Expanding community in the delta
After hours passing nothing but sprouting soybeans and fading storefronts, the arrival of Wilson is startling.
The trees shake you awake. Towering and full, the rows of cottonwoods lining Main Street are easily as old as the town itself, a company town founded in the late 1800s by its namesake, Lee “Boss Lee” Wilson.
There’s nothing like these trees for miles, it seems. And there’s certainly nothing like Wilson.
This downtown isn’t boarded up, sleepy and forgotten. Instead, Tudor-style buildings—so incongruous with their Delta neighbors it’s as if they were blown here by mistake—shadow a lush lawn on the town square. There’s a bank, a pharmacy and a grocery store with bow-tie-clad cashiers. Hedges are trimmed neatly, and even breezes seem to arrive on time.
Just across the train tracks that parallel Main Street, a small organic farm has popped up in the shadow of the old cotton gin, complete with a brand-new multipurpose building surrounded by rows of lush herbs.
Inside that building (dubbed “The Grange” by proprietor Leslie Wolverton) on a late June evening, the open main room is humming with cocktail-fueled conversation and an acoustic folk duo belting out covers in the corner. From the kitchen of Wilson Cafe, located a short walk away on the square, chef Joe Cartwright and his crew have come to introduce the northeast Arkansas community to a farm-to-table dinner. But this is no steak-and-potatoes night. Ingredients come from farms in nearby Whitton; Waynesboro and Millington, Tennessee; and Dundee, Mississippi. Many of the veggies and herbs come straight from the garden outside. After courses of candied-pecan-topped salad and catfish with tomato confit comes the best pork chop I’ve had in my life, thin-cut and served on sweet corn milk.
It’s only the conversation at the communal tables that hints that this dinner is in the middle of hard farm country and not somewhere with valet parking trying to put on a rural act. Pointing to the freshly picked centerpieces, the guests—most of them farmers or some version of it—quiz each other on the name of each variety of flower, herb and stalk in the vases. Answers come intimidatingly fast.
As guests dig into a dessert of sweet biscuits with Chantilly cream, Cartwright takes the microphone for the requisite thank yous, tired and obviously surprised by the evening’s success. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when things still seem like a dream.
“For me, I’ve always wanted to own my own place in the country in a quiet little community,” Cartwright says a few days later. “But that just doesn’t exist. That’s not a real thing. It never seemed attainable. And then, one day, it just was.”
Cartwright’s restaurant completes a downtown that he compares to Disney World for adults. Each element seems perfectly placed, just so. Situated on the corner of Main and Jefferson streets, Wilson Cafe is hewn in the same Tudor style as the other downtown buildings, with half-timbers and dormer windows accenting a steeply sloping roof. There’s a kind of eeriness to this level of tranquil perfection. But that melts away in the cafe.
Inside, dark gray wainscoting and bright white ceilings are punctuated with splashes of neon pinks and greens from the arrangements of fresh flowers adorning seemingly every surface in the room. Brass wall fixtures and lamps that dangle from vintage pulleys over a large bar give the entire space the feel of a restaurant that would fit in on the streets of a town 100 times bigger than Wilson, population 900.
Every town needs a good restaurant, and Cartwright has been trying to bring that to this Delta community. He’s just completed renovations that doubled his dining room, where a new marble-topped soda-fountain counter features bar-stool seating, and large tables provide more options for the regulars who make the cafe’s lunch a go-to meeting place in Mississippi County.
But the local crowd that now dominates the cafe wasn’t always so willing. When Wilson Cafe first reopened in December 2013—after the new owner of Lee Wilson & Co., Gaylon Lawrence Jr., took over and brought Cartwright in from Memphis restaurant The Elegant Farmer—diners were downright hesitant. And Cartwright knew it. This isn’t an area known for $22 entrees.
“To me, food should be relatable. It should be a comforting thing,” Cartwright says. “As a diner, you shouldn’t feel intimidated by what’s on the plate. As a chef, I’ve felt intimidated before.”
So in the beginning, true Southern comfort food dominated the cafe’s menu. Lunch plates of fried catfish and prime rib were served with mashed potatoes, purple hull peas, and macaroni and cheese.
Now, the menu reads like one of a casual, but upscale, local-food-focused spot in a city like Little Rock, Memphis or Bentonville. Many parties drive at least 25 miles for a seat at dinner and a chance to try the cafe’s impossibly juicy double-cut pork chop, which comes to the table smothered in a slightly spicy pimento cheese and with more meat on the bone than I’ve ever seen on a chop. There’s shrimp and grits, fried catfish and a burger—dressed up with Swiss cheese and roasted-garlic mayo—to appease Arkansan tastes. But there’s ramen, too, and a blueberry-glazed salmon with perfectly crisp edges and flaky pink flesh. (Dessert includes, naturally, a rotating pie selection that visitors would be wise to choose from; the cafe’s signature dessert, a doughnut bread pudding, is too cloyingly sweet to finish.)
Over the past two years, Cartwright’s dedication to his adopted home has extended beyond his dining room. Along with his wife, Cheree, and a handful of other Wilson transplants brought in with the recent Lawrence renovation wave, Cartwright helped found the Wilson Progress Committee, which organizes a fall crafts festival, a crawfish festival and a Christmas parade. This year, he hopes to host a community pay-what-you-can Christmas dinner as a way to bridge the very real divide that still exists in the community between classes and, noticeably, races.
Cartwright hopes that food can be a bridge between the long-standing residents and new visitors, but there’s still work to do. He hopes to start rotating his menus more frequently, adding more salads and lighter options at lunch. And there’s the constant need to balance the expectations of diners who live just down the street with those who drive from Missouri or Tennessee—many drawn by a New York Times article on the town in 2014. But the progress is obvious.
“I remember being here in October , waiting for the electricity to be turned on in the restaurant, staring out the window and thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” Cartwright says. “But we’ve been able to weave ourselves into the community fabric—forgive the cliche. We didn’t come in and say, ‘We know what we’re doing.’ We opened our doors and worked with the people to find out what they want.”