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OPINION | REX NELSON: Savoring our pitmasters

by Rex Nelson | March 28, 2021 at 8:57 a.m.

My heart sank when I opened the text message on that final Sunday morning of February.

It was from Kim Williams of Marianna, the talented travel writer whose father is the city's mayor. Kim is the person I contact whenever I'm bringing a group to town to dine at Jones Bar-B-Q Diner. She will always let James Harold Jones know to save enough pork for sandwiches for the group.

"Jones BBQ engulfed in flames," she wrote. "Mr. Harold safe."

I envisioned the type of fire that destroyed the iconic Cotham's Mercantile at Scott on a Monday night in May 2017. The restaurant known for its fried catfish and giant burgers was never rebuilt; a new place just couldn't capture the ambiance of the old store that hung out over an oxbow lake. I feared the same fate would befall Jones, the first Arkansas restaurant to receive a coveted James Beard Award.

I posted the news about Jones on social media, and people began sharing the post within minutes. The next message from Kim came 42 minutes after the first one and was more encouraging. She wrote: "Just talked to a friend that went over there. Might just be the back. My dad is leaving church and headed there. The community will make him rebuild. I'll start an online fundraiser if necessary."

She didn't have to. A message arrived from Mimi San Pedro of the Venture Center in Little Rock, whose staff I had taken on a barbecue pilgrimage to Jones just before the start of the pandemic. She offered to set up an online account. Within hours, that account was activated. Word about the fire spread across the country, and money flowed in. When the account was closed a week later, it contained $67,000.

Mayor Jimmy Williams, 71, wasted no time getting to Jones after church. The fire department had done an excellent job containing the flames. The fire chief estimated that 70 percent of the building sustained damage. The front portion--where there are only two tables--was fine. The James Beard Award that hung above the window where orders are placed was still there. By that afternoon, the mayor was fielding media calls from across the country.

"That little place has brought a lot of people to this small town," he told The New York Times. "I've met people from all over the world down here."

James Harold Jones, 76, vowed to rebuild quickly.

"I'm going to come back with another building," he said. "I've been in this over 60 years. I started when I was 14."

The Jones family has been selling barbecue in the Delta since about 1910. Walter Jones, the grandfather of the man known locally as Mr. Harold, started the restaurant. Noted food historian John T. Edge, who heads the Southern Foodways Alliance on the campus of the University of Mississippi, fell in love with the place while doing research for an Oxford American article. Edge said he didn't know of an older Black-owned restaurant.

The James Beard Foundation's America's Classic Award came along in 2012, and barbecue pilgrims began arriving. The restaurant often runs out of food prior to 10 a.m. The one change Mr. Harold made was the addition of a guest book for visitors to sign.

"Once we got that award, we was nationwide," he said.

Brett Anderson wrote in The New York Times: "Adrian Miller, author of the book 'Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,' due out next month, said the restaurant's pulled pork in a vinegar- and tomato-based sauce is similar to the style found in western Tennessee. Marianna is about 60 miles southwest of Memphis. The restaurant is culturally significant, Miller said, because there are fewer pitmasters who smoke their meat over live fire alone, as Jones does, and because of its longevity."

Miller said: "Black entrepreneurs have always had hurdles put in their way that make it really hard for them to survive. So to have this place that has been around for over 100 years is really extraordinary. A lot of times, when entrepreneurs are starting businesses, particularly barbecue, they do it so their kids can do something else. It's hard work."

Mr. Harold's son, 46-year-old James Jr., also started an online fundraising campaign. A $25,000 emergency grant came from Southern Restaurants for Racial Progress. The Huckabee Foundation of Arkansas kicked in another $10,000. Rodney Scott, a James Beard Award-winning chef from South Carolina whose family's original restaurant was damaged by fire in 2013, called to offer advice.

"You just got to make things more noncombustible, with metal and fire-resistant doors," Scott told Anderson. "These are things we mom-and-pop places don't normally think about."

Anderson wrote about how the "alarm spread across the state and beyond over the fate of a historic place that serves just one dish--pulled pork on Wonder Bread or by the pound--in an Arkansas Delta town with a population of 4,100."

We've come a long way, Arkansas. There was a time when we didn't appreciate our state's rich culinary heritage. It took people from outside Arkansas, such as Edge, to make us aware of what we have.

When I was asked by the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2010 to write the introduction for the Arkansas section of the SFA's Southern BBQ Trail, I said in part: "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 a ramshackle building and immediately be asked if you want your barbecue mild, medium or hot. The hot sauce is just that. Most of the regulars go the medium route. The crowd here is a mixture of locals, hunters from Little Rock and Memphis when it's duck season, 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 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 people who believe it's the oldest continually operated Black-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."

As the Jones fire showed us, we can lose these classics in a heartbeat. I still mourn the loss of Wayne Shadden's place on U.S. 49 west of Marvell. Shadden died in May 2010 at age 77. His restaurant, housed in an old country store, never reopened.

The Shadden's story is all too familiar in rural Arkansas. An owner dies, and the children have no interest in carrying on. In towns across our state, all we're left with are convenience stores selling fried food that sits under heat lamps.

The wooden structure that housed Shadden's is almost a century old and still stands along the highway. When it was open, walls were covered with newspaper clippings, photos and magazine stories. Musician Levon Helm, who grew up at nearby Turkey Scratch, had the barbecue sauce from Shadden's shipped by the case to his home in Woodstock, N.Y.

The atmosphere in places like this--an atmosphere you can still find at Jones or Craig's--can't be matched.

I once took food writer Gary Saunders to Shadden's. Here's how he described it: "Talk about days gone by. The joint looks like the quintessential country store/filling station. A woman was seated on the front porch as we pulled into the gravel lot out front. She slowly rose to her feet and nodded at us before disappearing into the kitchen. Her break from work was over, if just for a while.

"The woman soon emerged from the barely lit kitchen with our sandwiches, each one swaddled in wax paper and pierced with a lone toothpick."

We must savor our beloved Arkansas pitmasters, such as Mr. Harold. They won't be with us forever.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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