Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The Barbecue Diary, June 8, 2024.

I think I have finally found my physical limits.

Fifth day on the road, 2:30 in the morning, sitting in the lobby of Hampton Inn in Marion quietly staring at a green banana on the table while sipping a Vitamin Water and trying to get my feet to stop cramping, I think I found it.

Five days in the Delta, 80+ degrees, and at that point 24 restaurants already photographed for the trip. And here I was, unable to sleep because everything hurt.

I kept thinking, "this isn't hard work, I've done so much more than this before." I mean, I did with the dairy bars, and that was seven or eight places a day I went to photograph and investigate - part of it while working on a documentary. I did it with pie multiple times, even having that one day in 2018 where I visited 22 different restaurants in a day, covering it all.

But barbecue. Man, this was different. 

Maybe part of it was the in-person interviews, I don't know. Some had been quick affairs, maybe 20 minutes. Some had taken longer and, the day before, I had arisen at 5am to get ready, pack down and pack out all my stuff from a camper cabin at Mississippi River State Park, arrived just before 7:15 at Jones Barbecue Diner and spent two hours existing in a long conversation with Mr. James Harold Jones about his life, the restaurant, and a barbecue clientele that now includes visitors from Japan, Russia and Yemen. 

There had been eight shoots the day before, a couple of in-depth interviews, and a stop to visit my friend Joe at Pasquale's Tamales for a catch-up and a friendly face. I had finished up about 7pm with my last visit of the day, a couple of hours existing and chatting with the folks at Stumpy's Backyard BBQ in Marion, before hauling my luggage and equipment upstairs at the Hampton Inn to begin transcribing and loading the photos to the cloud.

The notes had petered out about 11pm, when I face-planted onto my laptop. The work usually meant I'd be conked out until the FOMO shook me awake around 6am or so and I'd get at it again. 

Muscle cramps were not in my plan of action, and as I slowly woke up trying to figure out why I'd be drinking a Vitamin Water in a Hampton Inn lobby, they kept making themselves known along my calves, thighs, and back.

And all I could think about was would I manage to get the other seven restaurants I wanted to visit, photographed and catalogued before I got home the next night. And what set this off.

The Friday had been wonderful, being able to talk to so many people and learn a lot about why people choose to open restaurants featuring smoked meats, what they're using, and their connection to a place. I got a quick primer from Fred Clancy about the three sauces at Biscuit Row in Helena and why his son came up with them and why Delta Shine isn't named for moonshine but for a great band name his son came up with - without Fred even knowing my name, me just being a customer. 

I'd spent a good 20 minutes looking around Dee's BBQ over by Barton-Lexa area while getting a sandwich made, an old convenience store and meat market and restaurant without much left on the shelves, the walls patina'd with decades of smoke stains, the good kind of smoke, the artifacts of an earlier time like a Budweiser sign featuring a cheese board and beer that I remember seeing the twin of at a bar in Chidester when I was a child and an old mauve phone that was shaded in with grease and smoke stains. Man, that sorta sliced, sorta chopped sloppy hot beef was actually the first thing I ate, sometime around 11am, licking my fingers after taking it and shooting it about 20-eleven times on my dash in the parking lot of the local foodbank.

I haven't been interviewing everyone I meet. Lord knows, that'd be a much longer book and frankly I don't have time to make that happen with people already clamoring for me to be finished. I mean, in 2019, when I woke up on June 6th and decided I needed to write a book about the restaurants that were my favorites across the state and somehow managed to get it out in early August, that was different. I was younger then. A pandemic hadn't happened. And the food, it varied. Dairy Bars was started and finished around a documentary and it took months - months when all the other things in my life had hit the pause button and Hunter was holed up at home, not needing a ride to make it to school when school was just a click away and Grav was there just making his blocks and keeping the lights on. Another Slice of Arkansas Pie was made under the duress of desperately needing a premium to go along with a documentary - I had no choice but to put the blinders on and not only write a book but learn all the things I'd need to do to get it published.

I could take my time with this.

But you see, I already have. I started digging into barbecue in May 2023, just days after The Great Arkansas Pie BookThe Great Arkansas Pie Book went to press, to figure out what it was that defined barbecue in our state. Funny, the original post-pie book plan was to delve into catfish, because I was sure as certain that someone else would be doing a barbecue book and, you know, spread the wealth and promote all the things, right? I figured a six month deep dive into barbecue research would give me a good enough insight.

I didn't take into account LIFE. Because when you are the person responsible for the well-being of a teenager, a house, and a business, you have responsibilities. My kid needed help adjusting to life, and I needed to be there at times when, in the past, I would have had my blinders on. I sat reading for days while recovering from a small injury. The house proceeded to fall apart in various ways, requiring expensive fixes - an AC system, new fascia boards, plumbing updates from when the house was originally built in the 1960s, filling in the horrid remnants of a carpenter ant colony in my carport roof, too many broken things. I had to pick up the hustle, get my couple of articles knocked out each week, write a column, do a few food scouts for the national folks, fulfill my obligations with the ARFHOF and the Arkansas Pie Festival and speak in front of so many wonderful groups. Things piled up. 

I didn't stop working on the book. The timetable just slipped. Where I could, I would scout. One weekend in October I picked up and hit the far upper end of the Delta, looking for all the restaurants, identifying where I'd go for interviews, getting a feel for the business side of things and the motivations behind all these different places. A January day during the icy weather, I pored through over a hundred Arkansas cookbooks, seeking references to smoking meat and how barbecue sauces were constructed.

And now twice, Grav has come to me and told me it's time to go out and do what it is I do, that hard focused existing in the moment absorption of the thing I'm writing about. He did it in March, when the bank account was flush and I had stuck back the $8k I thought it would take to do the book proper, with all the visits and the food and the overnight stays and the gas, right before we found out our home insurance would be cancelled if we didn't put some $10k into the structure immediately. And, after I managed to get the money together with some quick extra work and draining my budget, he told me again. He knows when I have my mind in the mode and I feel that need to get going hardcore into the madness that is my research cycle.

It's scary. This whole thing is on a shoestring. I've been lucky that a few folks have stepped up with a few dollars here and there to help, though deciding to ask people to help financially was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I've also picked up some courier work, slept in my car a few times and cut my budget everywhere else down to most of nothing, even going without satellite radio and curtailing any restaurant visits not directly related to this book or my column, squeezing down to the pennies in some cases. 

But I've learned... I've learned a lot. Right now, I feel like that meme where you see the person's head, and then you see the person's brain excited, and then there's an explosion. You see...

You may think you know Arkansas barbecue. But chances are, you may only know your regional facet, or your family history, or maybe even you know barbecue from culinary school or visits to the famed pitmasters outside our state. I thought I knew Arkansas barbecue. But you and I, we don't. Not really. Not all the way down.

I'm getting there. Part of the reason I've spent a lot of time in east Arkansas this week, the last, and before is because of one part of Arkansas barbecue history - and it doesn't originate from Memphis. It comes from tenant farmers after the Civil War, how they had to scrape together a living and farm right up to the back door. It's the Delta none of us really remember, the wooded and swampy Delta, its hardwoods and rumbly woods and marshy places. It's decisions made and traditions kept and so much family history. And it's about to change within the next two decades to something completely different. 

I'm glad I was at an indoor corridor hotel when I had the cramps in my legs, because I don't remember how I got into the lobby or got the drink (though the purchase would show up on my receipt when I checked out). Weeks and weeks and weeks of a diet of eating when I had the chance and not much at that, primarily from the sort of meats that tend to be fatty because that's just where barbecue comes from, of living on black gas station coffee and tenacity,, it's made my hair coarse and my fingertips wrinkly. 

I gotta get this done. 

Went up to go back to my room and realized in my hazy state I had forgotten my door key, and the digital key on my phone wouldn't work, said I was already checked out. I mean, yeah, mentally, I kinda was. Back down to the front, getting a key, I caught a sight of myself in the reflection from the glass sliding doors and realized I'd come to the lobby twice now in short shorts and a well-worn Rock City Outfitters shirt, no bra, hair a Medusan nest from a full day of sweat and adjustment in my hat. 

At that moment, I just wanted a hot shower, a couple of hours just to type, and to get back home. 

I wondered if Andy Zimmern ever had weeks like this. Or if, while scouting and filming the original Feasting on Asphalt, Alton Brown had ever found himself sipping on Vitamin Water in a hotel lobby at 2:30am in short shorts, feeling the moment of the place he was in and having the worst hair day ever.

That last bit was funny. These men have crews. I'm a one man band. I am the producer and the editor and the photographer and the writer and the marketer and the social media programmer and the DJ making sure tunes are on while I drive a rural Delta road with 180 degrees from one horizon to the other completely free of clouds, singing Tom Petty tunes and giggling when I think "everything's so GREEN" but it's in Cheech's voice in my head and sipping lukewarm, bitter gas station coffee and wondering if my life is really real.

I did eventually get to sleep, for a bit. The cramps woke me again at 4:30, then 6:30. There was rice on the breakfast counter, a rice cooker amidst the cereals and oatmeal, and when I asked about it I was told "we are in the DELTA, ma'am" and that brought me a little unexpected joy.  And eventually I did make it back on the road, parsing through Earle and Parkin and McCrory and Augusta and Des Arc and Hazen before rolling back home about 8pm.

Sunday is a writing day. And then back again, back out into the state to follow my nose and talk to people and photograph things and absorb some more. I don't know Arkansas barbecue yet, not all of it. But I will soon. At least enough to share the definitions I think all us food folks think we need.

If you'd like to help with the expenses for this project, you can make a donation through this link, or become a Patreon through this link. I appreciate your support.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Be kind.