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OPINION | REX NELSON: Arkansas' barbecue trail

by Rex Nelson | May 2, 2021 at 8:44 a.m.

Brock Hyland grew up in the central Texas town of Crawford. Though it only has a population of about 700 residents, Americans have heard of Crawford since it's the closest community to President George W. Bush's ranch. Bush often hosted dignitaries there during his eight years in the White House.

Following high school graduation, Hyland made his way to Arkansas to study political science at the University of Arkansas.

"While in Fayetteville, I fell in love with Arkansas and the lovely food culture we have in this state," he says. "Growing up a Texan, the barbecue I knew was strictly beef. What impressed me so much about the barbecue scene here was the sheer amount of diversity. Sure it's mostly pork, but there's no one particular style.

"The barbecue you find in the upper Delta, for instance, is going to be different than the stuff you find down in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Sauces are different depending on the region. The sides are different. I think there's value in not being held to a rigid style. It produces some pretty unique plates of barbecue."

After his UA graduation, Hyland enrolled at the University of Arkansas' Clinton School of Public Service at Little Rock to pursue a master's degree. He needed what's known as a capstone project to earn his degree and decided on an interesting one. He would do something no native Arkansan had done. He would develop a barbecue trail and find a corporate sponsor to promote the state's barbecue culture.

"I was inspired to create the Arkansas Barbecue Trail when I read a piece by food historian John T. Edge," Hyland says.

Edge, who heads the Southern Foodways Alliance on the campus of the University of Mississippi, is a frequent visitor to Arkansas. In an article for the Oxford American several years ago, Edge said Jones Bar-B-Q Diner at Marianna might be the oldest continually operating Black-owned restaurant in the South.

"I thought that was the coolest thing," Hyland says. "But why didn't more people know about this? I thought to myself: 'Someone needs to do something to bring more attention to this remarkable piece of living history.' I started looking around at other regions to see how they were doing it. Obviously, my home state of Texas does a lot of great programming with food tourism. So does Louisiana, along with cities such as Memphis and Kansas City. I just thought we needed something like that, too."

Hyland was encouraged by Skip Rutherford, the dean of the Clinton School, to pursue the project.

"I'm looking forward to traveling the Arkansas barbecue trail," says Rutherford, an old friend who hopefully will join me for Arkansas road trips following his retirement at the end of June. "I'm proud of Brock and believe this trail will be a valuable addition for our state."

Hyland put out feelers for corporate partners and found what I consider the perfect one in PK Grills.

"Scott Moody of PK has been so generous throughout this process," Hyland says. "He's providing not just prizes for the passport but also creative direction and a real knack for marketing. This project wouldn't have been possible without him."

The 25 restaurants on the trail will be revealed by PK this summer. 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 company's grills from rusting.

Meigs traveled across Texas selling grills out of his car. In the late 1950s, he sold the business to Lewis Hamlin, who moved production to Little Rock.

By the 1960s, thousands of grills were being sold each year. In the 1970s, gas grills began gaining popularity. PK eventually ended production.

Little Rock attorney Paul James was at a garage sale one day when he found a PK. He remembered having seen the grills used when he was young. He bought the grill and wasted no time cooking on it. James became a convert.

James researched the history of the brand and discovered that it belonged to a Georgia company named Char-Broil. He obtained the brand name and then worked to bring PK back into production. In 2014, James brought in three partners to help expand sales. Since then, the product has gained a cult-like following among food industry stalwarts such as Aaron Franklin of Austin, Texas.

In 2009, Franklin and his wife Stacy opened a barbecue trailer in Austin. Within months, crowds were standing in line for hours to get their brisket. What's now Franklin Barbecue has been named best barbecue joint in Texas by Texas Monthly and best barbecue restaurant in America by Bon Appetit. In 2015, the James Beard Foundation named Franklin the best chef in the Southwest.

"Coming off the pandemic when restaurants had limited capacity, I think the Arkansas barbecue trail is positioned to bring much-needed culinary tourism dollars to Arkansas," Hyland says.

There are, mind you, some Arkansas restaurants already listed by the SFA's Southern Barbecue Trail. In his written introduction to that trail, Jake Adam York wrote: "Barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-q, BBQ: there are almost as many spellings as there are kinds of barbecue, as if the proliferation of words could express the tastes and aromas of the food, all the experiences that can fill the mouth, the place where also words begin. Today, barbecue is more popular than ever and can be found by a hungry Southerner in almost any American city.

"But barbecue will always be Southern because, as an American cuisine, that's where it began and because that's where it continues to evolve most interestingly. Though the word barbecue devolves from Taino, a pre-Columbian Caribbean language, the native method described by the word--the slow drying of sliced, spiced meat over a low, smoky fire--seems to have been fairly widespread in the eastern Caribbean at the time of European contact, being practiced in what would become Brazil as well as in what would become Virginia."

It's common for Arkansas restaurants to use the name "pig" or "hog" in a state where the beloved athletic teams at the University of Arkansas go by Razorbacks and people call the Hogs at athletic events. There's a Dixie Pig in Blytheville and a small chain of Whole Hog restaurants. Long gone are favorites such as the White Pig in a working-class neighborhood of North Little Rock and the venerable Pig Pit at Caddo Valley.

While east Arkansas is widely regarded as barbecue country, the most famous barbecue restaurant in the state is likely McClard's at Hot Springs. Given the fact that President Bill Clinton grew up in the Spa City, McClard's has received media attention through the years. That attention is deserved, even in a barbecue-rich city that has other quality establishments such as Stubby's.

Alex and Gladys McClard owned the Westside Tourist Court in the 1920s. When a traveler couldn't come up with $10 he owed them, he asked the couple to accept a recipe for barbecue sauce instead. By 1928, Westside Tourist Court was Westside Bar-B-Q with barbecued goat as the featured item. McClard's moved to its present location in 1942. Goat has long since disappeared from the menu.

With Hyland limiting the list to 25 restaurants, there will be people come forward to discuss favorites that were left out. And that's a good thing. Debate directs more attention toward Arkansas' strong barbecue tradition.

What's the best barbecue region in the state? What's the best barbecue city? Slaw or no slaw on your sandwich? What's the best barbecue restaurant?

What's the best wood for smoking? Does it need to be pork to truly be Arkansas barbecue, or can it be beef?

Define Arkansas barbecue, you say? Impossible. We have too many styles. Just shut up and eat, an Arkansan will tell you.


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

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