It started with a phone call from Robin.
“Hey, you want to drive over to Bentonville, Arkansas to see the new Crystal Bridges art museum?”
Of course I did. We both adore road trips. Bentonville, home of Wal-Mart, was a nice long distance – about 20 hours – from Washington, DC. We could stop and see friends in St. Louis and Memphis on the way out and back.
We have some road trip traditions, Robin and I. One is that whenever we stop for gas, the person not paying for the gas buys lottery tickets. We are not the lottery-ticket-buying type normally, but on a road trip, anything can happen. When it’s my turn, I go for the MegaMillions and Powerballs so we might win big.
Robin likes the instant gratification (or, usually, the instant non-gratification) of scratch-off games. We had a big day in Bentonville, winning $10 on a scratch-off game. We have not, however, become zillionaires.
On long trips, we sometimes invent silly games: taking turns, for instance, claiming cities of the world to “own.” Not too long ago, in a sneaky move, Robin snatched Paris away from me. I should not have let her get away with that.
Another tradition: looking for local food. We try not to eat in chain restaurants, and we’re willing to saunter off the highway a good ways to eat local. This trip, we followed some signs to Funderburk’s in Pocahontas, Illinois. Frankly, when we drove up and discovered it was located in a Phillips 66 gas station/liquor store, we were doubtful. But we needed to use the bathroom anyway, and we bought a few lottery tickets for yucks. Then the woman behind the counter told us their fried chicken was hand-cooked to order, and they made the potato salad on the premises. Sold.
And that chicken was good, fried crispy and spiced with something akin to Old Bay.
Funderburk’s has a slogan: “Fill your tank and fill your belly.” We can’t vouch for the gas, but we cruised on into St. Louis on very full bellies.
We managed on this trip to avoid one of our traditions: ignoring the GPS directions and improvising from a combination of printed maps, exit signs and billboards, and personal intuition. We are easily swayed, and we generally (and inadvertently) add at least a hundred miles or so to our ride, and then swear we will never do it again.
Our most wonderful food find, though, was in Brinkley, Arkansas, not too far from the Tennessee state line. We asked at the gas station, and they directed us to Gene’s Barbecue. You can get barbecue there, but the real specialty at Gene’s is fried catfish, and we snarfed it up.
The fish was light and clean-tasting, rolled in well-seasoned cornmeal and fried – you never batter your catfish. The owner, Gene De Priest, was sitting nearby with a few of his buddies. When he heard we were from Maryland, he came over to show us pictures from his recent hunting (turkey) and fishing (rockfish) trip in our area.
Gene’s daughter, Connie, was waiting tables that day, taking some time off from her job as manager of a Wal-Mart store after some foot surgery. Somebody from a visitor’s and convention bureau should hire this woman. Hearing that we were on our way to Memphis, she told us where to eat, where to listen to music, and looked up directions from our hotel to every place we wanted to go. Then she gave us her phone number in case we needed anything while we were in Memphis. Both Gene and Connie totally embodied the idea of Southern hospitality, and we stayed a while after the catfish had disappeared from our plates.
If you’re ever there…
Gene’s Restaurant & Barbecue
1107 N. Main Street, Exit 216 off I-40
Brinkley, AR 72021