Arkansas Institutions: Gene’s Barbeque

by Rex Nelson ([email protected]) 682 views 

Editor’s note: This article appears in the latest magazine edition of Talk Business & Politics, which you can read here.


A man driving down U.S. Highway 49 in Brinkley noticed the fire on the evening of Sept. 16, 2011, at Gene’s Barbeque.

He called the fire department. Then, he called Gene DePriest at home.

“I beat the firemen down here,” DePriest says in the back room of his restaurant as his invited Sunday night guests dine on fried crappie and a soaked salad of lettuce and radishes out of his garden. “The fire started in a fan in the women’s restroom. They got it out before it affected the kitchen.”

DePriest worked all night to clean up after the fire. He moved the main dining area from the front room to what’s usually the private back room. As soon as the state inspectors left the next morning, he was open for business.

It was 10 a.m.

“It took us eight weeks to get things rebuilt up front,” he says. “But we never missed a day of business.”

In fact, DePriest hasn’t missed a day of business since he purchased the restaurant from his younger brother in 1994. July 1 marked 20 years that Gene’s has been open 365 days a year. Thanksgiving Day. Christmas Day. New Year’s Day. Gene’s is serving food on all of those holidays.

“Thanksgiving and Christmas are two of my busiest days,” says DePriest, who shows no signs of slowing down at age 77.

When DePriest purchased the restaurant from his brother Louis, who died in 1996, it was known as Sweet Pea’s. The business had been a part of the Brinkley scene since 1971. Though the formal name became Gene’s Barbeque, the restaurant serves much more than barbecue. There are Southern favorites on the menu that have become hard to find in other restaurants. For breakfast, one can get salty country ham, pork chops and even chicken fried steak. The lunch and dinner menu features such classics as a fried bologna sandwich and an open-faced hot roast beef sandwich. There are steaks, catfish, shrimp, oysters and even buffalo fish ribs, which long have been a Delta staple.

There are fried quail, frog legs, fried chicken, homemade stew and homemade chili. That’s all in addition to the barbecue. Along with the barbecue plates, Gene’s sells barbecue pork, beef, chicken and ribs by the pound.

As a game fish, crappie can’t be on the menu. DePriest saves those for special Sunday night dinners for friends. For years, the restaurant’s gravel side parking lot would fill up with pickup trucks late on Sunday afternoons. In the back room – the place where former Congressman Tommy Robinson and his sons once accosted a banker in an incident that received statewide media attention – men wearing jeans and camouflage would gather for the weekly wild game dinner. There might be fried squirrel one week, fried rabbit the next week and crappie the week after that. Duck, goose, dove and venison were on the menu from time to time. DePriest even has been known to bake a coon. Baked sweet potatoes, fried Irish potatoes, turnip greens and sliced tomatoes and onions from DePriest’s garden were regular sides.

DePriest explains the genesis of the Sunday night dinners this way: “I was killing a lot of squirrels. My wife wouldn’t cook them at home, so I started to cook them here at the restaurant and invite my friends over to help me eat them. It just kind of mushroomed.”

An acquaintance of DePriest once described the menu as consisting of “whatever Gene shot, caught or ran over the previous week.”

One of the regulars would bring wire pliers and an ice pick from home. The pliers were used to crack the squirrel heads, and the ice pick was then used to scrape out the brains for the man to eat. Visitors referred to him as the Squirrel Head Man.

As the usual Sunday night suspects aged and died, the wild game dinners became more irregular.

“About everybody I hunted and fished with is now dead,” DePriest laments.

One who isn’t is Wiley Meacham, who is among the South’s most famous duck hunters. Meacham is now in his 80s, but a trip hunting with him at his Piney Creek Duck Club is considered the Holy Grail for mallard hunters in the know.

“Gene has his faults, but he’s one of the best friends I have,” says Meacham, who lives down the street. “He will give you the shirt off his back.”

The Arkansas Delta is known for its colorful characters, and DePriest is nothing if not colorful. He was born near the small farming community of Monroe and attended school at Moro in Lee County. For several years during the 1960s, he ran a Brinkley restaurant called the S&K Grill. But old-timers who lived near the lower White River and Cache River know him best as the man who operated the 17/79 Club at Clarendon from 1971-94. The club was named for the intersection of U.S. Highway 79 and Arkansas Highway 17.

“We would have several hundred people in there on a Saturday night,” DePriest says. “There would be live music and lots of fights.”

It’s rumored that the club also hosted its fair share of high-stakes card games through the years. Things have settled down now. DePriest has gone from running one of the most infamous nightclubs in East Arkansas to operating the restaurant where the relatively staid Brinkley Rotary Club meets each Monday.

From a business standpoint, the high-water mark for the restaurant came in the years following the alleged sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Cache River bottoms near Brinkley. There’s still an item on Gene’s menu that reads: “More than 60 years after the last confirmed sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the United States, researchers have evidence that the majestic bird still lives. On Feb. 11, 2004, a kayaker caught a glimpse of a huge and unusual woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. The encounter spurred an extensive scientific search for a species that many feared had vanished forever, driven to extinction by the destruction of Southern old-growth forests.”

There has never been another sighting, and certain experts consider the original sighting a hoax. DePriest, though, still calls the two-patty cheeseburger on his menu the “ivory-bill burger” and has a large poster honoring the woodpecker in the main dining room.

“I sold $20,000 worth of T-shirts from 2004 to 2008,” he says.

The late Ed Bradley and his crew from CBS News ate their meals at Gene’s while doing a story on the woodpecker for “60 Minutes.”

A Nature Conservancy article in 2005 noted, “Gene’s was a major hangout of the search team, a place where members sometimes met to dine after a day of working transects or checking cameras. We sit down and start to open our menus, but before we can order our waitress directs our attention to a board at the back with a new special, the ivory-bill cheeseburger.”

Things have slowed at Gene’s since those heady days. As a matter of fact, they’ve slowed all across Monroe County. Between the 2000 and the 2010 census, Monroe County lost 20.5 percent of its population, the largest decrease percentage-wise of any county in the state. The population fell from 10,254 to 8,149. That’s less than half the 21,133 people who lived in the county in 1940. Monroe County has lost population in every census since 1940.

Gene’s still attracts diners who pull off busy Interstate 40 at the halfway point between Little Rock and Memphis. So does the nearby liquor store that Tommy Robinson owns. And, as was traditionally the case in much of rural Arkansas, the local café is an important gathering spot. Farmers and merchants begin coming in for coffee as early as 6 a.m. to talk politics, fishing, hunting and football. This is a part of the Arkansas Delta where people tend to get up early, eat supper early and go to bed early.

We live in an era where the tradition of gathering at the café has been replaced in other small towns by stops at convenience stores. Coffee is grabbed on the way out the door, and the only hot food is found under heating lamps.

In a sense, Gene’s is a throwback in this modern age.

Michael Stern, who’s nationally known for his series of “Roadfood” books that profile restaurants across the nation, once wrote this about Gene’s: “Knotty-pine paneled walls seem right for a place where literally half the customers are wearing hunter’s camouflage gear. A handwritten sign advertises purple-hull peas for sale: $11 per bushel, plus tax. Long communal tables are marshaled in neat formation, and there is plenty of elbow room between chairs. Every few feet on the tabletops are squeeze bottles of barbecue sauce, plus hot sauce and vinegar peppers, along with ketchup, non-dairy creamer, salt and pepper.

“This is a place set up for eating barbecue. Other customers are enjoying catfish, which looked crisp and thick, but we were happy with our choice of a large rib plate and a jumbo pork sandwich.”

Like other men his age who inhabit this part of East Arkansas, DePriest has spent a lifetime fishing and hunting. He’s also a gardener who has been known to plant up to 125 tomato plants in the spring along with bell peppers, onions, lettuce, radishes and various kinds of peas and beans. He knows that there’s no greater expression of the Arkansas culture than through our food. His definition of Arkansas cuisine is traditional country cooking that’s done simply and done well, using the freshest ingredients possible.

John T. Edge, who heads the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, says men like DePriest are among those “for whom food is a caloric fuel, sure, but also a means of cultural expression, on par with music and literature.”

So perhaps it wasn’t that far of a stretch for DePriest to go from the loud music and long nights at the 17/79 Club in Clarendon to the ribs and fried catfish at Gene’s. Having been open 20 years without closing a day, Gene’s Barbeque can certainly be described as an Arkansas classic.