[title subtitle="recipe adapted from: courtesy Kat Robinson "][/title] What is Arkansas food? Kat Robinson has intensely studied the cuisine of the region for more than a decade. Her latest book, Arkansas Food: The A to Z of Eating in the Natural State, is the culmination of that research laid out in a handy glossary including everything from apple butter to zucchini bread.
A region, a city, a state can all be defined by food. Mentions of Georgia conjure juicy peaches. One knows what it means to miss New Orleans when gumbo or shrimp Creole is conjured. Texas has its brisket, Chicago its pizza, Kansas City its ribs, Memphis its barbecue.
But what of The Natural State? Is there a singular dish that stands out amongst all the rest? Writers and editors on the coasts have saddled us with chocolate gravy as our contribution; one in particular attempted to pin red velvet cake on us, erroneously. To this point, few dishes in our state have renown, and fewer still can be recognized as a whole state item.
That’s because we’re a land of regional cuisines. Yes, that’s plural. There are foods that are celebrated strongly in one corner of the state, or a county, or even a single burg. There are items we produce that have gained wide appeal throughout the state, and traditions we still practice that sets us aside from areas outside our borders.
I started working on the answer to the question back in 2007, after a chef posed the question to me and I could not give a single answer. I’ve made it a quest ever since to distill the many things we eat into a singular answer. The short of it – there’s no quick answer, none at all. Northwest Arkansas’s ties to the pairing of fried chicken and spaghetti is quite different from Little Rock’s obsession with cheese dip, or the dedication Searcy County reserves for the chocolate roll. From our Delta’s famed duck and rice to lower Arkansas’s plates of country fried venison at family gatherings, what we eat really depends on where we eat, who we break bread with, and what we crave.
The answers begin with our culinary resources – wild game for certain, but also our native pecans and squash. We produce more rice than all other American states put together. Deep traditions in farming and agriculture are marked by our most lauded festivals – fruit such as our Bradley County Pink tomatoes, Hope and Cave City watermelons, Johnson County peaches and Cabot strawberries. These events also celebrate the foodstuffs from our kitchens: Little Rock’s Cornbread Festival and World Cheese Dip Championship; Bikes, Blues and BBQ in Fayetteville and its surrounds; pots of beans at Mountain View’s BeanFest, even the upcoming Arkansas Pie Festival in Cherokee Village.
It expands with our unique contributions to the culinary landscape – Bernell Austin’s fried pickles created at the Duchess Drive-In in Atkins, William Tyndle Fooks’ Grapette and Orangette, Spike Cavender and his legacy of Cavender’s Greek Seasoning. Our Arkansas Delta tamales differ from their Mississippi counterparts in their heritage – Italian meets Mexican meets soul food – bringing more spice to every husk-wrapped cylinder. Yarnell’s paired our native black walnuts with cold creamy ice cream. And the Donnelly family creation of cheese dip in the mid-1930s not only pre-dates nachos by more than a decade, but even caused a debate in our nation’s Senate between us and Texas. We messed with Texas, stated the facts, put up our cheese dip against its queso, and we won.
It’s also in the way we eat. Outsiders might consider us Philistines for our ten different sorts of gravy (cream/milk, sausage, brown, red, red-eye, chicken, giblet, ham, mushroom, and chocolate), but how many have a heritage of the meat-less midday meal we call the Summer Plate? To this day, there are those of us who delight in dropping chunks of cornbread into our “sweet milk” or buttermilk, who butter our crackers while waiting on dinner, who sop potlikker with biscuits. We understand the importance of sorghum molasses in a good barbecue sauce and know how to pronounce the word “crappie” correctly (it’s CROP-ee, for heaven’s sake). We’ve been practicing farm to table for centuries before that term became hot, and we’ve dined on fusion fare from ethnic restaurants in Fort Smith long before it was fashionable. And we have so many types of pie, it’ll blow your mind.
Yes, our pizza, with the exception of a few originators such as Rod’s Pizza Cellar in Hot Springs, has come to us from out of state – Tommy Miller fusing Chicago sauce and Detroit crust in Mountain View when he retired from being Elvis Presley’s bodyguard; the Steffey family relocating from Pennsylvania to Lavaca and bringing on the Uncle Roman; Anthony Valinoti dropping out of the jetset to throw dough while listening to Bruce Springsteen at DeLuca’s in Hot Springs. They’re all part of the Arkansas food story. So are our myriad of burgers, from the largest in Arkansas at Ed Walker’s to the famed Feltner’s Whattta-Burger in Russellville – that isn’t and never will be part of a chain – as are the dozens of different purveyors of barbecue, beef or pork or chicken or all three, who bring thousands to Blytheville, DeVall’s Bluff and even Ozark each year.
People don’t eat like we do elsewhere. That’s something to not only take pride in, but to brag about and share with others, to bring them here for fellowship and friendship, and to put a few more dollars in the local kitty to boot. It’s important we recognize these remarkable culinary contributions and traditions, to enjoy them with each other and to preserve them for generations to come.
Kat Robinson is Arkansas’s food historian and most enthusiastic road warrior. The Little Rock-based travel writer is the host of AETN’s “Make Room for Pie: A Delicious Slice of The Natural State” and a committee member for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. The author of Arkansas Food: The A to Z of Eating in The Natural State, Kat has also compiled the comprehensive travel guide for pie lovers, Another Slice of Arkansas Pie: A Guide to the Best Restaurants, Bakeries, Truck Stops and Food Trucks for Delectable Bites in The Natural State (2018). Her other books are Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State (2012), Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley (2013), and Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta (2014). She is the Arkansas fellow and curator to the National Food and Beverage Foundation, and the 2011 Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism Henry Award winner for Media Support.
She lives with daughter Hunter and partner Grav Weldon in Little Rock. Her latest book, Arkansas Food: The A to Z of Eating in The Natural State, can be found at Bookish in Fort Smith and Chapters on Main in Van Buren, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.