Friday, October 31, 2014

Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta - An Introduction.

The Delta is not a melting pot, like what was conceived of at Ellis Island for all the immigrants that came in at the end of the 19th century. Rather, with its waves of immigrants from Germany, Sicily, Italy, Greece, Mexico, China... it more resembles the mud of the Mississippi alluvial plain: soft, almost indistinguishable layers atop even more layers of French, English, African, Native American, a slurry of cultures tilled together on a land where the topsoil is 200 feet deep, where the fallow ends burn in fire and the people are sun scorched and swamp steamed, a vast sweeping flat broken only by the spine of Crowley's Ridge, all equal but struggling in the mire to eke out a good life.

Crowley's Ridge from Highway 14 near Weona, January 2014, sunset.

On this flat plain lies nothing but horizon and that ridge, which can be seen from 10 miles away, a punctuation for the eye of the traveler. Otherwise, the sweep of land is met with ditch upon ditch criss-crossing at perpendicular angles across northeastern Arkansas, while lower down the big fat swaths of the Black, Cache, White and Arkansas Rivers meet their conclusions pouring into Big Muddy, cut through with its oxbows and levees, hugging on Lake Chicot right before sliding out of The Natural State.

Fields north of Grady viewed from the Arkansas River levee,
August 2014.
On the far side from the Great River, a long cut runs south from Pine Bluff. Occluded by trees, Bayou Bartholomew marks an end and so many beginnings; once a furiously busy expressway for getting goods up north, it now sits swampish along the western side of the plain, butting up now and again with the first rise of the Ouachita Mountains and the undulating hills of the state’s Timberland region.

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.
This is the land of the Arkansas Delta… still, after all these years, a harsh abode where the stubborn survive in rural towns and along endless highways. It is not romantic, nor is it the great fictional set of some extraordinary writer (though both Ernest Hemingway and John Grisham have found great inspiration here). It is the birthplace of two distinctive forms of music – the blues and rockabilly – and it has fostered generations of great musicians that have defined the offshoots of these styles, from the boogie-woogie to the jump blues, ragtime, hokum, country blues, Delta blues and blues-rock. Its native sons have included Levon Helm, Al Green, Louis Jordan – and daughters such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Its most notable resident may be a man who came from the Timberlands – though, considering his young age of immigration to the Dyess Colony with his family, many could argue that nature and nurture make Johnny Cash a pure Delta boy.

Woody's Bar-B-Q at Waldenburg.
On this long plain, cities still survive, tied together by highways pressed onto the fields, bridges fording swamps, most following the few paths that brought people across the expanse a century ago. Unlike in Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley, you’ll find few places called “Hilltop” or “Cliff” or “Mountain.”
Jones Barbecue Diner in 1964, before the construction of a
second level.
Here, barbecue and catfish reign supreme and you’ll have a hard time finding a locally produced restaurant meal on Sundays. You’re as likely to find fans of the Red Wolves as you are Razorbacks – though some will grumble about how Arkansas State University was far better served by its old mascot, Injun Joe. Some years you’ll find the landscape
Cotton ready for harvest near Pine Bluff, October 2012.
dotted by cotton to the furthest horizon – corn other years. Rice soaks in flooded dyke-impounded cloisters that turn the landscape an impossible shade of green, winter wheat comes up bright neon lime; soybeans and peanuts deepen verdant hues, and pecan groves appear roadside as the miles click under your tires.

Lackey's Tamales at Smokehouse BBQ
in Newport.
Here is the heart of the Delta, secluded from Deep South ideals of southern cliché. It is the home to rice, ducks, minnows, catfish, crawfish, sweet potato pies and deep-seated thoughts on how tamales should be created. Its isolation from the demands of popular culture have left it authentic, southern with an Arkansawyer accent, a deep regard for what comes from the gumbo soil that everyone comes from, and at the end, to which everyone is returned.


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.
My eyes were open to many things those years: cattails in ditches, straight roads that suddenly darted at right angles to their next destination, sunsets that went on forever. Mosquitoes, oh gawd, the mosquitoes, and the mosquito-spraying trucks that went by at night; pulling catfish out
Pickles, peppers and such on the counter at Gene's
Barbecue in Brinkley.
of Lake Frierson; running through corn fields during a thunderstorm, taking shelter from an oncoming funnel cloud, or at least what looked like one; rummaging through flea markets and swap shops.

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
KAIT was a great place to learn the television business, and I saw my happiest times there when I was working on its morning show. When I left work each morning, I would often head out in one direction or another to see what the world around me had to offer, sometimes driving as far as Walnut Ridge or Monette before turning back and coming home to sleep a few hours. When I really missed home or the curves of Scenic Highway Seven, I’d make a fast break up Arkansas Highway 141 to Crowley’s Ridge State Park and back, relishing the curves.

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.
Through my eight years at Today’s THV (now THV 11) in Little Rock, I didn’t spend much time in the Delta. I was on hand for the opening of the new depot, the second part of the Delta Cultural Center, back in 2000 – and I crossed the Delta many times heading other places like
Mammoth Orange Drive-In in Redfield.
Memphis and Jackson and New Orleans. I even spent time in Pine Bluff. But until I left the station in 2007, I didn’t see much reason to get out and find what was there.

Shooting a plate of Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales,
March 2011 (photo by Grav Weldon).
When I did, I learned a lot. This eastern third of Arkansas had plenty to explore – with its own separate ideas of identity and cuisine from the rest of Arkansas. As I got to know it better, I realized that it wasn’t like any other part of Arkansas – nor was it a mirror to Mississippi’s Delta region. Arkansas’s Delta had its own flavor and music.

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.
Mind you, this isn’t a story about farms and family traditions – at least, not those straight from the garden plots. There’s an excellent book by my colleague Cindy Grisham that covers the home side of Arkansas Delta cookery called A Savory History of Arkansas Delta Food: Potlikker, Coon Suppers and Chocolate Gravy – and if you’ve interested in my new book, chances are you’ll want that one, too. This new book,
Elvis Presley had breakfast at The Coffee Cup in West
Memphis before reporting to Fort Chaffee to serve with
the Army.
Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta, contains the stories of the folks who feed us through their diners, cafes, coffee shops, tamale stands, barbecue joints, chicken places, catfish houses and homegrown restaurants throughout this wide swatch of the western side of the Mississippi River alluvial plain. It’s a guidebook for the epicurious – laid out along highways divided by the three sections of the Arkansas Delta – Lower, Upper and Middle.

It’s an effort to preserve this particular moment in the state’s restaurant history. This never became clearer to me than on a particular weekend in March 2014, when photographer Grav Weldon and I tackled the Upper Delta over a three day weekend. Restaurants that I had begun research on just a year earlier had suddenly closed up shop, in some cases completely disappearing from the landscape. More than two dozen of the restaurants originally intended for the book have evaporated into history. Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta notes an effort to save that history before it is gone.

Cotham's Mercantile at Scott.
Digitally manipulated photo by Grav Weldon.
The general criteria for the restaurants: they have to have made their mark on the culinary landscape and have been around 20 years or better. I have squeezed those guidelines a little – partially because of the passing of some restaurants from one culinary state or family to another. I've also included stories that aren’t specifically about restaurants – such as that of the Gillett Coon Supper, Duck Gumbo at the Wings Over The Prairie Festival and tales concerning the history of the Delta – because they represent bits of the food culture that can’t quite be replicated in a restaurant story.

I hope you enjoy 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.

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