Thursday, July 24, 2014

Plan On Peaches: Johnson County's Perfect Pick.

Kat Robinson takes a look back at Arkansas's oldest festival and the history of peaches in The Natural State... plus a preview of what's happening this weekend at the Johnson County Peach Festival.

Can you imagine Arkansas summers without peaches? The fuzzy fruit with its almost syrup-sweet flavor is scrumptious to the pit… but it wasn’t always available in The Natural State. Peaches weren’t cultivated until after the Civil War, as farmers looked to diversify crops to avoid the treacheries of a single crop economy. Orchards popped up all over central and western Arkansas and along Crowley’s Ridge.

The introduction of the Elberta peach, cultivated by Samuel Rumph of Georgia (and named for his wife) in 1879 made the fruit more viable as a commodity. His yellow-fleshed orb was firmer and ripened more slowly than other varieties, allowing pecks and bushels to be shipped away from the immediate area. The introduction of refrigerated rail shipping expanded the market, and peach farming took firm hold.

For Johnson County, peaches have been big business for over a century. Johnson Taylor and James Tolbert began growing Elberta peaches in 1893, and others followed suit. In 1897, the Missouri Pacific Railroad partnered with the area’s peach farmers, and soon those peaches were dispersed over several states. Ten boxcar loads of peaches left the western Arkansas county each year by 1901… and a couple hundred thousand bushels were produced throughout the state by the 1910s. Though disasters would take their toll in the 1950s and other states such as Texas and California would start their own orchards, the peach is still recognized as an Arkansas favorite.

The velvet-skinned globes deserved their own festival, and the first Johnson County Peach Festival took place in 1938 in Ludwig, about four miles from Clarksville. Governor Carl Bailey attended – and he autographed peaches and took home a basket of his own. The first Miss Elberta was crowned, and a community-wide picnic commenced.

Today’s Johnson County Peach Festival has blossomed into something marvelous… something more than just the peaches. Each year, vendors and craftspeople set up on the courthouse lawn to share every manner of merchandise and homemade item. There’s a frog jumping contest, a terrapin derby and every manner of possible activity for the kids. For cooks, there are cook-offs to compete in, where participants try out against each other for best jelly, jam and cobbler.

(*I’ve been privy to that cobbler competition a couple of times now. The first time, there weren’t all that many entries – but the second time, in July 2012, BOY I had my work cut out for me. I was set up to judge, along with the winners of the five pageants. That’s right, I judged along with five young, tiny beauty queens! And there were 16 or 17 entries to judge. And, worst of all, there was a five way tie the first time around. I’ve never eaten so much cobbler in my life!*)

There’s also a peach eating contest… and you’d be surprised how fast a child can eat a peach.

Seriously, they can gobble that flesh off the pit quick!

This year, festival organizers have added a new competition – a peach pie eating contest. There will also be a four mile run, a fishing derby and a greased pig chase. And if that wasn’t enough, a diaper derby, a talent show, a scavenger hunt and helicopter tours are also on the schedule.

Make plans now to head up there July 24th through 26th… and if you need more information, call (479) 754-9152 or check out the event’s Facebook page.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Strange Coincidence Surrounding Batten's Bakery in Paragould.

There's an unusual set of circumstances that has kept Batten's Bakery going for nearly 60 years. Find out why this Paragould mainstay managed to keep its name over the decades.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Roadside Strangeness - The Mammoth Orange Cafe in Redfield.

A little town along Highway 365 may not be known for much, but for roadside travel buffs, it's a must-stop - just because of a strange orange orb at the town's major crossroads. Let's take a look inside the Mammoth Orange Cafe.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Chatty Place: Mylo Coffee Company

They say you can't go home again.  I suppose whoever "they" are understands that better than I do.  I still think you can.  However, in the case of Guillermo's, my local coffee shop -- I found the doors closed and the lights off on a Sunday afternoon. Though the website says they're open 9am to 6pm on Sundays, at 12:30 in the afternoon there was not a soul in sight.

My former places to enjoy a good cuppa and write a bit have evaporated these past two and a half years. Sufficient Grounds, which became The House, is now The Pantry and no longer a coffee shop -- and Gellattes has just evaporated. Guillermo's, where I wrote most of my work in 2011, had been steady but with Hans Oliver no longer running the show I suspected things have changed.

So that one particular Sunday I headed to Hillcrest to spend a little time at River City Coffee Company -- only to find its dark wood interiors were whitewashed. Moreso, that place isn't there now -- it's been replaced by Mylo Coffee Company.

If I were the sort not to try new things, I would have been quite disappointed and maybe have made my way back home, since most the other local places where I might consume coffee would be closed on a Sunday. But I was undaunted -- and moreso, I was looking for a place to write.

So I walked through the door and into a business with dark stained floors, whitewashed ceilings, exposed brick and white tile... and waited for a smattering of hipster smarm. After all, this place has been a major magnet for the uppity foodie types, right?

Then I saw the sign saying that War Eagle Mill flour was used in baked goods, and let my mind be persuaded. After all, if I'm trying something new, I should expect some new ideas, too.

The first really big new idea came in the coffee itself. I'm a black coffee drinker. I might drop in a cube or two of natural sugar if it's available, but if I am seriously working I want it black and strong. And yes, there are espressos and cappuccinos and mochas available -- but what entranced me was the idea of pour-over coffee. I mean, what does that mean?

It means, dear friends, that instead of brewing a whole pot at a time, percolating an entire eight servings of hot coffee that can go bitter before the last cup is served, that each cup is made right then. That's not to say other places get it wrong -- my friends at Guillermo's would almost always have a fresh cup in my hand before I wrote my first word of the day -- but it does make for a very individualized experience.

The barista working offered me choices -- a house blend, a medium roast and the option to have either made stronger. He also grinned when I asked for my black coffee. Other places people have smirked when I ordered -- thinking I might load it up on the other end with add-ins. I don't think that was the case here.

Speaking of cases -- there was a case below the coffee area full of bottles of Loblolly strawberry lemonade. Now, what rock have I been under that I haven't known about such a thing? Don't answer that -- it's for another post.

But to the right of the register (is that what it is? It looks like a tablet on a chopping block!) there were all sorts of pastries, and I spotted a chocolate croissant and had to have it. It was huge. It was bigger than my fist and fluffy and crispy looking and I had to have it. So I did.

Mind you, it wasn't cheap. Though pour-over coffee's $3, the pastry was $3.50, and all I had planned to do was plant myself in a comfy chair and write away the afternoon. And after I finished, that was the other thing.

There are no couches, no easy chairs at Mylo. Just reclaimed wood tables, benches and outdoor seating, which was disappointing. There were also few outlets -- which told me that there was little concern for my sort of coffeeshop patron. See, for me, the coffeeshop is the ideal engine to get my mind going for writing. Caffeine in the air, others working, good lighting, outlets and understanding baristas do a good coffeehouse make.

I watched my coffee being made -- filter being placed in a ceramic filter cup, a tablespoon of fresh grounds dropped in, a young woman slowly pouring water over the grounds and watching the water flow through to the cup below. It was very modern and fresh and clean and bright, almost like a commercial. This was certainly not my usual coffee experience.

Briefly I considered consuming the edibles I had procured and heading downtown to Andina's, if they were open, or heading next doorish to Rosalia's -- but I stayed instead. I found an out-of-the-way spot at a long table next to the wall and got to writing.

And... people watching. Yes, there were a lot of people coming through. Families with small children. Older folks with books, younger folks with computers, couples digging their way through newspapers.

And... eating. I pulled apart the impossibly fluffy chocolate croissant and ate it with my fingers, wiping them on a napkin before each time I tackled the keyboard. It was so very light, and the chocolate inside suitably dark and scrumptious -- oh golly, did I really just use that word? What is wrong with me? -- sipping on my sufficiently bold and robust blend with just the right amount of roundness to the flavor like a slowly roasting fire's heat,

And I felt like some weird pretender. Indeed, when I looked away from my wide laptop I noticed there were just as many eyes on me in my old tie dye blouse with my hair swept back as there were people for me to quietly ponder. These folks seem so urban, so hip... I'm just not in that class, am I?

Still, no one hurried me along or encouraged me to finish my beverage. They left me to write, and write I did, sitting in a patio chair with my back to an exposed brick wall, pretty much unable to concentrate on stitching together tales of the Arkansas Delta thanks to the pure modern-ness of it all.

Don't get me wrong... it's a very nice, very clean coffeehouse with good products. But it may be too much -- I mean, it's perfect for someone wanting to meet another someone for quiet conversation or to go through the paper, but it's about as far away as gumbo soil and highway miles as I could get.

That's not a problem. If I were writing a novella about life in a coffeeshop, it has potential. Those rustic-bread paninis also have potential. LOTS of potential. In fact, enough that I almost considered getting one. But by that point my back was achy and my resolve to write about barbecue joints and hot summer afternoons had faded, and I had to go get it back. So I fled.

Well, sorta. I planned to flee. And then I wrote this piece instead. And then I stayed -- despite the gradually frustrating patio chair and all the eyes. I stayed, because though it might not be what I'm used to in a coffeeshop, it did offer fabulous coffee and a really remarkable chocolate croissant.

See, a lot of my personal choices for a coffeeshop are about comfort -- physical comfort. When I can find a good pairing of coffee, available electricity, a place where I can sit where I won't be bothered and a nice selection of edibles, I've hit the jackpot. Mylo is a little short on those electrical outlets and comfy chairs... but it does have a comfortable vibe -- which I witnesses as individuals kept coming through the door, sitting and talking with each other.

Frankly, Mylo is a crossroads. And if you're looking for a good place for a conversation and a great cuppa, give it a shot. Also, the pastries are wonderful.

Even this end-of-day oatmeal raisin cookie... which was delivered to me... close to closing time. Yeah.

Mylo Coffee Company is located at 2715 Kavanaugh in the Heights in Little Rock.  You can call them if you wish at (501) 747-1880 or check out the Facebook page.

Mylo Coffee Company Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

McCain Mall Needs An Ice Cream Saloon Like Farrell's Again.

When I broach the subject of long-gone restaurants, invariably one chain comes up -- Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour. It's become ingrained in the memories of folks my age as a magical place. And with the reintroduction of Mr. Dunderbak's at North Little Rock's McCain Mall, it would bring us another step closer to true nostalgia-ville.

But Farrell's wasn't our only sweet treat delight back in those heady days of the 1980s. I'll elaborate in a moment.

 See, even Bill Clinton liked Farrell's.
For those who didn't have the pleasure of growing up in the age of neon shoelaces and leg warmers, here's a bit of history. Going to the mall used to be a really big deal -- and there was none bigger than McCain Mall. Opened in 1973, it was the largest mall in the state (it still has more leasable space) until Central Mall in Fort Smith expanded in 1986. It had everything -- shopping, of course, but also a twin theater, restaurants, a great record store, escalators, two book stores, a Spencer Gifts, and Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour. You could spend a full day there!

And many of us did. Sure, some came with our parents but others were dropped off with a $10 and a note to meet back at the entrance at a certain time (we wore watches then; this is before CAR phones, much less cell phones). You could go catch a movie, buy stuff and eat all in one place. Actually, you can do that now -- since MM Cohn's was replaced by a new movie theater complex a few years ago. But I digress.

Down on the first floor at the north entrance, there was an awning that spread out into the hall. If you passed under that awning, you could step down into a land of pure fun, where both waiters and waitresses wore striped shirts, vests and hats and an ice cream extravaganza was waiting for you.

Farrell's Ice Cream Parlours started in Portland, OR in 1963. At its zenith it operated restaurants in 32 states across the United States. The location at McCain Mall in North Little Rock was one of the more successful stores. But after a purchase by the Marriott group in the 1970s, it became an individual franchise; it and two other stores owned by the same person (in Little Rock and Oklahoma City) closed in 1984.

The idea of a happy, fun place to consume ice cream wasn't limited to Farrell's, though. On the south side of the river, we had another chain -- Swensen's. It was sparked in 1948 by a man who learned how to make ice cream while serving in the Army during World War II.
Earle Swensen's initial restaurant was located in San Francisco but after franchising rights were sold the chain spread to more than 400 locations nationwide. For Arkansas, that location was in the Market Street Shopping Center along Rodney Parham Road. Half the size of Farrell's, the location was lined with wooden booths and celebrated a lot of the same tamed Wild West ice cream saloon idea (for those of us who remember, it was a "thing" in the late 70s and early 80s -- Wendy's did it too).

Swensen's didn't have all the bells and whistles of Farrell's, but it did have the Earthquake, which reminded me so much of this scene from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Now, I understand there's the Farrell's Zoo, but I don't have a recollection of that. What I do remember is sharing an Earthquake with a friend... more than once. I preferred the better-equipped Chocolate Earthquake, but if it was a big bowl full of scoops of ice cream, chances are I was going to like it.  Like this girl.

The Little Rock Swensen's location closed in the late 1980s, but the one in Springfield, MO was open until at least 1993... I actually made a pilgrimage there when I was in college. The whole company contracted and shrank nationwide, but it blew up again and hit a worldwide audience with locations in China, India, Columbia, Vietnam, Thailand... in fact, there are far more locations outside the U.S. today than there are inside. The closest drive to get to one today would be to pick up and head to Midland, TX -- the only Texas location for the chain. There are also a handful in California, Nevada and Florida.

Of course, I grew up in Little Rock, and we had our own couple of homegrown sweet treat chains form right here. The first was HUGE... to the point of... well. Frank Hickingbotham started This Can't Be Yogurt here in town back in 1981 in the Market Street Shopping Center on Rodney Parham -- yes, pretty dang close to that Swensen's location. It was just a clean white counter and some soft-serve machines that doled out soft frozen yogurt.
Now, frozen yogurt today is just sort of de rigeur -- we're very used to it. But in 1981 there were no frozen yogurt chains. The idea took off like wildfire. Within a year there were seven locations, and then even more as the restaurant franchised. A tiff with a similar restaurant from Texas forced a name change --
to TCBY -- but that didn't stop the growth. By 1986 there were over 400 stores. By 1987 there were over 800 stores. The company grew so big and so fast, it was a marvelous investment.
It left its mark on Little Rock -- literally -- for a while, the tallest building in the state was the TCBY Tower (which was later the Metropolitan Tower and is now the Simmons Bank Tower).

I can remember the original This Can't Be Yogurt theme song, but I'm not going to sing it for you. I did, however, find a clip of the commercial where they announced another name change, to TCBY Treats.

At one point, there were over 3000 TCBY locations, including spots all over Central Arkansas. But it shrank back. Mrs. Field's bought it in 2000, and it's still all over the place, but not here. There's a single stand-alone location on West Markham, one of the early stores, and today it also serves hand-dipped frozen stuff, too. The white chocolate will probably always be my favorite.

And that brings me to the Purple Cow. There are some folks who look down on the new-fangled dairy diners as unrefined, but Purple Cow's creators were Ed Moore and Paul Bash -- yes, THAT Paul Bash, who started Jacques and Suzanne's. The original location on Cantrell Road filled a gap when Swensen's left, a soda fountain where you could get various types of ice creams. It was such a welcome addition to the area that it's spawned more locations.
Unlike the drive-in sort of dairy diner that serves soft-serve, Purple Cow proudly served Yarnell's ice cream, even commissioning a special purple version from the Arkansas ice cream maker (which lead to a panic when Yarnell's went under; fortunately, Yarnell's was bought, reopened and saved).

So, here's the thing. You may not be aware of this, but Farrell's is still around. After just about every location closed down, there were two -- one in San Diego and one in Eugene, Oregon. In the late 1990s, Parlour Enterprises got the rights to develop new stores from The Kirin Group (which had bought the rights to develop more stores from Marriott), and new locations came about. Today you can enjoy lots of different ice cream confections at seven locations in California and one in Hawaii. Food Network even declared the super sundaes at Farrell's one of its top five decadent desserts.

But that doesn't answer the original idea for this post. Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour was part of the draw for my generation, a reason to choose McCain Mall over other shopping sites. Having that nostalgic Music Man-style eatery with its big ice cream creations return would be one step in creating a nostalgic destination for Gen Xers... pair it up with a showing of Flashdance, the original Star Wars trilogy or Xanadu and a before-the-show visit to Mr. Dunderbak's, and you're just a fashion mistake away from a time warp.

So should Farrell's return?  Or should Purple Cow consider a McCain Mall location?  Is there a different ice cream magnate you'd rather see there?

For more reading;
Farrell's Memory Page
Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour Restaurants
Swensen's Ice Cream
Purple Cow Restaurants