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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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

(501)742-3781

Hours: 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., Wed.-Saturday