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I still slow down and look at the building that held Wayne Shadden's store each time I pass on U.S. 49. The old building west of Marvell, which was long one of my favorite places in the Delta to eat barbecue, seems frozen in time.

On a Thursday afternoon in May 2010, I drove by on my way to speak to an Arkansas Forestry Association meeting in Tunica, Miss. I had no way of knowing that it would be barbecue impresario Wayne Shadden's final full day of life. He died the following day at age 77.

The obituary in The Helena World simply said: "Wayne was a good cook and well-known for his barbecue. He was a Navy veteran, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion."

Well-known for his barbecue? As I wrote at the time, that was the biggest understatement I'd ever read. Shadden was so much more than that. For true Delta barbecue aficionados, he was among the masters. People heard about Shadden's and came from across the country to try his barbecue. If you ate at the store, there was one table in the back that you could share with those who were on their own barbecue pilgrimages.

The Shadden story is all too familiar in rural Arkansas. An owner dies, and the children have no interest in carrying on the business. In small towns across our state, all we're left with are convenience stores selling fried food that sits under heat lamps.

Following the first induction ceremony three years ago for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame, those of us involved with the organization created a category called Gone But Not Forgotten. Of the three 2020 finalists in that category, two were places I visited often--Shadden's and Mary Maestri's at Tontitown. I never visited the third--Habib's Cafe at Helena--but I wish I had.

The wooden structure that housed Shadden's is almost a century old. The walls were covered with newspaper clippings, photos and magazine stories. Musician Levon Helm, who grew up at nearby Turkey Scratch, would have the barbecue sauce shipped by the case to his home in Woodstock, N.Y.

I once took Southern food writer Gary Saunders to Shadden's. He wrote: "Shadden's gets high marks for its atmosphere alone. Talk about days gone by. The joint looks like the quintessential country store/filling station. A woman was seated on the front porch as we pulled into the gravel lot out front. She slowly rose to her feet and nodded at us before disappearing into the kitchen. Her break from work was over, if just for a while. ... The woman soon emerged from the barely lit kitchen with our sandwiches, each one swaddled in wax paper and pierced with a lone wooden toothpick."

In a story for Occasions magazine in Jonesboro, Marcel Hanzlik described the place this way: "Mr. Wayne's award-winning cooking and Miss Vivian's award-winning sauce make for a simple menu. Regular or jumbo. Hot or mild. With or without slaw. That's it. ... The sauce is thick and rich and with a tomato, brown sugar and pepper base. Mild is spicy, hot is excruciating. ... I do tone it down with a scoop of slaw. The sauce is so uniquely flavored that you'll want to pick up a bottle or two on your way out."

Wayne's widow Vivian was present at last month's induction ceremony. It's hard to believe the store has been closed for a decade. I can close my eyes and still taste those sandwiches.

As for Mary Maestri's, I vividly remember the lines out the door on the nights after Razorback football and basketball games. In 1904, Mary Ritter met Aldo Maestri at the Tontitown Grape Festival. The couple later married. Aldo had been born in Italy, and Mary was the daughter of German immigrants in Tennessee. They lived for a time with Aldo's parents, and Mary's mother-in-law shared recipes.

Aldo's family was among those who came to Arkansas in the 1890s to work on the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village. They had been sold a bill of goods. They found that they were living next to swamps. Mosquitoes swarmed, and malaria was rampant. A Catholic priest named Pietro Bandini took about 40 families to northwest Arkansas in 1898. Aldo's family was among those who followed Bandini. The priest had found 800 acres of land for sale that reminded him of Italy. He assumed the property would be good for growing grapes.

When the grape harvest failed in 1923, Aldo and Mary Maestri began selling dinners out of their home to make ends meet. Soon, they opened a restaurant. Aldo produced the wine. Mary would catch and clean the chickens in order to serve fried chicken with spaghetti. Even though the family didn't own a telephone, reservations were required. People would drop by and let Mary know in person which day they planned to dine. The couple couldn't keep up with the chicken demand and had to find a producer. A larger restaurant opened in 1947.

Aldo and Mary's son Edward built machines to help his mother roll and cut the pasta. Mary Maestri's meat sauce, spaghetti and other products were sold in grocery stores across the state. Edward took over management of the restaurant following Aldo's death in 1959. Edward died in 1977. His mother died three years later.

In the 1970s, Mary's grandson Daniel built an even larger restaurant at Tontitown. In May 2010, the restaurant became delinquent in paying thousands of sales-tax dollars and was closed by the state. A bank later foreclosed on loans. In 2012, Daniel opened a Springdale location of Mary Maestri's. It closed for good in 2016.

And what about Habib's in Helena? It's a remarkable story that deserves its own column. We'll tackle that subject Saturday.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 03/25/2020

Print Headline: Gone, not forgotten

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