Back during the presidential campaign, some Alaskan whose name I forget now made a lot of political hay out of the idea of “Real America.”
Real America, she said, was out in the hinterlands, both physically and politically; out in the place where the all the FM radio signals stop, and all the road signs are peppered with buckshot. Thanks to their Gods-Guns-Country belief system, we were told, people in Real America are more pure than the godless minions of the cities. More patriotic. More American.
While this writer is proud to be one of the city-dwelling heathens who helped reject that philosophy on Election Day, I do happen to believe in the idea of Real Arkansas, especially when it comes to food. The food of Real Arkansas is out there, tucked away in big cities and little towns; along two-lane roads and down freeway off-ramps; served on linen tablecloths and folding card tables and blankets spread out on the grass. It exists wherever there are people who love food.
The tricky part is finding it. Listen to whispers. Call your relatives. Talk to locals. Read church cookbooks and follow tiny ads in backwater newspapers. The reward is always fleeting — a great plate lunch, or a glass of homemade wine, or the best plate of tamales you've ever had in your life. But it is always worth it.
Thanks to a tip from a friend, I recently found one of those hidden corners of Real Arkansas: Georgetown One-Stop. Served there, on plastic tabletops and paper plates, is nothing less than the finest fried catfish ever made by human hands.
To get there, you literally have to go to the end of the road. A dead boomtown along the White River, Georgetown is one of the oldest cities in the state. From Little Rock, it's a good hour and a half drive, first up the freeway to Searcy, then down Highway 36, a meandering ribbon of concrete that keeps abreast of the river for miles, skirting soybean fields and deep stands of cypress. At one point, you pass a sign that says: “Road Ends 12 Miles.” Though there was once a ferry there across the White, nobody goes to Georgetown anymore except for the boat ramp and the catfish.
Once you get there, keep an eye out. There's no sign on the Georgetown One Stop, a former filling station that had its pumps ripped out long ago. Mostly, you just have to look for the crowd of cars clustered around a low building. It's the only place in town that still looks alive. When the pavement ends 200 yards beyond the building, giving over to gravel and mudholes, you've gone too far.
The place is run by Joanna Taylor, a transplant from Little Rock who moved to Georgetown in 1997 and started working at her sister's gas station/bait shop. It was Joanna who suggested they start selling fried fish, buying only fresh fish from the commercial fisherman who troll for blue channel and flathead catfish that lurk in the muddy depths of the White River. Since then, as their reputation grew, the store's merchandise has been pushed out in favor of more tables. If you plan on hitting them for lunch or dinner, you'd be smart to call ahead. The wait is always long for a seat during peak hours.
Half the joy of going to the One Stop is the decor. This is Real Arkansas at its finest: a low-ceilinged room with the kitchen so close you can literally hear the grease popping. In the dining room, every surface is covered with photographs of smiling visitors, some of them mugging with fish they've caught or deer they've killed. In the men's restroom, a water heater squats in the corner, slowly sinking through the floor, and you have to hold the toilet lid up with your knee to keep it from slamming down.
There is no menu at the Georgetown One Stop. Everybody gets the same thing. You go in, and sit down. Taylor appears from the kitchen, takes your drink order (get the sweet tea) and asks you if you're ready for some fish. After about ten minutes, she reappears with manna: a big oval plate, covered from edge to edge in beautiful catfish fillets, a handful of fries, and a hush puppy or two. On the side: a bowl full of sliced onion and homemade tartar sauce. Best of all, if you manage to finish what you've been served, Taylor will keep bringing fish as long as you're willing to eat it.
And what catfish. I have eaten catfish all over the South — hot, cold, good, bad, muddy, bland, delicious and terrible — but this is the best ever: gorgeous, buttery morsels of pure white flesh, surrounded by the lightest imaginable cornmeal batter and just the right seasoning. Fries and hush puppies, done in the same grease — amazing. But the fish at Georgetown One Stop is what truly will leave even someone who knows what good fish is supposed to taste like at a loss for words. For a foodie, it's transcendent. For a catfish fanatic, it's like coming home. After eating all I could, finally putting down my fork in surrender gave me a little pang of regret. There is nothing more that I can say. You must experience it for yourself.
Yes, Virginia, Real Arkansas does exist. Just when I begin to doubt it — to believe that nobody cares about making great food anymore — I luck across someplace like the Georgetown One Stop. There is love there, my friend. Yes. There is love.
Georgetown One Stop
209 E. Main St., Georgetown
Hours: 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., Wed.-Saturday