Sunday, November 18, 2012

'Lincoln,' Lincoln and Little Rock: Some Arkansawyers Were Blue

Union Gen. Frederick Steele
This isn't a history blog, and it's not going to become one. However, the past never really leaves us. Its fruits, its by-products are all around us. To understand a place and the present, any place, a place like Little Rock, you have to know its story and its history.

The Jenny and I went to see an early show of Stephen Spielberg's "Lincoln" yesterday, and it was mesmerizing. About 20 minutes to 30 minutes before the end, President Abraham Lincoln tells Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens that even if quickly readmitted to the Union, the southern states will not be able to block the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. He explains this is because all the northern states will ratify it, and he already controls Louisiana, Tennessee and ARKANSAS. Friendly Reconstruction governments already existed in those states because their capitals and large sections of them were retaken earlier in the war. Stephens, despite being an avowed white supremacist, recognizes the reality of this, and you can see the defeat on his face. (BTW, casting Jack Earle Haley as Stephens — brilliant!) Lincoln then says, "Slavery is done. It's finished."

My master's thesis was on Gen. Frederick Steele and the politics of wartime Reconstruction in Arkansas, so I really enjoyed this tiny little factoid in the middle of this big, sprawling historical film. I also was so proud of my state and the small role it played in ending slavery. Not many people know or acknowledge it, but the number of Arkansawyer who wore the blue and fought for the United States in the Civil War totaled at least 36,000. That's a conservative estimate. Many Southerners did NOT want to secede. Many Ozark Arkansans were passionate defenders of the Union. Little Rock probably was predominantly secessh, but after 1863, it was the the headquarters of the military Department of Arkansas and a reconstituted state government under Isaac Murphy. Murphy, on the final vote tally, was the lone dissenting vote in the Arkansas secession convention of 1861. (Notice they did not put it to a popular vote).

So, Murphy and other unionist leaders bravely were trying to bring Arkansas back into the United States well before the conclusion of the larger conflict. Murphy was not a carpetbagger either. They did a lot of that work here in Little Rock. Much of it with the help of other loyal, patriotic Arkansawyers — obviously with a big assist from Steele and the Feds. In the course of doing that, they ultimately helped free thousands and thousands of other Arkansawyers, African-American Arkansans, from bondage. Many African-American Arkansawyer men also took up arms against the Confederates knowing they would be killed if captured. They fought and died for their own freedom and the freedom of their families, too. Often we talk about Southerners as if they only were white. They weren't. In fact, I'd dare say a good part of Southern culture stems from the influence and contributions of African-Americans who were Southerners.

As we come up on the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War during the remainder of this year and in 2013, 2014 and 2015, let's all remember the role Little Rock, Arkansawyers and Arkansas played not just in fighting for the Gray but in fighting for the Blue, the Stars and Stripes and Emancipation. I don't see Lee's surrender at Appomattox to be a defeat for the South. It was a defeat for one element of the South. It was a triumph for the Union nationwide, North and South.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Arkansas Cornbread Festival A Delicious Addition to Little Rock Scene

cornbread festival, South Main Street, Little Rock, foodie
Folks at the 2012 Arkansas Cornbread Festival
on South Main Street in Little Rock
Although it's a small benefit to you to tell you about an annual event after the fact, it's still a benefit. Hey, you'll be up on it next year, and in 2013, it'll still only be the third annual Arkansas Cornbread Festival.

Finally, let it not be said that there's nothing to do in the Rock. This and some other festivals prove it. I could have gone Friday to a beer festival in the Argenta district of North Little Rock. I could have gone last week to the cheese dip festival. Guess I'll have to put those two on my own to-do for 2013.

First, if you're on a diet, then not to worry. Samples are bite size. The Jenny and I sampled a dozen or more offerings but didn't get too full. To one end of the multi-block stretch of South Main Street, there were some hot dog stands and other food vendors if you wanted to make a lunch out of the visit.

I can honestly swear on the Bible that I did not have one piece of bad cornbread. Even the worst was merely above ordinary. My favorite was the sampling from the El Dorado folks. It was deep fried and had a hush-puppiness to it. The Boulden Prize for Best Beans & Cornbread goes to Redbones. Their black beans had a smoky, meaty flavor you might expect from a BBQ place but its extra flavorful quality won me over.

Turnout was quite good, and it was nice to see this unabashedly Southern staple get its due. Entrees tend to dominate such affairs. I fully expect this festival to continue to grow and possibly become a genuine big deal in a few years.

The South Main setting was a plus. Jenny and I sought momentary refuge from the unexpectedly hot sun and air at the Green Store on South Main. She had a honey-ginger soda from the soda fountain, and I had some sweet cream-and-pear ice cream from the same. We cooled ourselves and our palettes, then went back for our second and final round of cornbread.

If I had one suggestion, then it would be a less confusing ballot. Each booth should have had a unique number instead of having, for example, two 5s — one for the professional competition between restaurants and caterers and one for amateurs. That probably would have worked better had there not also been a short Overall category. Also, next year, throw in a water vendor somewhere in the center of the strip of cornbread booths. Such a thing likely could be a good moneymaker for the festival if it's in the 80s again for the festival in 2013.

Keep it on your calendar for next autumn.

Rating: Arkansas Cornbread Festival — A.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Famous Dave's Achieves Great BBQ With Hits Down the Middle At Little Rock Spot

Famous Dave's hot link barbecue Little Rock
Lunch at Famous Dave's — ribs, a hot link
 and Wilburs' Beans
Famous Dave's, Famous Daves. I am stunned and surprised. If you had told me I ever would be writing here in praise of a chain restaurant, and in praise of a chain barbecue restaurant at that, then I would have asked you to step outside, so I could give you some what-for. Nevertheless, I sit here writing, gobsmacked by the pleasure of my experience there.

Brisket, pulled pork and some delish cole slaw
Before I go on, I need to mention that yes, we have tried Sims Bar-B-Que more than once and been very pleased with it. Service has been good, and I have a real weakness for their greens as well as their ribs. However, the ribs I had at Famous Dave's beat them. A retired friend of mine who is a certified barbecue judge and acts as one in the summers at barbecue festivals explained to me how he rates ribs. The meat should come off easily in your teeth, but it should not fall off. If you have to tear, then it is undercooked. If it falls at the touch of your lips, then it is overcooked. Overcooking weakens the strength of the meat flavor, which should work at full force with the sauce. I happen to agree with this. The ribs I ordered received at FD's hit that spot in the middle for good ribs. Their table sauces are in my order of preference are "Sweet & Zesty,""Rich & Sassy," "Hot & Sassy," "Texas Pit" and "Devil's Pit." There's also a Georgia Mustard that I didn't try. The "Sweet & Zesty" was my favorite, especially for the ribs. Vingeary sauces are not my thing, but they are there for you if they are yours. My hot link was excellent. I can say that I've never had a link quite like it. Its mouth-feel was a little looser and less dense that I am accustomed to but very flavorful. I'd definitely order it again.

Sides sampled by me and The Jenny include cole slaw, Wilbur's Beans and a corn muffin. FD makes their own slaw from fresh cabbage and the sauce is custom-made for them. It rocks. Seriously, I'm not a big fan of cole slaw, or should I say bad cole slaw. It either comes to me gloppy and thick or watery and soupy. Again, they found the ideal middle. Their slaw was neither, and it provided the cool antidote between bites of barbecue meat. Jenny liked it just as well as I did but was far more generous with it than I would have been. (Hey, growing up in a house with four older brothers makes you protective of your vittles.) My beans were a little watery but still tasty. Oh, and the corn muffins were not dry at all. How the heck do they do that without being doughy?!

The Jenny liked her brisket, but it was my least favorite. I have to say for brisket it also passed the test. I just don't have a love-affair with that particular part of the barbecue spectrum. Her plate's pulled pork was quite the hit though. I'm looking forward to eating the leftover portion in the fridge. (Don't remind Jenny it's there. She usually forgets what we bring home).

Our waitress was new, but she was competent and personable, no complaints there either. Dang nice folks, they gave us a complimentary bottle of "Sweet & Zesty" barbecue sauce when they found it was our first time there. Salut.

Rating: Famous Dave's — A.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Elizabeth Armstrong: A Little Rock Woman Who Knew Where She Wanted To Be

Last week, I posed some questions about Little Rock along with some speculative answers to the same. Those questions still stand. I invited people to discuss them here. That invitation remains open even after this new post. This blog isn't meant to be a personal one, but sometimes the personal and the urban convergence even here.

I didn't update the blog Sunday because on Sunday morning the Jenny and I learned her grandmother, Elizabeth Armstrong, had died at age 89. There are two houses on the family property in south Little Rock. One is the house in which she was born. The other is the house in which she raised her family along with her husband, Lyle, and it's also the house in which she passed away. That's a rare, rare thing these days — to be born, live and die in essentially the same place. Now, that's not to say she never left Little Rock or never got out of her neighborhood. Jenny's grandmother had a life of quiet but significant accomplishment. You can read about it below. However, the thing I want to note here is her strong sense of place and attachment to her home, her church and, I think, her hometown. Little Rock may not always appear to have a strong, clear sense of itself, but I think my grandmother-in-law had a strong sense of what it was, or at least a strong sense of what it was to her.

I wish I could have had more time to talk to her about it, her memories and her thoughts. One thing life has taught me though is that there never is enough time. We all need to savor our time, really pay attention to where we are and remember to cherish each other. That gets said at almost every funeral. It'll likely get said or be felt by those at Wednesday's funeral. Elizabeth Armstrong was a great Little Rock native and person. I could have learned more from her. However, I'm going to use her passing to motivate me to continue to get to know and study her city. I think she would have liked that. Until next week when we will resume our regular blogging, read a little bit about her.

Fawn Jones Armstrong, 89, of Little Rock, passed away Sunday morning, October 14, 2012 at her home. She was born July 31, 1923 in Little Rock. Elizabeth was a life-long musician, organist and church leader at Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church for over 40 years. She was also an assistant librarian and music teacher at the Arkansas School for the Blind, translating words and music into Braille, and taught piano and organ to countless private students.
She married Lyle E. Armstrong on October 16, 1943. While he was serving overseas for two years she worked for the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, drawing maps. Once Lyle returned from the war they moved from Little Rock to Norfolk, Nebraska, where they started a family. In 1951 they moved to Cuba, Missouri, and co-owned and operated Armstrong Jewelry. In 1958 the family moved back to Little Rock. Elizabeth and Lyle were married for 54 happy years until his death in 1998. They raised four children, who all graduated from Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. and became United Methodist ministers serving Arkansas churches.

Finishing a degree she began in 1943, she graduated summa cum laude at age 65 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Composition from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She composed a number of choral and instrumental works and collaborated with her children in writing several published musicals.

She was an avid amateur radio operator under the call sign KB5PLQ and made friends over the airwaves throughout the country.

Elizabeth was passionate about her church, her family and outreach to the needy. She included everyone she met in her circle of love and welcomed people of all beliefs, opinions, race, and persuasions to her home, a place that was always filled with caring, laughter, whimsy and hugs. She valued Christian love far more than judgment.

In her later years, Elizabeth baked many loaves of bread each week and distributed them to friends old and new, demonstrating the spirit of generosity and openness that defined her life.

She is preceded in death by her parents, Sam E. Jones and Hattie May Myers Jones, her brother Donald Ross Jones, her husband Lyle Eugene Armstrong and their son Rev. Donald F. Armstrong, all of Little Rock.

Surviving family members include her sons Rev. Roger E. Armstrong (Linda) of North Little Rock and Rev. Robert C. Armstrong (Mary) of Dubuque, Iowa; daughter-in-law Yvonne Armstrong of Little Rock; daughter Rev. Anne Holcomb (David) of Little Rock; grandchildren Jennifer Boulden (Ben) of Little Rock; Laura Shachmut (Kyle) of Newton, Massachusetts; Michael Armstrong of Little Rock; Patrick Holcomb of Little Rock; and great-granddaughters Abigail Shachmut and Elizabeth Shachmut of Newton, Massachusetts. She leaves a host of other extended family and friends young and old who loved her well and will miss her smile and spirit.

Visitation with the family will be held Tuesday, October 16 from 7-9 p.m. at Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church, 1601 Louisiana Street in Little Rock. A memorial service in celebration of her life and legacy will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, also at the church, with Rev. Thompson Murray officiating. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorials be sent to the Music Fund at Quapaw Quarter UMC.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

But, What Is Little Rock?

Almost since the beginning of this blog, I've been mulling a question over with which I want your help. It's this: What is Little Rock's identity as a city, place and community? Those last three nouns really are all the same thing, but feel free to use them to break it down into those categories if needed.

The reason I am asking this question is because I want an answer myself. Although I've invited comments, and a few of you have done so, I hope many more will do so here on this question. People new to Little Rock may provide special insight, but I'd also love to hear from longtime residents as well. I only have some thoughts on the subject, no answers, so this blog entry will be a shortish one.

First, as many of you know, I come from Fort Smith. Although Fort Smith often fluctuates between defining itself as Southern or Western or some combination of these influences, it does, right or wrong, good or bad, have a strong sense of itself and what it is. Second, I don't feel like Little Rock does. That could be completely wrong and unfair. I truly don't know.

I think there are several reasons. Namely, those are size coupled with post-World War II growth, status as a capital city and geographic/demographic position. I suspect Little Rock had a much stronger identity as a Southern city before World War II and the modernism that came after it. Having lived in some cities like Manchester, England and Boston, I think cities need decades to absorb rapid growth, then redefine themselves. Culture has to marinate. Those two cities have strong identities, but I also know they had identity crises during periods of boom and immigration. Capital cities often are pulled between their roles in their respective states, provinces and nations and their local, indigenous roots. Even Washington, D.C., does, I think. D.C. is a great city, but it has a sterility and a something-missing component to its makeup, too. Notice how many institutions there are branded "National" or "U.S." Notice in Little Rock how many institutions even outside of government are branded "Arkansas" or "State." Finally, there is geographic position. Where Fort Smith struggles with two major regional influences and types, I perceive Little Rock as wrestling with even more of these — Southern, upper and Deep; major metropolitan versus medium-size city; Ozark versus Delta; et cetera.

Folks, I may be off-base here and all those thoughts are misguided, but I just want to get this conversation started because I think it might be interesting and instructive for me and maybe for everybody else too. Weigh in, opine, comment, and let the games/discussion begin.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Of Doughnuts, Neighborhoods and the Broadmoor Area of Little Rock

Shipley Do-Nuts on University Avenue
 Ah, let the fat man sing the praises of doughnuts. I shall regale you with epic tales of pastry, coffee and the coming of Shipley Do-Nuts to the Broadmoor neighborhood.

Seriously, it was a bright day when a few weeks ago the Shipley shop opened up just a few blocks east of us on University Avenue. It's nice on Saturday or Sunday morning to be able to dash down there, pick up some donuts and a kolache or two, maybe some coffee and return home for breakfast. The new Shipley is very basic and located in what I think used to be a Captain D's or some other chain. There's a drive through, but I usually like to go in and see the pastry. Most of the staff is Cambodian-American. They're quite friendly. Service is good.

Some people think Shipley is a local or regional chain, but the company actually is Houston-based. Whatever its origins and size, it gives off a strong, local vibe. I prefer it over Krispy Kreme. That's not just because it feels local. It's because the doughnuts there are better. Don't get me wrong, KK makes some damn fine doughnuts. Heck, I've eaten them from time to time on a weekend morning. I'd say that the glazed doughnut you get in a KK is slightly superior to the one at Shipley. However, wait for that doughnut to cool a bit, then it's no better. Wait two hours, and the Krispy Kreme one is definitely inferior — at least that's what my mouth tells me. A Shipley doughnut has a much better shelf life. From the cake doughnut to the yeast or filled, the variety is good. Another thing I like about Shipley v. Krispy Kreme is that Shipley does a good, traditional cake doughnut. KK's is crusted with sugar and far too sweet for my palate. Even that would be OK with me if they still offered me the option of a traditional cake doughnut.

Another selling point for me is the Shipley breakfast sandwiches — kolaches and a variety of egg biscuits. I always feel a little better when there's some meat in my breakfast. It would be nice and Shipley would get more of my money if they offered a larger size of coffee than they currently do. You won't find fancy espresso drinks or cappuccinos there. If that's your thing, then you're probably headed to Starbucks anyway. The coffee is quite drinkable though — a good traditional cuppa joe.

This new store is another nice addition to the Broadmoor area. Some folks are leery of the neighborhood, and it's close proximity to some dodgier areas. I think this is mostly overblown, and I've written about this issue here in the blog before. This time, I do want to mention how wonderfully situated Broadmoor is. It's close to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is even closer if you've got business there or just attending a guest lecture. Shopping is convenient. (Did I mention the new Shipley Do-Nuts?) And we're minutes from downtown. I really dig that. Finally, the people here are great. I have some pretty good neighbors. Here's a minor quibble though, I wish it had sidewalks. There are a few but not nearly as many as there should be. Marlowe and I hate walking in the street.

Rating: Shipley Do-Nuts — A. Broadmoor — A-.

NOTE: I apologize for not blogging for a fortnight. Having a regular job again — thank, God — has played havoc with my work-life balance.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Enjoy Yourself Before You Join Them, Visit Little Rock's Mount Holly Cemetery

The Dibrell family plot at Mount Holly Cemetery,
The Jenny and I were out and about last weekend gathering many blogable experiences. Like thousands of others after the storm Sept. 7, the electricity in our home was out. The black out lasted almost 48 hours. Despite the inconvenience and some spoiled food, there was a bright side. We found things to do.

On Saturday, we resolved to have a good breakfast at Root Cafe but got there about 30 minutes before the 9 a.m. opening time. So, we drove around Quapaw and looked all the beautiful, late Victorian homes. While cruising down the blocks of Broadway south of Interstate 630, I noticed the gates of Mount Holly Cemetery were open. We decided to pay a visit to the dead.

Of course, I was somewhat aware of the graveyard's historicity, but I guess I had forgotten just how storied the antebellum necropolis is — 11 Arkansas governors, four U.S. senators, 21 Little Rock mayors and four Confederate generals. Wow. As long as the participants are respectful and discrete inside the grounds of the cemetery, I could see that being a great daytime Halloween scavenger hunt. Find the most graves, take photos and upload them to the party's Facebook page.

That aside, it's just an interesting, different place to walk around on a sunny day. The funerary sculpture is wonderful — some of the best specimens of the Victorian period that I have seen. Graves are well maintained, and walkable. Remember to walk along the foot of each grave in such a way that you're behind the headstones of the next row. This isn't always possible in a really old cemetery like Mount Holly because of some irregular plot sizes and other oddities of layout, but if you make a good faith effort, then I'm sure the residents won't mind.

I particularly enjoyed (Is that ghoulish of me?) finding the grave of Dr. James A. Dibrell. I worked with the late Jim Dibrell, his great-great-grandson at the Times Record. Little Rock's James Dibrell was from Crawford County, as was Jim. Mount Holly's James Dibrell relocated to Little Rock and became one of the first deans of the medical school, today's University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. I recently went to work there and found James Dibrell's portrait near the office suite where I occupy a cubicle. A few minutes after the discovery of the grave, I stumbled on a large, brick Victorian manse that I told Jenny was one of my favorites in the Quapaw Quarter. On closer examination, we discovered it is the Dibrell house. It was a very Dibrell weekend.

If you're looking for a zero-dollars way to while away a few minutes or more, saunter through Mount Holly some bright, fall day. You might surprise yourself by having an interesting time. Enjoy it now. You won't get much of a chance after you're in a cemetery full-time.

Rating: Mount Holly — A.