This is not that story. As Alton Brown has so succinctly put it, “I’m here for the food.”
|Every Arkansas politician of any renown has come through|
Gillett at one time or another, including the most famous of
our native-born sons.
See, there was a gentleman who lived across the street from that high school. And starting back in the 1970s, he and his wife would open their home to a party before the annual get-together. That young man eventually decided to run for office, and the party became a political fundraiser. When Representative Marion Berry came home from Congress, the party became a different sort of fundraiser – one that sends two Gillett high school seniors to college each year.
Photographer Grav Weldon and I headed to Gillett on a brisk January Saturday to take in the two events. He gets a pass on never having gone before, but I don’t. Over the years there’s been every sort of reason I’ve missed out – from having to work at my television job to having a personal commitment to not being ready to head out again after having Hunter to being on the road. The biggest reason I’d not been before, however, stemmed directly from the timing – the event is usually held the second Saturday of January, and by the time I remember, I’ve failed to secure a ticket to the events. They always sell out.
We came into the Arkansas County town from Stuttgart via DeWitt with the singular direction from my friend Gabe Holstrom, to “follow the Berry signs.” The first signs we saw, though, were the Arkansas-shaped pickets for Pryor, in this case Mark Pryor, the U.S. senator who rightly used his daddy’s campaign logo as his own, a modern version of medieval heraldry passed father to son. Past that, we saw the “Berry for Congress” sign, big and blue by a gravel road, which we turned in to right after a massive black SUV before us.
Down the gravel road, still somewhat slick from the two-days-ago rain, way out into the verdant and soggy plain of an Arkansas field planted this past year with corn, a right turn past a rice paddy, a left turn onto a road headed out to a set of outbuildings.
Here there were cars parked side by side near what appeared to be a hangar – far too big to be a storage shed. Outside, three men tended a smoker, while two young boys threw rocks in a puddle.
My daughter, Hunter, had come along for the ride, and she played shy with the kids while I made introductions and found my direction. The men were lording over long skewers of bacon-wrapped meat in the chilly air.
I realized the vest that was enough to keep me warm in Little Rock with its trees and hollows and tall buildings wouldn’t stand up to the constant wind that stuttered unimpeded across the Mississippi River alluvial plain, and headed inside.
Grav and I darted about, checking out the edibles before the onslaught of attendees came through the door.
And then there were the meats – not the deli meats but the hearty, bone-sticking meat you’d expect to sustain yourself in this sort of weather. From the smoker came big pork butts, which the ladies in the back would break open and shred and platter. There were big links of sausage. And there were Duck Bites.
Gabe had told me these would go quick – and they did, even though it seemed like there might have been 50 pounds pulled from the smoke, they went quickly into the mouths and onto the plates of these individuals who came to the line, sometimes with a dollop of remoulade. And when they were gone, they were replaced with fall-apart good smoked turkey and chicken.
The empty farm hangar went from hollow echoes to a solid block of sound in seconds. They all came through the door, man and woman, a collection of suits and padded vests and ties and young men bearing campaign stickers for every flavor of Arkansas politician. After all, this is among all things a political event.
Amongst the politicians and business leaders, there were folks like me, camera and pad in hand, jostling about. The journalists, the TV crews and the newspaper folks and the radio guys, we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by subjects. Interviews commenced left and right as fellows clapped each other on the back and young ladies giggled and cameras beeped – oh, to say snapped would be an antiquity – as the crowd filed in and filled out.
Congressmen, state representatives, farmers, businessmen, mayors… they were all there. I spotted fellow Arkansas writer Rex Nelson by the buffet, ran into Arkansas Museum of Discovery Executive Director (and fellow food writer) Kelley Bass by my table, even chatted with one of my former fellow producers from Today’s THV, Monika Rued. This was a place to wave and say hi and share a glance as it got louder – yes, I see you there, you see me, we’ve been here. The room was so loud a coherent conversation between any but the most able lip-readers were left smiling and nodding.
And then a break, as if the crowd had simultaneously reached the moment to take a breath or a swig of a beverage. At the door, there was a rustle and former congressman Marion Berry came in the room. And a swarm of people formed the most disorganized circular line in an effort to get a chance to thank him for his hospitality.
The governor was there. The networks – ABC and MSNBC – were there. A progressive Country act was playing in the corner, providing a soundtrack for the whole mess. And I quickly learned that the best way to have a conversation was right outside the doors, where the serious talk seemed to be happening.
But, as I said, I came for the food. And soon enough it was time to head for the other event.
We arrived at the former Gillett High School a few minutes before six. There weren’t a lot of people in town at that point, and we were able to park in the lot. I hustled over to the gym door quickly with Hunter, jogging a bit to get there as I saw the glint of metal. I had expected to see cooking on the premises, but I realized at that moment that the cooking was already done.
Inside, two ladies sat at a table offering caps, ties and T-shirts by the main door to the interior. Across from them, a uniformed man stood at the ticket counter. This was for people to claim their ticket – the dinner had been sold out long before.
It turns out the cakes are all made by ladies in town. They each make a cake or three, slice it and wrap the slices before handing them over to the Farmers and Businessmen Club, which oversees putting the Coon Supper together. In fact, everything at the Gillett Coon Supper is donated or sponsored.
I had stepped out of the main gym for a moment. I had caught glimpse of something crazy – a young man dunking a large cheesecloth sack into a garbage can filled with water on a big turkey fryer burner. He was making coffee for a crowd in the quickest way possible. He and the ticket keeper joked about it… but I suspected from the can’s coloration that this was not the first time it had been used to boil coffee.
Grav and Hunter and I tucked ourselves out of the way in a corner while things got started. Each person had a ticket -- either one given them in advance or picked up at the ticket keeper's counter -- and the mayor himself welcomed people into the gym and pointed them towards their seat. Each row of tables sat 50 to a side, and helpful volunteers ushered folks into place.
"It starts out nice and smokey, but there's too much smoke, and then it's just something I'm not sure I should have in my mouth."
I happened to catch sight of the governor as he came in, laughing. He was telling a reporter from one of the newspapers that this was like to be his last Coon Supper, since his days in office are nearly over. Mr. Beebe gets this crowd, though, and he did his own measure of chuckling as he shook hands and posed for photographs.
Old fashioned country music was but a note in the background as the volume swelled through the evening. There's no alcohol served at the Gillett Coon Supper (unlike the Berry Farm party) -- for a multitude of reasons, which I'm sure have a lot to do not just with community preferences but also the lack of places to put up those that might need to sleep it off (the Rice Paddy Motel on Highway 1 only has 14 rooms) -- but there's really no need to lubricate tongues in a crowd like this.
We ended up leaving ahead of the crowd. Hunter, bless her heart, had been patient through the evening, but when she told me she was ready to go home I was about ready to as well. And that gave us another view of what this event means to the community. For six blocks around the school (located on the southwest corner of town) there were cars lined up on both sides of the road, with barely a car's width in-between to squeeze through. Past the parking, the town was quiet and empty, block after block of silent homes lit by streetlamps and the ancient Christmas decorations still lining the roads.