“Bite it all the way through so it doesn’t slap you in the face.”
The “slap” the 27-year-old cautions against comes courtesy of a still-juicy pickle cloaked within a deep-fried breading. The batter is crisp but lightly seasoned. The thin, surfboard-shaped preserved cucumber within pops with a pickle taste—slightly briny yet sweet. The pickle is the main flavor, not a spicy coating of crumbs like so many chain-restaurant fried pickles.
This is not any fried pickle, though. This is a Fatman’s Original Fried Dill Pickle, whole kosher dill pickles sliced longways, battered, deep fried and served just as Austin’s late granddad, Bernell “Fatman” Austin, intended when he created the first fried pickle during the summer of 1963 in Atkins.
More than 50 years after it was invented, Fatman’s fried pickle is still on offer at Atkins’ annual Picklefest, a two-day celebration of the tiny River Valley town’s connection to pickles, namely the Atkins Pickle Co., whose plant closed in 2002. In Fatman’s day—the early 1960s—Atkins was known as the Pickle Capital of the World. Cucumbers were grown and harvested all over the rich bottomland around Atkins, and the company made millions with pickles as its currency.
Picklefest, held every third weekend of May since 1992, continues the pickle legacy of Atkins. Pickles are everywhere at the downtown festival. Cartoon pickles on T-shirts. Canned pickles. Pickles ready for the pickle-eating contest. But the busiest pickle vendor at Picklefest is the Austin family’s booth, where descendants, family and friends of Fatman, who died in 1999 at the age of 78, carry on his pickle heritage by serving thousands of fried pickles.
Members of the Austin family have sold their patriarch’s fried pickle at Picklefest since the festival’s beginnings. On this May Saturday, the Austin family is frying batches of pickles and selling them for $2 a pop under a banner that proudly proclaims in big green letters: “Fatman’s Original Fried Dill Pickles, a Family Tradition since 1963.”
“We haven’t changed one thing,” Fatman’s son and Richard’s dad, David Austin, says of the family recipe. “Every ingredient in it is identical. The only difference is the brand of pickle we use, and that’s because we can’t get the Atkins pickle anymore.
“Let’s put it this way: If you taste one and it’s spicy and hot, that’s not the pickle. It’s supposed to be a pickle. It’s supposed to have a pickle taste. Others cover it up. The key is to get the pickle into the breading and let the breading soak up the pickle flavor, too. That way, when you cook it, the breading retains the pickle flavor, too.”
Pressed a little about ingredients, David admits two things: “I’ll tell you what I tell everyone else. The main thing you got to have is a pickle.” His second fried-pickle disclosure? “The dry bath is something that’s not wet.”
The history of the fried pickle stretches back to the summer of 1961. Fatman, who learned how to cook while serving in the Navy in World War II, was a fledgling restaurateur in Atkins. In April 1960, he opened the Duchess Drive-In with his wife, Sue, leasing a spot of land for $10 a month from the Griffin Oil Co. and building the tiny pink building on U.S. 64 just blocks from downtown Atkins and across the highway and railroad tracks from the Atkins Pickle Co.
But by the summer of 1961, business was slowing. Fatman and his wife sold enough hamburgers, hot dogs, barbecue sandwiches and iced milks, but he knew the Duchess needed a menu item distinguishing it from the competition. So Fatman stared at his across-the-way neighbor and let his mind roll: What more does a pickle offer beyond simply slices atop a burger?
“He needed something to bring business in,” David says. “He was across from the pickle plant. He was standing there one day looking at the pickle plant, and thought, ‘There’s got to be a way to cash in on that pickle.’”
Fatman’s idea for using his neighbor’s pickles? Deep-fry them. Fried pickles seem common now, but in the summer of 1961, the idea of a fried pickle was pretty revolutionary. Could one even fry a pickle? At first, no—David recounts that his mom says she “tasted a lot of awful stuff.” But Fatman kept at it. Early, there were lots of errors. The breading wouldn’t hold. The breading wouldn’t brown. The breading wouldn’t fluff.
Months passed. Even years. Fatman’s finalized fried pickle materialized in the summer of 1963. “Somehow, he came up with the idea of taking a whole dill pickle because it tasted different and wasn’t as salty,” David says, “and he decided that we could slice it the way he wanted to. After he changed the pickle, that’s how he got his breading the way he wanted it.”
Fatman and Sue carried his fried-pickle invention to their next venture, the Loner (the Duchess was demolished by a runaway tractor-trailer only weeks after closing in the fall of 1968), before Fatman decided to hang up his apron in December 1978 and retire from the restaurant-owning business. But his fried-pickle invention endures—and with it, a little bit of Atkins’ past survives as well.
David says his father made a promise to the community organization that started Picklefest, People for a Better Atkins, that the Fatman’s Original Fried Dill Pickle would be sold every year at the festival. And so the fried pickles have been a fixture of the fest since its start. “That’s a promise that the family is going to keep for a lot of years,” David says. “Atkins is home. You’ve got to take care of home. That’s all there is to it.”
The Thursday before each Picklefest, friends and family gather at the Atkins Masonic Lodge No. 172, ready for the preparation of Fatman’s pickles. David, whose day job is cooking at ConAgra Foods in Russellville, brings in the breading in a plastic bag. Guys from the Masonic Lodge help the Austins with the fried-pickle prepping but don’t know the ingredients. (Only about a dozen family members hold that secret.) Family, including the 78-year-old Sue, and friends bread pickles into the night. More pickles are breaded into the night on Friday. Even more are breaded Saturday morning. Over the two-day festival, roughly 2,500 orders of Fatman’s delicious fried pickles are sold.
That’s 12,500 pickles. Eighty gallons of pickles.
The Austins don’t fry up Fatman’s pickles for their own personal gain. With donations from businesses and friends, the Austins purchase the needed ingredients, and profits generated from Picklefest sales go to Atkins-related programs such as the Atkins Masonic Lodge Scholarship, awarded each year to an Atkins High School senior.
There’s a legacy at work with Picklefest, too. A past to remember and honor. “For me it’s a heritage,” says Richard, who works for the Russellville Water & Sewer System. “Not only does it trace back to my grandpa, but it traces back to my great-grandma Austin, who worked at the pickle plant. We didn’t become Pickle City U.S.A. for no reason. I want to keep the heritage going.”
For the last decade, Picklefest hasn’t been the only place to pick up a Fatman’s Original Fried Dill Pickle. The Austins also sell their fried pickles each August as part of the 160 miles of yard sales and flea markets along U.S. 64 from Fort Smith to Beebe known as Bargains Galore on 64. The 15th annual event runs Aug. 7-9. After that, no more Fatman fried pickles until next May.
And so, more than five decades after Fatman’s idea became Fatman’s creation, his fried pickles survive. And with it, a little piece of Atkins’ history.
“My father’s legacy is one of the most important things to me,” David says. “The only thing I can do is pass it down to the younger generation and try to make them believe and feel this is our family. This is what our family is known for. As long as we keep this alive, Dad’s alive.”