Monday, June 19, 2017

Southwest by South Trip Installment #3

Installment #1
Installment #2

I'd hit the "hyperspace" button during my Dallas/Austin trip, driving, impulsively, nearly 400 miles eastward to check out a hillbilly Italian area of Arkansas, all on the basis of a single photo I'd seen in a magazine. Here's that photo once again:

Upon arrival in Lake Village, Arkansas, I'd eaten a memorable meal - Italian-influenced, per the spaghetti and fish-on-Friday - at Rhoda's Hot Tamales and Pie. And it was time to hunt down Regina's pasta shop.

It was a tough find. Their Facebook page places them at a major intersection, but they're actually a couple miles away. Finally, I took the route of masculine surrender and called for instructions. The proprietor, with her Granny Clampett accent, confessed she was poor at directions, so she passed me to her husband, who I assumed to be a poor mountaineer named Jed (one can only imagine what I sounded like to them!). Upon arrival, I encountered two faces out of a Boticelli painting; faces just like the ones from my childhood Italian neighborhood in Long Island. I fought the impulse to greet them with my customary "Yeah, how yoo dooin'?"

They do, indeed, operate out of this impossibly backwoods-ish shack (actually, it's perched on a lake), but, surveying their wares, it seemed similar to what you'd find in an Italian grocery in, say, Maine or Minnesota. And, really, why wouldn't it? Hey, I get over-excited sometimes. I guess I was hoping for possum parmigiana.

Anyway, they'd stopped serving lunch (their only meal), and I'd need to wait until tomorrow for any sort of food service.

Now what? Well, the last thing I was going to do was to tell them my story and ask for an exception. First, I just don't do that. I want the real experience. Second, I had no rapport with them whatsoever. Third, I'd seem stark raving bonkers. And, fourth, as a stalling tactic while I regrouped, I'd spun around to examine the little bags of homemade cookies at the back of the shop. And my inner baked goods geiger counter didn't so much as beep.

I recognized those slapdash chocolate chip M&M cookies. I'd grown up with them.

There's something about Italians and Jews. As we assimilate, we unravel, culinarily. The second-generation Italian and Jewish moms on my block back in Long Island all talked a good game, but used crap ingredients, and cooked distractedly and unhappily, with cigarettes dangling from their pursed lips. They didn't give an actual damn about food, and it tasted like it. They produced xerox copies of traditional dishes, as did all the restaurants nearby. In fact, it's the same for virtually every Italian-American restaurant (and certainly every Jewish deli) these days.

The restaurant and home cooking were great back when the first generation was in charge, with deep old-world roots. Today, nobody cooks like grandma did. While the offspring have done well - lots of doctors and lawyers - it's come at a cost. Our cooking is soulless. When assimilated Italians and Jews do cook well, it's in spite of our ethnicity, not because of it.

Those blasé cookies spoke volumes, revealing that it's the same in Arkansas as in Long Island. So while I still would have ordered lunch if it were available (though I was stuffed from Rhoda's), I decided it wasn't worth waiting a day for. I also knew, from my initial survey, that there wouldn't be other finds to find in the area. So I purchased a bag of cookies, thanked the owner, marched dutifully out to my car, and started driving back west.

The normal thing would have been to act out in some bombastic manner. But I'd just eaten that incredible cornbread and pie. And I'd seen things and met people and learned things. And I still had ten hours more adventuring ahead (I'd forgotten to do the mileage math re: the return leg to Austin, which, due to some space/time wrinkle, is much further from Lake Village than Dallas, though Austin and Dallas are not so distant from each other)...which felt like nothing but swell opportunity. I'd had great experiences, and more would surely follow.

As I cheerfully pulled out of the parking area - biting into a cookie, which confirmed my suspicions - I decided to make a brief foray over a nearby bridge into Mississippi, where I enjoyed a glass of saison at a wildly out-of-place craft beer store/bar/homebrew equipment shop (Delta Brewing; 631 Washington Ave, Greenville). The proprietors enjoy cheap, if any, rent in a storefront in the once-sparkling burnt-out downtown. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to adjust to the languor of Mississippi, which, per usual, I mistook for stand-offishness.

Hoping to avoid any sense of stalling out, I once again poked the hyperspace button, riding like the wind along a more southerly route, not stopping until I spotted Cormier's Cajun Catering (1205 Forsythe Ave, Monroe, LA), where I had the exuberant feeling of stepping out of a spaceship into a whole different world:

Cajun people were eating under a permanent tent in a parking lot! Isn't driving amazing???

A portrait in beige! Excellent boudin, good crawfish étouffée, plus a side mound of jambalaya (my waitress applauded my ordermanship). And I finally solved a deep mystery. There's something serious jambalaya always reminds me of, which I can never quite name. It's North Indian biryani! Just that connection alone (scratching a decades-long itch) was worth the trip to me.

I stayed over in Shreveport (birthplace of humidity), and, the following day, made an impulsive visit to Gators & Friends (11441 US HWY 80, Greenwood, LA), an alligator park where I zip-lined over hungry crocodilians (who gathered eagerly below us, making me wonder what precedent they'd witnessed).

Here's feeding time:

My quick lunch at nearby El Guapo (9414 Greenwood Rd, Greenwood, LA) turned out to be the very archetype of Tex-Mex:

....reminding me that sometimes you need to go just over the border - this was five miles from Texas - to experience the platonic form of a thing (e.g. that prototypically Texan bar just over the Arkansas border).

Look. A shaky premise is perfectly fine to hang an adventure on, because premises are just excuses. They're abstractions, not real. We only pretend to pursue a premise, and when we get lost in that pretending, it can needlessly spoil a perfectly good adventure. I'd scored brilliant Texas barbecue, Rhoda's cornbread and pie, serious Cajun, three massive cultural jumps, gators, zip lines, eurekas, socio-economic eye-openings, and terrific stories, all inside 24 hours (plus, the day before, Yall's). Tell me this was failure!

If you wallow dramatically over things gone "wrong", you'll likely miss the chance to relish the next thing. In the long run, nothing ever goes wrong! 99% of mourning is needless meta-mourning; we mostly rue our ruing. Opt out of drama, and it's all just stuff - fun (and sometimes harrowing) movies. We're free!

Next time, a rant about Austin's hipster food culture.

Here's how I finally decided whether to stick around for the next day's lunch. I used an intuition trick I'd developed as an eight year old (I was a much savvier kid than I am a grown-up; here's a series of wise reminders I left for my future idiotic adult self): I imagined myself after lunch the next day, driving back to Texas, in two versions: satisfied and disappointed. And I weighed which version looked truer.

Finally....for the ultimate tale of redemption from a food adventuring dead end, read "The Greatest Chowhounding Story Ever Told".

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