showing you
this photo of a cat I saw at Coursey's.
For this sandwich, I decided to stick to the northern section, a stretch from north of Greenbrier up to Harrison. This is a popular route for motorists to take to both Eureka Springs and Bull Shoals and a lot of places in-between.

My thought was that this could be a bit of a primer for folks who were wanting to try the local care all along the way in the form of a picnic. And of course, when I got to thinking about it, I decided a sandwich was the way to go. But how to make this ultimate sandwich?

I knew a good sandwich would have four things -- bread, meat, cheese and vegetation. And if I was lucky, I’d find the perfect condiment to go along with it. You know what? I found everything I needed, and dessert, too. Here’s how you do it. First, head to Greenbrier on Highway 65. Then head north.

The first place you’ll stop on your way up isn’t even staffed. The Damascus Honey Stand is owned by one Mr. Garland Gilliland, whose home sits behind it. Any daytime you’ll see a selection of jams, jellies, honey, syrups, fruit butters and sorghum molasses on the three neat little stands beside the road. It’s unusual because it’s an honor stand -- it’s up to you to pay your fair share. I
find I’m compelled to drop a little extra in the till... and I suspect others are, too.

If you’re looking for a good condiment to put on your sandwich, try Mamaw Flo’s Pepper Jelly. The mild version is hardly spicy at all but full of sweet flavor; the hot version’s pretty spice-packed. The place that makes it, Maria’s Home Made Country Fare is out of Greenbrier, so you’re getting a quality Arkansas product. And this pepper jelly’s made from just sugar, vinegar, peppers, cranberry juice and pectin. It’s an unusual condiment for a sandwich, but I figure anything goes, right?

Now head on up the road. If you’re hungry for watermelon, there’s usually a stand or two at Bee Branch... and if you’re lucky, you can get a Cave City watermelon there and enjoy the sweetness. Otherwise, head on up to Leslie to stop in at Serenity Farms Bread. This is a comfortable little home-grown place that specializes in all sorts of breads, from European Rye to foccacia. Pick up a loaf of your choice. I’d suggest the Country French... it comes in a round that’s good for both sandwiches and for bread bowl stews. That French bread seemed like a good basis for the sandwich.

Serenity Farms also does pastries -- like biscotti, danish and sticky buns. There are baguettes and sometimes bagels, and the foccacia is a meal in itself. The cooler is also full of juices and cane sugar sodas and fresh cheese.

Back on the road, head up through Marshall to St. Joe, a hot spot for good travel food. This is where Coursey’s Smoked Meats lives. Coursey’s has been around longer than I have, and I have been enjoying great smoked turkey and chicken from the place since I was in my single digits. Til about a decade ago, Coursey’s was next door to Ferguson’s Country Store and Restaurant, as close as
you can be with a yard between you.

Well, a while back the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department decided to go and change where U.S. 65 lay through that area, and they swung that road around and cut it right between the two places.

Coursey’s has great deep smoked meats, though it’s not a large selection. You have a choice of ham, bacon, sausage or turkey and Swiss or Cheddar cheese. If you’re wanting to take some stuff with you but want a snack, there are always bags of bits of turkey and Cheddar in a basket on the counter -- and for $1.50, you can’t get cheaper good eats.

Coursey’s also makes up a fair amount of jams and jellies and sells products from House of Webster as well. I decided some of that smoked Swiss and some smoked turkey would be the right thing to acquire for the sandwich.

If your sweet tooth is aching or you’re looking in at an overnight trip, drop into Ferguson’s as well. You could sit down and have breakfast or lunch, or you could order up a cinnamon roll to go. One feeds two, easy... they’re big fat five inch rolls and if you order them to go they put the icing in a cup for you to drizzle on later. I didn’t need the cinnamon roll this time, and besides -- Mr. Thompson was having the parking lot asphalted when I came through. Next time, though.

A little further up 65 on the right you’ll find the Big Springs Trading Company, another great smokehouse good for picking up some meat to take with you. Big Springs also does smoked ribs and pork.I’m a big fan of their smoked Cheddar...
they also smoke several other cheeses and meats --

ham, sausage, venison sausage with cheese and jalapenos, turkey, chicken and beef brisket. There’s a dining room up front filled with all sorts of local nostalgic items and knick knacks. I had the smoked Cheddar a while back and I was itching to have it again, so I got a whole pound... after all, I might want something to snack on while I make that sandwich, right? I also got some smoked beef brisket.

Once you’ve packed away meat, cheese and cinnamon rolls in your cooler, get back on the road and head north to Pindall. This tiny little town doesn’t have a lot going on, but it is home to Dry Creek Mercantile and what could be the best fresh strawberry pie in the state. While it hasn’t been open all that long, it
feels like it’s been there forever.  Here’s where you can pick up deli meats such as Petit Jean Smoked Ham, Petit Jean Bologna, Petit Jean Chicken Loaf and Big Eye Swiss. There are also plenty of staple items on the shelves and plenty of advice on where you should go to enjoy just about any sort of activity. One thing you’ll want to do is get some stone-ground mustard for that sandwich. I know it’s not locally made -- but I haven’t been able to find homemade mustard on this particular stretch of Highway 65 yet and you’re going to need it.

That pie, though... well, if you decide to get a slice, you’re in good shape. They’ll even give you a fork and a napkin to take with you. If you order a whole one and you won’t be to your destination for a while, you get the whole strawberry bit in its hand-rolled crust AND a frozen container of Cool
Whip to take with you to dollop on top when you’re ready. Did I get some pie? You know I did.

Try not to get your fingers in the pie as you drive further north on U.S. 65. Get up past Valley Springs and Bellefonte and right into the limits of Harrison. Look on the right
for Friends Orchard. One of the oldest farmers produce stores in the area, Friends always has a good selection of what comes out of the garden ready to take home.
 Right now they have bushels of fresh peaches ready to go, and there are boxes full of canning tomatoes. They also sell dehydrated items like banana chips and gallon sized ziptop bags of nuts. Reasonably priced, too. I saw some little heritage marble-sized tomatoes and had to have some of those, and a quart of peaches to boot.

And while you’re in Harrison, go by Neighbor’s Mill to pick up some fresh bread. Neighbor’s bakes bread every day except Sunday, at least seven varieties at a time. I am partial to the Rotel Four Cheese, the Tomato Herb and Cheese, the Spinach Feta Cheese... heck, if it has cheese in it I love it.

Neighbor’s offers a sit-down meal, being an entree or a sandwich or soup or salad. They do fancy coffee drinks. Do not, do NOT leave without trying a dessert. It could be something simple like a cream bread or something elaborate like a chocolate bomb cheesecake. They have decadent things like Chocolate Chip Banana nut Muffins, too.  My favorite? Pumpkin Cream Cheese Muffins, where the center is pulled out of the muffin, packed with a cream cheese filling and the center’s put back on top. Delightful.

My muffin? Went right in my mouth. But I did pick up a loaf of Spinach Feta Cheese bread and that Blueberry Cream bread as well. Hey, my mom didn’t raise any dumb children. Well, maybe one... no, I can’t say that. My brother Zack’s pretty smart in his own way... but I digress.

So I get home with this bounty and consider how to make it. I set out everything and looked it over, smelled it (it smelled like God’s smokehouse) and thought about it. And here’s what I did.

I took my bread knife and sliced off the top of the Serenity Farms Country French Loaf and the next slice down, and smeared them with the Mamaw Flo’s Pepper Jelly. I went back and added mustard to the bottom slice.

On top of that I put a layer of Coursey’s smoked turkey and smoked Swiss. I topped that with a single thick slice of the Neighbor’s Mill Spinach Feta Cheese bread. I know that may seem weird. For right now think of this as a Dagwood... but yes, it was there for a purpose.

On top of that, I scattered sliced up heirloom marble tomatoes from Friends Orchard. They were especially juicy and almost immediately soaked the Spinach Feta Cheese bread.

Atop that went slices of the smoked Cheddar and smoked beef brisket from Big Springs. I plopped the smaller top of the French bread on top, sliced it in half and gave it a try.

And ladies and gentlemen... somehow it worked. Somehow all that salty, smoky flavor blended perfectly with the coarse bread, the sweet jelly, the tart tomatoes and tangy mustard. And that one slice of Spinach Feta Cheese bread added a peppery touch to the whole mess. But dang if it didn’t make a HUGE sandwich. I had to share it.

So I present to you the Highway 65 Sandwich. Enjoy at your own discretion, preferably over a sink or when you’re wearing your rutty clothes. Substitute items as you will... I bet this would be good with ham, too.