UACES Facebook Eating in Arkansas
skip to main content

Musings on Nature blog

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.

Trucks parked outside a gas station diner
FOUND IN THE WILD — This eatery doesn’t even have a sign, so sometimes you’ve got to watch for a cluster of pickup trucks along the side of the building to realize its a good place to eat. (Image courtesy Gerald Klingaman.)

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.