Introduction By Rex Nelson
When Wayne Shadden, a famed barbecue cook from the Arkansas Delta, died in May 2010, his obituary in The Daily World at Helena told us a lot in just a few words about the Arkansas barbecue culture. It read: “Wayne was a good cook and well-known for his barbecue. He was a Navy veteran, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.”
For true barbecue aficionados, Wayne Shadden was more than that. He was one of the masters. People would hear about Shadden’s tiny grocery store on U.S. Highway 49 near Marvell and drive from miles around to try his barbecue. If you ate in the store, there was a single table in the back you could share with those who were on their own barbecue pilgrimages. The understated style of Shadden’s obituary perfectly reflects the understated approach of Arkansans to barbecue.
Arkansas is a fringe state, not solely a part of any one region. It’s a state that’s mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. Northwest Arkansas is far different from southeast Arkansas. Northeast Arkansas doesn’t have much in common with southwest Arkansas.
The strongest barbecue area of the state is the Delta region of east Arkansas. The barbecue is pork here (beef has crept from Texas into parts of southwest Arkansas), though the sauces vary from place to place. At Craig’s in DeValls Bluff along U.S. Highway 70, you’ll walk into the ramshackle building and immediately be asked if you want your barbecue mild, medium or hot. Most of the regulars go the medium route. The crowd here is a mixture of locals, hunters from Little Rock and Memphis when duck season is in progress and those who are wise enough to get off Interstate 40 and find their way to DeValls Bluff.
In Marianna, meanwhile, Jones Bar-B-Q is situated in an old house in a residential area. Jones has been around since at least the early 1900s. While it’s hard to determine the exact year it opened, there are some people who believe it’s the oldest continually operated African American-owned restaurant in the South.
Up in the far northeast corner of the state, you can find the Dixie Pig at Blytheville. For more than 70 years, the “pig sandwiches” here have drawn people from as far away as Memphis and the Missouri Bootheel.
It’s common for restaurants to use the name “pig” in a state where the beloved athletic teams at the University of Arkansas go by “Razorbacks” and people “call the Hogs” at football games. Not only is there a Dixie Pig in Blytheville, there’s a different restaurant with the same name in North Little Rock. The oldest barbecue joint in central Arkansas is the White Pig in a working-class neighborhood of North Little Rock. The venerable Pig Pit at Arkadelphia changed its name to Fat Boys a few years back.
While east Arkansas is widely regarded as barbecue country, the most famous barbecue restaurant in the state is likely McClard’s in the southwest Arkansas resort city of Hot Springs. Given the fact that Bill Clinton grew up in Hot Springs, McClard’s has received some media attention through the years. That attention is deserved, even in a barbecue-rich city that has other quality barbecue establishments with names like Purity and Stubby’s.
Alex and Gladys McClard owned the Westside Tourist Court in the 1920s. When a traveler could not come up with $10 he owed them, he asked the couple to accept a recipe for barbecue sauce instead. By 1928, the Westside Tourist Court was Westside Bar-B-Q with barbecued goat as the featured item on the menu. McClard’s moved to its present location in 1942 and hasn’t changed much since, though the goat has disappeared from the list of entrees.
People from outside of Arkansas, incidentally, think Bill Clinton came from Hope. He was born in Hope but moved to Hot Springs as a young child. Clinton finished elementary school, junior high school and high school in Hot Springs. For Arkansans, he was always considered to be a Hot Springs product. Suddenly, during the 1992 presidential campaign, he became the “man from Hope” when consultants determined that “I still believe in a place called Hot Springs” just didn’t have the same ring to it.
It’s another example of how Arkansas, a state of many contradictions, confounds outsiders. The same goes for its barbecue. Define Arkansas barbecue, you say? Impossible. Just hush your mouth and eat, the Arkansan will tell you.
Rex Nelson is president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities. Nelson also writes a blog, Rex Nelson’s Southern Fried, where he often examines Arkansas culture and cuisine.