Jones Bar-B-Que Diner: Arkansas’s Only James Beard Award Winner
“Grilling, broiling, barbecuing - whatever you want to call it - is an art, not just a matter of building a pyre and throwing on a piece of meat as a sacrifice to the gods of the stomach.” James Beard
Barbecue is a legend unto itself in the Mississippi Delta region. Southerners, especially, take barbecue very seriously. Yet barbecue is subjective – so many aspects come into play, especially they style of barbecue you grew up eating. For Harold Jones of Marianna, it’s as much a part of his life as breathing.
Jones’s barbecue has been a part of the food culture in the Arkansas Delta for more than a century. The Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization “dedicated to the documentation and celebration of the diverse food cultures of the American South,” believes Jones’s to be the oldest African-American owned restaurants in the South and possibly the nation. James Harold Jones, the current owner and pitmaster, says it started with his grandfather’s Uncle Joe. His grandfather and father followed Uncle Joe into the smoking business, selling barbecue out of their homes. It was Jones’s father Hubert that started the diner in 1964. Jones started working in the restaurant when he was 14. He told me the only time his father would let him skip school “was when I was working in the diner.”
In 2012, the James Beard Foundation designated Jones’s Bar-B-Q Diner as an America’s Classic. The organization defines America’s Classics as “restaurants with timeless appeal and that are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community.” Jones’s is one of five restaurants throughout America to receive the honor this year. To be chosen and designated as an America’s Classic, the restaurant must be locally owned and in existence for at least 10 years.
At Jones’s Bar-B-Q Diner, the menu is simple and straightforward. You can get sandwiches, on white bread, with or without the homemade slaw or you can buy the meat by the pound. That’s pretty much it. You can buy a cold canned drink and a bag of chips to complete your meal, but you won’t find beans or fries or any other food. It’s usually a one-man operation at the diner, and Jones said it’s best to just keep it simple. He did tell me that he used to do barbecued bologna sandwiches, but it got too time-consuming…everyone wanted something different on their sandwich. So he decided to go back to the basics. The customers must not mind, because they’re still flocking to Jones’s every day it’s open. So many loyal patrons that Jones estimates on a regular week, he cooks 900 pounds of pork. On holidays such as Memorial Day and Fourth of July, that number skyrockets. Customers are fiercely loyal.
In Marianna, Jones’s barbecue has been a part of families’ lives for generations. I remember visiting the diner as a child, amazed at the smoke that plumed from the building and the smell that surrounded the area. Countless family “get-togethers” featured the chopped pork from Jones’s, with a container of the red, vinegary sauce on the side. It’s more than just smoked meat…it’s part of the culinary fabric that defines a family and the recollections of its members. This barbecue is as prevalent in my memories as my grandmother’s chocolate gravy. In the South, food is more than sustenance. It’s a passion…an obsession…an art form! Locals know when Jones has meat on the pit because the aroma of smoked pork penetrates the air.
At Jones’s Bar-B-Q Diner, located at 219 W. Louisiana St., it’s all about barbecue. The barbecue, the slaw or the sauce has not changed in over a century…the preparation and the recipes remain the same. In a recent article in Saveur magazine, culinary writer John T. Edge described Jones as, “one pitmaster I’ll always go out of my way to visit.” Edge knows his food. He’s a former contributor to Gourmet magazine, writes a monthly food column for The New York Times, and serves as director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss. Edge is not a newcomer to Marianna’s barbecue of choice; he wrote an award-nominated article about Jones for the Oxford American in 2009. Rex Nelson discovered Jones’s in the early 1990s, on one of his many trips through the Arkansas Delta during his time with the Delta Regional Authority. Nelson is a friend of Edge, and frequently would suggest restaurants to Edge, including Jones’s Bar-B-Que Diner. Both Edge and Nelson have visited numerous times. Nelson has a well-known love for the Arkansas Delta and the region has featured prominently in his columns and blogs.
The popular barbecue joint is located at 219 W. Louisiana St., off Ark. 1B in Marianna. The diner is normally open Monday through Saturday from about 7 a.m. The hours vary, especially when Jones sells all the barbecue he has on hand. It’s best to call and check before traveling to visit. The telephone number is 870-295-3807.