OPINION | REX NELSON: Discovering Lake Village

From time to time, television's SEC Network will take a break from Southeastern Conference sports to air a 30-minute program titled "TrueSouth."

"TrueSouth" focuses on the cafes and diners where Southerners gather and find a sense of community. The program is hosted by John T. Edge of the University of Mississippi, a food expert who knows his way around Arkansas. He calls "TrueSouth" a "food and culture show that sidesteps stereotypes and tells honest stories about the region's past and future."

Edge writes and hosts the show. The producer is his friend Wright Thompson, who just happens to be one of my favorite writers. Thompson, a Clarksdale, Miss., native, is a senior writer for ESPN and well-known author.

In its fourth season, the program found its way to Arkansas this fall. It focused on Lake Village in the state's southeast corner, a place with a rich ethnic mix. Unlike most Arkansas towns, there are Chinese, Jews and Italians whose ancestors used the Mississippi River as a corridor into the American heartland.

Other places featured in the fourth season are the Mobile Bay region of Alabama, St. Louis, Greenville (which is just across the river from Lake Village) and Scott, La.

Scott is described as the "buckle on the Boudin Belt" of Cajun country. Along Mobile Bay, Thompson and Edge enjoyed flounder for breakfast and beach bar burgers. In St. Louis, they found a city that was built on immigration and sandwiches. The original Doe's Eat Place, of course, is the focus of the Greenville episode.

Central figures in the Lake Village episode are Rhoda Adams of Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales & Pies (the restaurant is an inductee into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame) and Santa Lee of Cowboy's Steaks. The lady everyone knows simply as Miss Rhoda and her daughter, Dorothy Adams Mitchell, welcomed the "TrueSouth" crew. In addition to tamales, the visitors sampled the half-pecan and half-sweet potato pies for which Rhoda's is known.

While Rhoda's is deserving of media attention, I'm glad the program also featured the Chinese contributions to Delta culture. Lee, the son of Chinese immigrants, operates a Fox's Pizza Den franchise along U.S. 65. He asked franchise officials for permission to also sell steaks. Lee, who friends call Cowboy, is known for the prime ribeyes he serves. People drive in from across the Arkansas Delta, Mississippi and Louisiana to eat them.

Lee's father, Arthur Lee Sr., was born in Canton, came to this country as a grocer and later operated Kowloon, a Lake Village Chinese restaurant. Arthur Lee died in August 2011 at age 78.

Another star of this episode was Lake Village Mayor Joe Dan Yee. Edge was already familiar with Yee since the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss did a series of interviews with Chinese Americans in the Delta a few years back. The mayor's family had Yee's Food Land, which has since closed.

The SFA described Yee as someone who "bucked the trend of many second- and third-generation Delta Chinese by staying home, after his parents retired, to take over the family market."

According to the introduction to these oral histories: "Chinese came to America in the late 19th century in search of the fabled Gam Sahn or Golden Mountain. When they arrived at the alluvial plains of the Mississippi Delta, all they found was backbreaking agricultural work. First introduced to the region as indentured servants by planters during Reconstruction, these early Chinese sojourners (mostly from the Guangdong or Canton province) soon became disenchanted with working the fields. They moved off the plantations.

"Some left to go back home to China, but others stayed and opened small neighborhood grocery stores. Serving as an alternative to plantation commissaries and catering to a predominately African American clientele, the Chinese American grocer was a mainstay in many Delta neighborhoods well into the 20th century. Life in the grocery business was by no means an easy living. Early mornings and late nights were normal, as were the stresses of competition from large supermarket chains."

Yee's Food Land at 605 Main St. was a southeast Arkansas institution.

Yee told SFA: "I can't tell you how many times I've been in New York and San Francisco, and everywhere I go they would tell my sister: 'Bring your brother back in here. We love the Arkansas accent that he has on a Chinese accent.'"

He said Chinese restaurant owners in big cities come to his table and note that "we've never heard a Chinese with a Southern accent."

Yee's father found his way to Dumas in the 1940s and began working for a man named Eugene Lee. Eventually, the elder Yee moved to Lake Village. The store would open at 4 a.m. and sometimes remain open until midnight. Hundreds of sharecroppers and tenant farmers came into town to shop.

"In the early 1960s, there were at least eight to 10 Chinese families in Lake Village, and there were probably six Chinese stores on Main Street back then," the mayor says. "The city of Lake Village was so busy you couldn't even walk down Main Street."

Chinese families would have cases of Chinese food shipped in from San Franciso. Yee remembers: "You would split it up between the families and then you would divide the costs. That's how they did it."

Now, viewers across the South are learning not only about Miss Rhoda but also about the Chinese influence on the Arkansas Delta thanks to Edge, Thompson and the folks at the SEC Network.

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.