Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
“Obama Fights Perception He Is an Elitist” — so said the headline on a recent slow-day news item from Reuters.
It's a burden that he and I share. I've been fighting the elitist perception and accusation since the Fifth Grade when I learned to burp “Yankee Doodle.” Nobody else could do it, just as nobody else could play early rock-and-roll standards and Your Hit Parade chart-toppers blowing on their thumbs into cupped hands.
Envy ate at them, I know it did, and elitist was one of the nicer things they called me behind my back. They also called me Whistle Britches, which I assumed was a synonym for elitist but to this day I'm not sure what it meant or what it means. Ten years old and already wearing the elitist designation like a “Kick Me” sign.
In high school, I ran with a bunch of elitists so elite that few of them aspired to any career less exalted than that of auto mechanic. The most sophisticated — most sophisticated — of this bunch went on to regional celebrity as a rodeo clown. Later than that, though, Red C. became the crim of our old crim when, during his prolonged hellish flashes back to Nam, at the wheel of his ancient indestructible Dodge Dart with at least a quartet of malt forties aboard, he would single-handedly and single-mindedly turn police sobriety roadblocks into spectacular demolition derbies, and then, after they'd fotched him off to Fort Roots one more time for one more rehabilitation burlesque, he'd pretty much beat them all back home.
When college beckoned, elitist Ol' Moi picked the only one extant that had a she-mule for a mascot. Try out-eliting that.
Moving on, you can call the present-day residence elitist, and as doublewides go, it is mighty spiffy — but pardon the scoffing from the bona fide trailer elite when you tell them it's without either hot tub or moon roof. No detachable root cellar, either. Not once have testy police showed up with a camera crew.
I'm told I might've been invited into the wine elite if only I were a little less drawn to fortified. Flattering, but I don't believe a word. I gave up cooking sherry trying to win over those snobs. Took the pledge on the Bob Robbins turnip. Swore no mas on the turtlehead and the hoohah scrotum swell.. Total waste of time. They weren't impressed. High snooted me like I was Tobe Gwin or Rhoney Rubow.
When it came to the haute cuisine, though, I did qualify as an elitist. And would you believe it was John Noah's Restaurant in yesteryear Pine Bluff that set me on the path? They were famous at John Noah's for their beef gravy. They were so proud of it that they glopped it liberally on everything they served. They would hold the gravy on the watermelon balls if you asked them to, but they wouldn't be happy about it. If you didn't want it on your banana pudding, you had to tell them in advance, and then they'd probably dribble some on there anyway and call it a “mistake,”
One of John Noah's elite competitors in that golden-brown era was the Magnolia Cafeteria, which featured on Friday nights all you could eat for a dollar. A dollar sounds cheap, and it was a bargain, considering the sheer grub tonnage that was inevitably involved, but it also represented 2 per cent of my weekly slave's wage, so it wasn't peanuts. The one do-la-ray satisfied the entertainment cover charge, too, for the old blue ghoul up from his slab to chord out “Lady of Spain” on the Hammond organ several hundred times in succession through the incessant troughing clamor from 4 p.m. till closing. If only just one time he could intersperse a “Happy Wanderer,” we used to say, the entire experience would be bliss.
What all that has to do with elitism is that the gravy guy who eventually found fame at John Noah's and inspired me onto the hoity path apparently got his start there at the Magnolia, creating his signature smother as a way of extending his all-pervading Salisbury steak trailing essence to the other drab serving-line fare, including the fruit Jello. Shrewd old John Noah Smith knew a chowhouse prodigy when he saw one and lured this genius and his magic ladle away.
Another elitism connection here features another charter member of our old high school elite, a ducktailed Fonz precursor named Chuck Smith, best known for having once on an English test designated “Stagger Lee” as the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies. Chuck was lesser known as a pioneer of hammertoe straight-on barefoot extra-point kicking, and few knew he was a nephew of the legendary “Gravy King” restaurateer John Noah Smith, aye, one and the same.
Also, Chuck's most majestic hammertoe extra point — it was in our junior year, I think — came against the Bauxite Miners, in a game that undercarded Ol' Moi fending off laughable attempts at downfield blocking by one Travis Mac Trimble, the future historian of Bauxite football whose famous account would first appear alongside work of mine in the publication you're reading now, aye, this very one.
Just shows to go you that there aren't six degrees of separation; there aren't any. Not only am Ich bin ein elitist; we are all elitists.
Bob Lancaster, one of the Arkansas Times longest and most valued contributors, retired from writing his column last week. We’ll miss his his contributions mightily. Look out, in the weeks to come, for a look back at some of his greatest hits. In the meantime, here's a good place to start.