Here we are in midsummer, the season for swimming holes, hot grills, cold beers, and road trips. Let’s start in The OA’s home state of Arkansas, where the Southern Foodways Alliance has made a handful of film and oral history forays over the years. The SFA is based in Oxford, Mississippi, and our state’s Delta region gets plenty of lovin’ for its music, food, history, and culture. But what about the Arkansas Delta? Undersung, we say—especially outside of the Natural State. So we invite you to hop in the car and head to Eastern Arkansas with us.
1. Beluga, Ossetra, and—Paddlefish? Harvesting Caviar on the Mississippi River
The Mississippi River evokes all sorts of cultural memes, from Huck Finn to steamboats to blues music to catastrophic floods. But caviar? Not so much—until you meet Lee Ross. Ross, the owner of the Catfish Shack in DeWitt, spends winter mornings trolling the Mississippi River for “eggers”: female paddlefish laden with soon-to-be-caviar. A mature paddlefish can rival an NBA player in length and yield a dozen pounds of eggs. Explains Ross, “We get about ninety to a hundred dollars a pound for the eggs once they’re processed. We process them ourselves, freeze them, and ship them out. We send some to New York, but most of our stuff ends up out in L.A. for the movie stars. It ain’t easy at all, but you can make a living out of it.” Not a caviar man himself, Lee prefers to snack on Vienna sausages, saltine crackers, and Snickers bars when he's out on the river. Recently, SFA filmmaker Joe York spent a morning cruising the river with Ross and his partner, Billy Ray Manues. (Sadly, Manues passed away shortly after the film was shot.)
2. Pork and Pies
Halfway between Little Rock and Memphis, perched at the western edge of the Arkansas Delta, is the town of De Valls Bluff. It’s a one-stoplight kind of place, with a population of some seven hundred residents, but it packs a big culinary punch. Stop at 15 W. Walnut St. for Craig's Bar-B-Q, and then head directly across the road (look both ways!) for one of the pies that Mary Thomas serves from the side door of her home kitchen.
Craig’s is not exactly a secret—it’s been lauded by plenty of traveling food writers over the years—but it’s just far enough off I-40 that you wouldn’t stumble upon it if you were pulling off the Interstate for gas. Craig’s signature dish is a sliced-pork sandwich, topped with green-apple-studded coleslaw and sauced generously according to your spice preference: mild, medium, or hot. Current owners/pitmasters Robert and L.T. Craig are first cousins carrying on a tradition that Lawrence, Leslie, and Wes Craig began in 1947, when they opened the Craig Brothers Cafe. Most restaurants in the area were segregated at the time, as they were throughout the South. But Robert Craig insists that his father’s plan for the African American-owned Craig Brothers Cafe was different from the beginning: “My dad was of the mindset, ‘Let everybody come together,’ regardless of color they were, what they had on, how much money they had in their pocket or the bank or what have you—he was all about helping people.”
Craig’s barbecue doesn’t fit neatly into any sub-regional categorization. Robert smokes hams over hickory wood for six to eight hours, and the sliced meat is piled atop sandwich buns and doused with a brown-orange sauce whose recipe remains a family secret. Neither the sauce, nor the slaw—which is tart and crisp with nary a hint of mayonnaise—is quite like any barbecue you've had before. Which is why you’ll have to make the pilgrimage to De Valls Bluff and try it for yourself.
3. Tamales in King Biscuit Territory
Joe St. Columbia is the third generation of his Sicilian-American family to peddle hot tamales in the Arkansas Delta. Joe’s grandfather, Peter St. Columbia, arrived in Helena at the end of the nineteenth century and sold groceries and dry goods. Later on, when Mexican farmworkers came to the area in large numbers, Peter’s Sicilian dialect allowed for easy communication with his Spanish-speaking customers. A tamale recipe changed hands. Soon, the St. Columbia family was making and selling the portable bundles of meat and masa. Today, Joe and his wife, Joyce, operate Pasquale’s Hot Tamales, a mobile tamale stand in West Helena that Joe named after his father. It’s open on the weekends and at special events, but if you can’t make it to the Delta, they also take mail orders. Joe St. Columbia attributes his tamales’ superior taste to using the best ingredients: ground top sirloin and chuck roast, high-quality spices, real cornhusks (no parchment paper here), and an all-day bath in a sauce that’s—you guessed it—a family secret. He believes that tamales became popular in the Delta because their portability made them a convenient and filling lunch for field workers, but today, they’re a comfort food: “It has a good taste and a warm feeling. It makes you feel good to sit and eat a tamale and suck on the shucks.”