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The thing I've most enjoyed about living in Little Rock the past 30 years is the "big small town" aspect of the place. It's large enough that there are quality-of-life amenities that one might normally have to go to a larger city to find--a symphony orchestra, a repertory theater company, a quality arts center, large museums, lecture series, a professional baseball team, NCAA Division I basketball, an annual professional tennis tournament, first-class restaurants, etc. Yet it's small enough that I constantly run into people I know.

Paul James is one of those people. I got to know James because our sons are friends. We've sat through basketball games and other school events through the years. Others might know him for his work as an attorney. And a growing number of people across the country now recognize James as the man who brought back the PK Grill, which has a cult-like following.

The latest person to jump on the PK bandwagon is none other than Aaron Franklin of Austin, Texas. Talk about a cult-like following. In 2009, Franklin and his wife Stacy opened a small barbecue trailer at Austin. Within months, crowds were standing in line for hours to get some of his brisket. The wait is still long at what's now a restaurant known as Franklin Barbecue, which has been named the best barbecue joint in Texas by Texas Monthly and the best barbecue restaurant in America by Bon Appetit. In 2015, the James Beard Foundation named Franklin as the best chef in the Southwest.

In an era when chefs can become celebrities, Franklin is known across the country, with fans ranging from former President Obama to Jimmy Kimmel. In 2017, Franklin launched a food and music festival at Austin known as the Hot Luck Fest. Last year, he joined another Beard Foundation winner to open an Asian smokehouse in Austin called Loro. Franklin's television show, BBQ with Franklin, is shown on public television stations across the country. His first book, Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto, sold well.

Franklin has now teamed up with Jordan Mackay to write Franklin Steak. That's where Paul James and his grill come in. Franklin says that though he's known as the king of brisket, steak is what he loves to cook and eat at home. He has two PK Grills on his back deck.

"If you're looking for the ideal charcoal steak grill--incredibly versatile, highly portable, easy cleanup--that will last your entire life and beyond, there's only one choice," Franklin and Mackay write. "Meet the PK Grill. ... They're not only easy to use but also among the most intuitive grills you'll ever encounter. When you're cooking on one, you feel in the presence of something unique--you feel equipped with a secret tool that no one knows about. And the PK story--about how these near-perfect backyard cookers came to be, developed a following and then were cast into the ash bin of history only to be rediscovered and resurrected in the early 2000s--makes the experience of owning one all the more special.

"PK is that trusty classic car that you've kept running for years, learned to tune up yourself and is a joy to take out in the neighborhood (maybe not too much on the highway, though)."

James was at a garage sale when he found a PK grill. He remembered having seen the grills used when he was younger. He bought it and wasted no time cooking on it.

"Immediately apparent was that, despite decades of age, it still worked like a dream," Franklin and Mackay write. "The curious appearance and remarkable performance of the grill incited query after query from friends and guests. After some research, James discovered that these odd little grills hadn't been made in years."

In 1952, an inventor and businessman in east Texas named Hilton Meigs created what he called the Portable Kitchen. It was made of thick cast aluminum, which conducts heat more efficiently than steel. It also kept the grills from rusting. Meigs traveled across Texas selling the grills out of his car. In the late 1950s, he sold the business to Lewis Hamlin, who moved production to Little Rock.

"That was fortuitous as bauxite, the primary component of aluminum, was a primary resource of Arkansas," Franklin and Mackay write. "The business took off with the cookers selling in the tens of thousands in the 1960s. But times change, and in the 1970s and 1980s, gas grills started to edge out pricey little boutique charcoal grills, and cheap, thin steel displaced the more intricate cast aluminum. The PK brand changed hands a couple of more times but eventually went out of production."

James began researching the history of the brand and discovered that it belonged to a Georgia company named Char-Broil. He obtained the brand and then worked to bring PK back into production. James has always believed the grills are great ambassadors for the Arkansas food culture.

"It's nice to know that Aaron Franklin is high on a Little Rock product," James says.

In 2014, James brought in three partners to help expand sales.

"PK picks up new devotees every day," Franklin and Mackay write. "To use one is to love it. ... We mentioned the cast aluminum. Again, it's an excellent conductor of heat, lightweight and rustproof. That's why a PK will serve a family over generations. Of course, never breaking down or tarnishing might not be the best business model compared to something that's going to rust out and need replacement after five or 10 years."

With a celebrity like Franklin now on board, sales of this Arkansas-made product seem certain to move to the next level.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 06/08/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Grilling on the PK

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Comments

  • RTT
    June 8, 2019 at 7:38 p.m.

    My parents had a pre-‘97 PK, which I got after my Mom (@91yo, may she R.I.P) died in 2016. They hadn’t used it in years but despite being left out in the weather the body & cart were still solid (great job, PK!) so I bought new grates & absolutely love it. It’s easy to use & clean, cooks great & will never rust. The shelves are missing - (for me, no big deal on the lower one) but I plan to get a board, stain & seal it for the upper shelf to get a unique look there. Also plan to paint the upper exterior so that part of it will have a like-new look. It has inspired me to experiment with more than standard burgers, dogs & ribs. I’m certainly no expert cook but the PK is at least helping me try a wider variety of food & hopefully improve. Love my PK grill!

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