OPINION | REX NELSON: Blue cheese road trip

The blue cheese dressing brought us here.

I've written before that Jamie McAfee at the Pine Bluff Country Club might be my favorite chef in Arkansas. I've also written about the legendary Dixie Pig in Blytheville, which serves some of the finest barbecue in the South. Following a column about Blytheville, I was contacted by McAfee.

"My father used to work at the Blytheville Country Club," McAfee said. "He told me years ago that he helped the owner of Dixie Pig come up with their blue cheese dressing recipe. I haven't been there for more than 50 years. I was just a kid. Would you take me?"

It sounded like an excuse for a road trip or, as I like to call it, column research. I contacted Bob Halsell at Dixie Pig and told him McAfee's story. Halsell said: "You know, that rings a bell. I remember my dad saying that a fellow who worked out at the country club helped him come up with that dressing."

McAfee and I arrived in time for lunch. The chef ordered what the restaurant calls a pig salad (it's loaded with chopped pork) with blue cheese dressing on the side. I watched closely as he poured dressing on the salad and took his first bite.

"That's it," he said. "That's the dressing my father taught me to make. It's exactly the same."

Soon, McAfee and Halsell were visiting like long-lost cousins. I looked on and smiled as two Arkansas food legends traded stories.

We have a rich food culture in this state that we've only begun to celebrate in recent years. Rest assured, this weekday lunch visit to Mississippi County was nothing short of a celebration.

Most of McAfee's formative years were spent in McGehee, where his father managed Delta Country Club. McAfee's father ran that club from the early 1960s until the late 1970s and later managed a country club at Lake Village. The man many people know simply as Chef Jamie began helping his father in the kitchen at a young age. While attending Memphis Culinary Institute, he worked at a Nike distribution center, where he was asked to cook for Nike founder Phil Knight.

"I could have stayed with Nike, but I wanted to get back to Arkansas," McAfee told me. "I moved back to McGehee in September 1986 and came to the Pine Bluff Country Club in February 2003."

In addition to managing PBCC, McAfee cooks during duck season for several of the state's most prestigious hunting clubs.

In Blytheville, meanwhile, Ernest Halsell opened Rustic Inn in a log cabin in 1923. He later moved the restaurant to a rock building and finally landed on Sixth Street in the 1950s. It operated as a drive-in with curb service during the 1950s and 1960s. Dixie Pig is a direct descendant of that log cabin where the Halsell family began serving food almost a century ago. Patrons even drive from the Missouri Bootheel and the Memphis area to eat here.

In 2009, a book was published with the title "America's Best BBQ: 100 Recipes from America's Best Smokehouses, Pits, Shacks, Rib Joints, Roadhouses and Restaurants." A co-author of that book, Paul Kirk, declared that Dixie Pig has the best barbecue in the country.

Soon after the book came out, Jennifer Biggs of The Commercial Appeal at Memphis headed to Blytheville. She had been told by a friend to order the pig salad with blue cheese dressing.

"I ended up buying a container of the dressing and a container of the hot vinegar sauce to bring home," she wrote. "Folks in Blytheville buy the dressing, which is made in-house and includes chopped green olives, to serve at parties as a dip. The salad is simple: iceberg lettuce, a wedge or two of tomato, dressing on the side. First, I doused the chopped meat--smoky, tender, with a few bits of bark--with the hot vinegar sauce and poured on a little blue cheese. Then a lot.

"Spicy. Tangy. Smoky. Creamy. And all on top of crisp lettuce (don't even think about arugula or baby mesclun here; iceberg is the perfect foil). That was one fine salad. The pig sandwich was a bit perplexing, though. The meat, again, was fine. Chopped, sufficiently smoky. It was the slaw that surprised me. In Memphis, we can passionately discuss the merits of, first, whether to put slaw on your sandwich and, second, the merits of a mayo-based slaw versus one of mustard or vinegar. At the Dixie Pig, that's no issue."

In Blytheville, it's just cabbage tossed with vinegar (which I love, by the way).

An Arkansas Times reviewer once wrote that Dixie Pig has "come close to perfecting the chopped pork sandwich. They call it the pig sandwich--also available, 'the large pig'--and serve it wrapped in wax paper, sans plate, with chopped cabbage and a heap of dry, hickory-smoked chopped pork inside a thin bun.

"The sauce, a fiery, thin blend of pepper and vinegar, is in repurposed ketchup bottles on the tables. Don't miss the holes punched in the cap and twist it off for a pour. The sauce spills out quickly and is best when used in moderation. Fries and onion rings are both homemade and some of the best we've ever had, particularly the fries, which tasted double fried."

Biggs liked the onion rings, which she described as "about as good as they come. Freshly cut, battered and fried in-house, they come to the table crisp and hot. The batter is light without being crumbly--there's probably a little bit of egg in it--and the onions are sliced medium to thin. I couldn't resist hitting a few of them with a dash of the vinegar sauce, and I do recommend the combination."

I could eat my weight in pig sandwiches and onion rings here. On this day, however, we came for the blue cheese dressing.

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.

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