After my disappointing trip to Central Bar-B-Q on my Great Memphis Region Barbecue Sandwich Tour, I got back up on the horse and set out for more barbecue. I drove across the Mississippi River into Arkansas and up to Blytheville. Odds are that you’ve never heard of Blytheville. Food reviewers certainly haven’t. Perhaps they need to get out more. An easy drive from Memphis, Blytheville is a city of under 15,000 in the northern tip of Arkansas, just a few miles from Missouri and Tennessee.
The drive north from Memphis to Blytheville is similar to the drive south to Abe’s in the Mississippi Delta — miles of farmland, “the richest land this side of the Valley Nile” — but the Arkansas side lacks the air of … drama that pervades the Mississippi Delta. The farms seem more formal, more business-like. There is more crop diversity than the Upper Delta, with lots of rice, sorghum, and corn intermixed with the cotton and soy beans, and the fields are more regular and the ditches more channeled.
We often visited my grandmother, Nannie Ruth, in Blytheville. She was one of seven siblings, most of whom lived in or near Blytheville, so there was always a lot of family around. Nannie Ruth made the best fudge I have ever eaten, the best I have ever imagined. She would sit stirring the fudge, dotted with pecans, for what seemed like hours, to get that perfect consistency. She lived in the big family house, right on the edge of a bustling downtown, with her sister, my Aunt Elizabeth, whose college beau was murdered in Chicago when they were students at Northwestern in the ’20s, an innocent bystander of gangland gunfire. She never married. Their mother, my great-grandmother, MaMaw, also lived in that house until she passed at the age of 103. I have so many fond memories of Blytheville.
Alas, Blytheville is no longer bustling — far from it. The Air Base closed years ago and now Blytheville is suffering the fate of all Delta towns that aren’t anchored by a university — and some that are: boarded houses and empty storefronts. And, all these decades later, there isn’t much family around. Ann and Susie Hughes, now Ann Smith and Susie Langston, still live and farm there with their respective husbands, Wally and John. I went to Blytheville to catch up with them, and to eat at the Dixie Pig, one of my father’s favorites. My father claimed that there was a wistfulness about people who had left the Arkansas Delta. They live in a perpetual search for barbecue sandwiches as good as those they left behind.
My trip bowled into Ann and Susie’s plans, so I ended up visiting in stages, first with Ann and Wally, then lunch with Wally and John, and then a visit with Susie and John. It was great to catch up, even for a short visit. More and more I appreciate the importance of family, one of the many things I neglected for too many years. They’re lovely people, and it’s so good to talk to people who are involved in non-Washington things, people who face so many different joys and challenges, and with so many joys and sorrows that are our common lot.
Lunch, as planned, was at the Dixie Pig.
That’s John on the left and Wally on the right. The Dixie Pig is pleasant inside, overflowing with souvenirs when you enter, but with farming and hunting themes inside.
I ordered a regular size pork sandwich and, on Ann’s advice, the onion rings with some house-made blue cheese dressing for the table. John and Wally both had pork sandwiches, and an order of french fries for the table materialized somehow, as orders of french fries often do. Here’s the sandwich.
Let’s open it up and take a look at the pork covered with raw cabbage.
That was before I added some sauce, an excellent vinegar and pepper sauce.
Pork, raw cabbage, and the Dixie Pig vinegar and pepper sauce. Now that is a great sandwich. It isn’t a big sandwich. It’s not a showy sandwich. It simply has all of the elements that a pork barbecue sandwich needs — the rich and tender wood-cooked pork, the bitter and crunchy cabbage, and the tang and bite of the vinegar-pepper sauce. It is a wonderful blend of taste and texture; and nothing more. It’s like Amazing Grace and Loretta Lynn: utterly without pretense, without guile. It is simple and delicious, about as close as you can get to the Platonic ideal of a barbecue sandwich.
John told me of a friend in Demopolis, Alabama, who visits Blytheville and buys 100 of these sandwiches at a time, freezes them, and then has one every day for breakfast back home in Demopolis. (My friend, Rex Granum, has done the same thing on a lesser scale with sandwiches from Fincher’s in Macon: pack them up and freeze them for solace in the barbecue desert that is DC.) I can understand the impulse. I wasn’t tempted, though. I knew I’d eat half of them before I got near a freezer. If you’re going to stockpile barbecue sandwiches, though, this is the one you want.
I’m really glad I went to Blytheville. I need to work harder at family. Perhaps you do, too. It’s well worth the effort. I have wonderful, interesting cousins. And my Blytheville kin, like most of the others, live near really good barbecue.
I’m giving the Dixie Pig the coveted Top Places tag. You should go there if you’re within, oh, 100 miles. Make that 200. You’ll find out what a barbecue sandwich should be. And buy a few bottles of their sauce. It’s excellent.
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