Catching them with calves' livers

Your mid-week dose of Southern food news

If you’ve been hungering for a restaurant review, make sure you didn’t miss Monday’s edition of The Food Section, featuring a look at Sean Brock’s The Continental in Nashville. In today’s issue, you’ll find Hall of Fame-level fried pies (Malvern, Ark.); mango pico de gallo (Picayune, Miss.); and a short report from the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium. (Oxford, Miss.)

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Induction into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame comes with a plaque and invitation to a fancy awards ceremony, but it doesn’t necessarily make an honored restaurant any easier to sell.

“COVID changed the world, I guess, to a degree: It knocked us down about half and still it hasn’t come back,” said Charles Keeney, the 85-year-old owner of Keeney’s Food Market in Malvern, Arkansas. Keeney continues to work 12-hour days at the community institution, known for its ribs, fried pies and Keeney’s willingness to part with any recipe.

“I got to go home,” Keeney said in a phone interview earlier this week. “I am getting too old to work. But we’re stuck: Nobody wants it.”

While it’s possible that nobody wants to take over the store that Keeney and his wife, Maureen, have run since 1956, it’s a stretch to say that customers are cool on Keeney’s Food Market.

“Visitors to the Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce regularly ask about Keeney's,” one fan wrote in a nomination that helped put Keeney’s in the Hall of Fame, a virtual collection of homegrown culinary standouts that the state launched in 2016.

“The conversation usually starts with, ‘Hey, tell me about this little place I've heard of in the back of a grocery store’,” the nominator explained. “Anyone in town is proud to make that referral.”

Arkansas’ Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism on Oct. 1 began accepting nominations for its 2022 class of inductees. Food enthusiasts have until Oct. 31 to submit their suggestions for Proprietor of the Year; Food-Themed Event and Gone but Not Forgotten, as well as outstanding restaurants with more than 25 years of history.

According to Talk Business & Politics, an Arkansas news site, the agency in 2020 fielded 2,000 nominations, or 40 percent more nominations than the previous year. Those suggestions yielded winners including Little Rock’s Star of India; the now-defunct Roy Fisher’s Steak House and the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival.

“National chain restaurants need not apply,” the state stipulates in its online overview of the program.

Keeney’s Food Market didn’t count as a restaurant until 2000, by which time the grocery had lost most of its customers to big-box supermarkets.

“I didn’t want to leave so I just started cooking to see if I could catch them that way,” Keeney said.

Locals are conversant in Keeney’s five-day menu, which features meatloaf on Mondays; calves’ livers on Tuesdays; roast beef on Wednesdays; steak on Thursdays and fried fish on Fridays, along with what Keeney describes as “all the vegetables I can get together.” (For a glimpse of Thursday service, check out Arkansas food journalist Kat Robinson’s 96-second video.)

“Our philosophy is if it don’t taste good, the customer won’t want it,” Keeney said. “And if it don’t taste good, fix it.”

By 5:30 a.m. tomorrow, Keeney will be back in the kitchen, cooking; tasting; fixing and tasting again.

Around Malvern, Thursdays are for Keeney’s ribs.

To submit an Arkansas Food Hall of Fame nomination, visit arkansasheritage.com.

Alez Nunez is initially a little hesitant to talk about his new restaurant in Picayune, Mississippi. After all, he doesn’t want owners of other area Mexican restaurants to think he’s putting them down.

But with a little coaxing, he allows that Los Rancheros is serving margaritas; ceviche and salads made with fresh fruit.

“I do everything from scratch every single day,” says Nunez, who’s particularly proud of his pico de gallo incorporating pineapples and mangoes. “My menu is a good selection: I have steak; I have chicken; I have seafood dishes. But anything a customer wants, we can improvise.”

Also from scratch: The restaurant’s décor, inspired by two of Nunez’s favorite movies.

“I like Coco and Book of Life,” says the Guanajuato-born Nunez, who 22 years ago moved to Mississippi after a brief stay in Texas, “so I try to make my restaurant seem similar.”

Months after residents of a planned community south of Wilmington, North Carolina organized a parade and fundraising campaign for a local restaurateur facing brain surgery, Tammy Tilghman is saying thank you with an upscale pizzeria.

The former bail bondswoman, who in 2017 opened Magnolia Social Café, this month debuted Girls With Dough. According to Port City Daily, Kevin Vermilyea will mind the Neapolitan oven; the restaurant is also serving pasta.

“It’s such a cool team effort all the way across the board,” Tilghman told the paper.

Ticket sales for the BayHaven Food & Wine Festival in Charlotte ended earlier this week, but the event is worth monitoring via social media even if you can’t be there.

With BayHaven, founders Subrina and Greg Collier of Leah & Louise set out to create a worthy platform for fellow Black culinary professionals and lift up those starting out in the industry.

In other words, the Colliers aimed to correct for the exploitative practices that have long been a shameful hallmark of extravaganzas featuring small bites and bottomless drinks; when I previewed the festival for Resy, Subrina Collier told me that she was inspired in part by Greek festivals which prioritize heritage and community above all else.

And speaking of community, while this column is usually devoted to a festival scheduled for the upcoming weekend, I’ve been asked several times about the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium held last weekend in Oxford, Mississippi.

The two-day series of talks and meals was the group’s first in-person event since SFA’s sponsor institution, the University of Mississippi, pledged to “chart a path” for structural changes to the organization, following calls by some former employees and longtime members for director John T. Edge’s resignation. Critics accused Edge, a middle-aged white man, of wielding too much power.

To be clear, I did not attend the symposium as a reporter: I’ve known SFA’s leaders and members for nearly 20 years and have taken freelance pay from the organization for writing and coordinating events.

But at least from my skewed perch, it appeared that SFA has made a few of its promised strides: In this Age of Reckoning, when so many white-led groups are fumbling supposed quick fixes, SFA’s inclusion of Black voices and radical perspectives felt relatively organic and robust.

As for what’s happening behind the scenes, last summer’s upheaval went unremarked upon until the very last moment of organized programming. When 2020 Smith Fellow Erick Williams, chef-owner of Virtue Restaurant & Bar in Chicago, took the mike on behalf of honorees after Saturday dinner, he brought up “the elephant in the room.”

“We’ve all had missteps,” he said in his impromptu words of thanks.

Perhaps Williams was channeling Chapel Hill chef and Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award winner Bill Smith, who earlier in the day reflected from the stage on the political battles he’s fought as a lifelong champion for human rights and concluded (with admitted difficulty) that the time has come to forgive.

In any case, Williams’ brief acceptance speech sparked a standing ovation.

SFA advisory board chair, Francis Lam, followed up by saying, “I think John T would say he would never want for this moment to be about him, but what you said was true…I’ve been thinking about love and how complex and complicated it can be.”

And then former SFA board president Angie Mosier sang a gospel song, providing a fitting end to an event which had all the big themes, silly fun, lost sleep and growing pains of a church youth group get-together. See you there next year.

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