MARIANNA, Ark. (KTHV) -- The James Beard Awards, considered the "Oscars of food", recognizes top chefs from New York to San Francisco and now Marianna Arkansas. It's a community of 4,100 people scraping by in the Arkansas delta. It's also home to what may be America's best barbecue.
James Jones is both owner and pitmaster, a one-man whirlwind in a tiny two-table restaurant. Jones Barbecue diner dates back to at least 1910 and it may be the oldest black family-owned restaurant in the south. James Jones says, "The way it's going for some reason it's not gonna last long."
He opens at 6 a.m. Six days a week and closes when he runs out. He sleeps upstairs. Betty Jones is his wife of forty years. She says, "I'm a (BBQ) widow. This is his second wife. I had to get used to it."
Out back, Sylvester runs the smoke house. Oak and hickory logs burn 24/7. Pork shoulders smoke in this cinderblock barbecue pit for twelve hours. Mark smith has eaten here for forty years. He says, "that's the key to the whole deal is the smell. And the taste, which you can smell from a block away. When you make the turn coming here you can smell the aroma."
Smith, a local insurance agent, showed us the ropes, which wasn't hard. Pork sandwiches are drenched in a vinegary barbecue sauce topped with home-made cole slaw, and served on wonder bread. They are $3 a piece, $6 a pound. It's incredibly good, and the only thing on the menu. For four generations, Jones barbecue has fed Marianna.
Smith says, "It's just the best meal we have here. Food pulls people together. You share a meal together with friends. No matter white black yellow green, any age, everybody loves BBQ. In the south that's part of what we do and eat. It's as good as it gets. It better than any other BBQ I have ever had."
Jones follows the same family recipes as his grandfather, who sold meat from a washtub back when locals called the restaurant "the hole in the ground." the recipe for his sauce and his slaw are top secret. Betty says, "i don't even know. His grandfather and father and all promised the children not to share the secret."
Then one day they got a phone call, something about an award. James says, "The James Beard Award, the first time i ever heard of it. My heart went 100 mph I went, 'Oh Lord we haven't paid the taxes on time.'"
They know what the beard award means now; he got it last night in New York, after their first trip ever on a plane, and his first vacation since graduating high school in 1963. Now, he is recognized as one of America's top chefs for making one distinctly American dish, and making it perfectly. James says, "You get your hand in too much stuff and you don't do it well. Even if you a cook, be the best you can be. Just do one thing and do it well, that's it."