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Eating in Arkansas
All organisms must eat, even those of us who prowl the back roads. Watching the birds
at my feeder I recently realized that they must have a means of communicating amongst
their feathery friends, letting others know where the best sunflower seeds are. This
messaging, I realized, is not so different from what I do when I hunt for a place
to eat when traveling unfamiliar country.
First, I must admit to a personal bias. I try to avoid chain restaurants while traveling,
not because the food is necessarily bad, but because it is so predictable. I think
both traveling and dining should be an experience, not a headlong dash to get from
point A to point B. In the last 60 years restaurant chains — starting with the fast
food joints and now infesting every major food category — have bought up all the prime
real estate along our roadways, so finding Mom and Pop diners is often a challenge.
While the smart phone provides plenty of suggestions when it comes to dining, the
Mom and Pop places are often missed because, hard as it is to believe, not everyone
is on the Internet.
But then there is Waffle House. What good is a rule if you can’t break it? Breakfast,
according to my mother (and you should always believe your mother), is the most important
meal of the day. I’m a bit enamored with this old chain because they serve a good
breakfast and where else can you watch a choreographed song and dance routine with
the jukebox belting out country tunes, the waitresses calling out new orders from
the black square, the cooks flipping eggs, the other waitresses doing dishes in front
of you at the counter and then everyone shouting out a greeting as a new customer
arrives? Though it is a chain they have the feel of a local place because they are
swirling around me as I polish off my eggs.
In the pre iPhone days, it was easy to spot good places to eat when you passed through
one of Arkansas’ many small towns. Counting pickup trucks became second nature because
they are good markers for the best places to eat. Trucks coated in mud get extra points.
Usually it is best to seek out places with more than 50 percent trucks, but lesser
numbers can be considered if there are assorted commercial vehicles and not too many
minivans. In larger towns, the same rule applies but one has to guard against too
many Subarus in the lot because sprouts could be involved.
Sustenance is only one of the things you get at a good roadside eatery. When traveling
alone I’ve brashly invited myself to sit at one of the communal “BS” tables that are
a fixture in all these cafes. You never know for sure where the conversations will
go but they usually include politics, some interesting animal stories and guns, not
necessarily in that order. If traveling with someone, eavesdropping on fellow diner’s
conversations is always a delightful seasoning for the best of meals.
Of course, asking for advice from a local is a possibility when in a new locale, but
mostly we encounter youngsters while filling up with gas at the minimart. If you ask
“Where’s a good place to eat?”, you will usually find yourself looking at golden arches
when you arrive at their recommended eatery. I use a ruse instead. I say “There’s
a good catfish (or whatever food group you’re craving) place I ate at around here
(a believable lie on my part) but I can’t find it.” The attendant will think a bit
and then, often as not, point you towards some place only the locals know about.
Sometimes you can get duped by signage. I saw a place advertising 6,000 pies. How
could any serious eater resist that? Arriving, I discovered it was fancy calligraphy
and the sign really said “Good Pies.” Another time I saw a marquee advertising “Liver
and Pancakes.” I jammed on the brakes because that was the toothsome delicacy my mother
fixed on special occasions back on the farm. Going inside my hopes were soon dashed.
The waitress said with a grin, “Oh that. Today is April Fools’ day. It’s a joke.”
Any casual observer is aware that finding enough food in today’s world is not a problem
for most of us. But eating is one of life’s great joys, so having fun while doing
so is a must.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at email@example.com.