batesville, arkansas – celebrating independents

As we cross over the Mississippi River heading west on 40, Memphis at our backs, it hits me that we’ve crossed America’s Great Divide. The mighty Mississippi, where East meets West. On the east side, we’re always saying stuff like “best baked beans this side of the Mississippi” and I wonder if they have big talk like that over on this side. “Best darn pork bellies this side of the Mississip.” I guess I’ll just have to wait to find out. We’re heading into God’s country. Destination Austin, Texas, crossing through the state of Arkansas to get there. Today, the road is taking us to Batesville, a couple of hours north of Little Rock. We’re the guests of Dan Hart and his lady, Natalie Cox, and it’s Natalie’s lovely home high on the hill we’re fortunate to be visiting.

We may be west, but Natalie is all southern hospitality. We walk in the door and it’s like we’ve stepped into a piece of Louisiana. Dan’s just filled the bucket with ice, so it must be cocktail hour. Over a tall (very), cool Black Russian and munching on crackers and a sundried tomato-cheese dip that Natalie’s prepared, along with a hot cheese dip and tortilla chips that Natalie’s girlfriend Leigh has brought, we kick back over stories from the road and Natalie’s tales of life growing up in Louisiana. Stories of crawfishin’ with her daddy and pre-Easter shopping trips with her grandpa to the local country store to get decked out for Easter. Some of those stories are captured in a mural painted by Megan Kinion that graces one of the kitchen walls – a mural filled with childhood memories that will never fade away. Much to our delight, nestled in the corner of the mural is Laura’s Plantation – the same plantation house that Bridget, Kathe and I toured during our trip up river from New Orleans a couple of weeks ago.

Nature calls, as it must, and as I head down the hall, past the living room, I see more reminders of New Orleans – parade beads here, fleurs-de-lis and pictures on the wall there and street signs painted up in the corner …

… and when I flip on the light in the bathroom, I am greeted by four walls of crosses. I was dumbfounded, really in awe. Among the crosses were fleurs-de-lis, and I wonder if the other crosses have names too. But that is a fleeting thought, because immediately I am taken back to New Orleans, in a flash of voudo – but not only that, it was simply a stunning piece of art, a very powerful piece. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t take a photo of it to share; however, I suspect this is one of those times when the snapshot in my mind is much stronger than any actual photo.

More of Natalie’s art is on display in her kitchen, only this time it’s on our plates – filet mignon wrapped in bacon; baked potato with butter, sour cream and bacon bits; a salad bar; and garlic bread. And for breakfast, scrambled eggs and ham, potatoes and biscuits (just three for me). This is where Natalie gets to pour much of her creativity – into her cooking. She’s been preparing food for the table for as long as she can remember, and in 2010, she turned her catering business into a restaurant (aptly named for its owner), a cute little place in a row of cottage shops on the other side of town located at 1335 East College Avenue. The restaurant also caters, just a couple of weeks ago providing the food for Jimmy Buffett’s crew when they were in Little Rock for a show. Natalie’s is open weekdays, serving the office and shopping crowd, while her weekends are reserved for family and friends (and itinerant travelers) who congregate in her kitchen.

I know it’s hard work running a kitchen, and yet Natalie makes it look so easy. Perhaps that’s the secret – when it’s in your blood, the love and the joy pour out effortlessly. Thank you so much, Natalie, for inviting us into your home and sharing a piece of your heart with us.

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