YOU’D BE FORGIVEN for forgetting exactly where St. Joe is along the Buffalo River. “People always forget about us,” Jennifer Jones tells me as she slices turkey breast. “Everyone knows Ponca and the upper, most people know of the lower, but you tell people you’re from the middle Buffalo, and people just look at you.” The folds of thin white meat fall silently into her waiting hand. She looks at me and shrugs turkey-handed. “It’s a big river, you know.”
We’ve been standing in the kitchen for the better part of an hour, me leaning against a wall and her prepping her restaurant, Big Springs Trading Co., to open for the Saturday lunch rush. “Rush,” she’d said when I’d first arrived at the restaurant in the we’ll-see-when-it-gets-here way of speaking that is a way of life in rural Arkansas. It was not quite 11 a.m., and though the restaurant was minutes from opening, the rush, if it came, wouldn’t start until after noon. She wasn’t sure if there’d be anyone for lunch today. There hadn’t been the day before, on a startlingly beautiful February Friday. “You just never know,” she says. “Some days, that’s just how it is.” Jennifer is used to that, however. She’s been running Big Springs for 17 years now, with and without the help of others, so a single slow Friday doesn’t faze her.
Her journey to Big Springs was circuitous. She grew up in St. Joe and Timbo, one of seven children in a family that grew their own vegetables and beef. “At that time, people just thought that if you did that, you were poor and couldn’t afford to buy your own groceries, but that was just our family culture, to cook every day.” It’s obviously left a lasting impression on her, being surrounded by generations of women who’ve shown their strength through food. She rattles off family members and their famous recipes: a grandmother who taught her to can, an aunt famous for her cinnamon rolls, a sister who helps her run the restaurant. Even as we speak, Jennifer’s daughter, Shelby, preps fried pies for the day’s dessert. “We don’t actually object to working with men,” the restaurant’s website says, and while there have been a few male employees over the years, there is an air of nerve and confidence in the kitchen that is undeniably feminine.
That’s not to say that men have been left out of the history of Big Springs. When Jennifer returned from college at the University of Central Arkansas she met a man who would become her husband and eventual ex-husband. He had been a trained chef in Dallas and relocated to the Ozarks. Once the couple married, they decided to use a large, restaurant-quality smoker he had to open a restaurant.
Her only previous food experience had been working at Sonic, but her husband taught her how to run a kitchen and how to use the smoker. They soon began producing their own smoked chicken, pork, sausage and brisket. Her great-uncle taught her how to use a cold smoker for bacon and hams, and she’s been doing both ever since. “You pick up things wherever you can,” she says, putting the turkey back in the fridge. You can learn a lot. Whether it’s your parents, your great-uncle or even from your crackhead ex-husband.” I offer to leave that detail out of the story, but she shrugs again. “It’s OK. We’re pretty open about it.”
Personal life aside, Jennifer attests that the Ozarks around her have changed since the restaurant first opened. She stirs a pot of brisket-tip chili and tells me stories of her earliest guests. “I had people ask me, Do you have fried mushrooms? And I’d say, Do you mean like morels that I’ve cooked, or do you mean the ones that you get at Daisy Queen in a four pack? [And them:] Oh yeah, those like at Daisy Queen.”
Getting people to eat food that was actually cooked was a challenge, but now she’s at her proudest when she can talk people into eating something new. “We have this lady named Miss Sue,” she says, taking a skillet of cornbread out of the oven. Miss Sue, Jennifer says, is a Thai immigrant who grows vegetables and sells them at the local farmers market. Jennifer buys as much as she can from her— peaches, pecans, even Swiss chard. “Five, 10 years ago, if you told someone your special was Swiss chard, they would look at you like you were insane. And now they’ll eat it and like it. People say, We know it’s going to be good because you made it.”
Jennifer shakes her head at the thought, not quite willing to accept her role in the change, when Shelby affirms it: “I didn’t realize that not everyone grew up the way I did with food.” Shelby’s friends, raised on restaurants and microwavable dinners, are always fascinated with whatever her mother is making at the moment.
While time has brought change for Big Springs, things are also changing in the Ozarks. “It’s hard for a lot of people to admit that if this region is going to survive, we’re going to have to rely on people who don’t live here,” she says, “and especially their money.” The Ozarks are full of people who, at times, have maintained a tenuous relationship with the rest of the state, existing simultaneously at the locus of the state’s outdoor tourism message and the periphery of Arkansas’ diversifying social fabric.
The front door chimes with the first customer of the day. Shelby goes out to seat the guest, and Jennifer takes a moment to collect herself. “I wish people could see the community we have here.” She knows that as a region, as a people, the Ozarks can seem insular, but she insists that isn’t true. “We get behind our people.” She grates a block of cheese and tells me story after story of her community rallying around those in need—people that she’s been there for, made donations to, or supported.
I SPOKE TO Jennifer again, some three weeks later. It was late in the evening, and she’d just finished installing a pass-through window from the dining room of Big Springs onto its large, wrap-around deck. She’d already let one of her servers go. “We should be busy. It’s [about to be] spring break, but it’s so slow.” Just moments before we spoke, a 37th case of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Arkansas.
Outside of the peak tourist season, most of Jennifer’s guests are older, so preparing for the worst, she made the decision to close the Big Springs dining room, with to-go orders only for the foreseeable future. “It just didn’t feel right,” she said, the idea of putting her most vulnerable customers at risk.
It reminded me of something she had told me that day standing in her kitchen, that she would never throw good money after bad. She’d managed to keep Big Springs open for 17 years. Things had been rough before. Last year, after a lightning strike, she lost her walk-in freezer and everything it contained. It took two weeks just to find out if insurance would pay for it. “It’s not that we live week to week by any means, but if you have a few bad weeks in a row ….” Her voice trailed off. “Sometimes you just have to ask yourself, Am I doing the right thing by trying to stay open?”
Now, with the coronavirus decimating the region’s start of high tourist season, she again finds herself facing an uncertain future. “We’re going to try it one more week, and then we’ll see about shutting down.” She admits to not knowing how long that period might last, but, as she said, “We get behind our people,” and the people behind Jennifer are legion.
Editor’s Note: The evening before this issue went to press, Big Springs announced they’d be closing their doors due to COVID-19. Keep an eye on their Facebook to make sure you’re there when normal hours resume
14237 N. U.S. 65, St. Joe
You can’t go wrong with the potato salad and fried cabbage. And you really can’t go wrong with the Shelby Fay, a variety plate with a whole lot of meat.
$5 to $15