Barbeque, pie, and tamales in the Mississippi Delta – Part 1

James Beard Award Winning Barbecue

One of the things I enjoy most about traveling is eating local foods from locally owned restaurants. Although we do most of our own cooking in the RV, especially when we are in a campground far from civilization, we will go out of out way to find good food. To find a truly authentic place, we like to ask a local where the locals eat. When we find something we like, we have been known to get enough to fill up the freezer to eat later in the trip and maybe even save some to take home.

Jones' Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, Arkansas is the only James Beard Award winning restaurant in the state
Jones’ Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, Arkansas is the only James Beard Award winning restaurant in the state

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, Arkansas was just such a place. The only James Beard Award winning restaurant in Arkansas, we would have never known about it if park ranger John had not told us about customers lining up around the building to get some of the famous, award winning barbeque pork.  We would have to get there early. John told us the restaurant opened at 7:30 am and stayed open until they ran out of BBQ.

We could smell the pork cooking before we even found the restaurant. Arriving at at 9:00 am, we walked into a small dining room with only 2 tables. Two other people were leaving as we came in so we were the only customers. Pit-master and owner James Jones was standing behind the window where I placed my order for 5 pounds to go. Behind him I could see tables covered with loaves of Wonder Bread and large jugs of his famous sauce.The prices were listed on a sign above the window. The menu is simple – pulled pork barbeque by the pound or sandwich. The sandwich is served on white bread with or without coleslaw.

Jones' Bar-B-Q Diner has been in this location since 1964
Jones’ Bar-B-Q Diner has been in this location since 1964

As Mr. Jones wrapped my order in foil and placed it in an aluminum tray to go he told us a little about his business. His family has been making BBQ using the same recipe for several generations. Although the sign outside says since 1964, he told us family has been making BBQ using the same secret family recipe since the early 1900’s.

It was such a treat to meet Mr. Jones and spend time talking with him. He answered all our questions about winning the James Beard Award and traveling to New York City to receive it. I asked him if he had to wear a tux. His answer was “no, I wore a suit but one of the other winners had on overalls.” When someone asks for his secret recipe, he tells them his father would come back from the grave if he gave away the secret.

Back at the campground, I put some pork and coleslaw (served in a mason jar) in the fridge for dinner that night and the rest in the freezer for later.

When dinner time finally arrived, we enjoyed unbelievably delicious BBQ unlike any other I have ever tasted. Close your eyes and imagine the smokey aroma of pork slowly cooking over a hickory and oak fire. Imagine biting into pork so tender it practically melts in your mouth. Imagine the pork dripping with a BBQ sauce that is vinegary yet sweet with just the right hint of heat. Believe me, it is worth a trip from anywhere to try this BBQ!

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, 219 West Louisiana Street, Marianna, Arkansas, is owned by James and Betty Jones and is one of the oldest African-American owned restaurants in America.

Next up: Homemade pie!

We were camped at Mississippi River State Park near Marianna when we visited Jones Bar-B-Q Diner.

Crowley’s Ridge Parkway and the Great River Road in Arkansas

Driving on the Great River Road
Driving on the Great River Road

Our home base to explore two scenic byways through the Mississippi Delta was Mississippi River State Park in Marianna, Arkansas. The large visitor’s center is less than 2 years old and has an excellent interpretive center about the Mississippi Delta area. The staff and rangers were friendly and helped make our stay here memorable.

The park is located in the Mississippi Delta on the Crowley’s Ridge Parkway and the Great River Road within the St. Francis National Forest. We stayed in the Beech Point Campground on a peninsula in Bear Creek Lake. It is one of the best state park campgrounds we have ever seen. There are only 17 sites in the campground with 14 full hookup waterfront sites and 3 tent sites.  Ours was a large pull through with a big patio area for the picnic table and fire ring. For my review of this campground click here.

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To ask about exploring the area we talked to Park Ranger John as he was patrolling the campground. After getting directions, we had a plan for the next day.

Crowley’s Ridge rises 200 feet above the Mississippi River Delta flood plain and stretches more than 200 miles from just below Cape Giradeau, Missouri to Helana, Arkansas. The Crowley’s Ridge Parkway in Arkansas traverses the entire ridge. The section of the parkway we drove is called the “high road” by the locals.

The Great River Road and Crowley's Ridge Parkway run together for a few miles
The Great River Road and Crowley’s Ridge Parkway run together for a few miles

We started our drive to Helena-West Helena on the “high road”. On top of Crowley’s Ridge, the gravel road wound through the St. Francis National Forest. Only a few of the tall oaks, sycamore and buckeye trees had started showing any fall colors. The only other vehicles we saw belonged to hunters. I hope they had better luck with deer than we did. We only saw one all day. Except for a couple of National Forest campgrounds there was no other sign if civilization.

After about 20 miles we were back on a paved road and soon were on Cherry Street in Helena-West Helena to visit the Delta Cultural Center. Oh No! Closed on Monday! We felt like the Grizwalds when they got to Wally World to find it closed for repairs!

We took the “low road” back to the campground. This gravel section of The Great River Road is just a small part of the 10-state route from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico along both sides of the Mississippi River. In Arkansas the road rarely goes right beside the river.

As we drove along the “low road” we passed through Cypress swamps and took a side trip to the mouth of the St. Francis River where it joins the Mississippi River. With Willow Trees growing along the banks of the river, the mighty Mississippi is about a mile wide in this location.

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We enjoyed two delicious meals from local restaurants that day. The meals were so memorable I will post about them in a later post. Stay tuned!