During the Depression, my great-grandfather took pride in telling his family—a tireless wife and ten children, of whom my grandmother was the youngest—that everything at their supper table, save the coffee and the sugar, came from their sprawling Southeast Arkansas farm: the greens, the smoked pork, the squash, the okra, the peas, the corn, the tomatoes. As my grandmother tells me this, we're sitting hibachi-side at a Japanese restaurant in her hometown of Pine Bluff, beside a young family sampling squid apparently for the first time, to the mother's puckered disgust.
We are packing ourselves with fried rice, chicken, steak, salmon. The dinner, in celebration of her eightieth birthday, is all right; it's the same fungible Asian you can order up in a thousand midsized towns across the country. Likewise, I'm lulled into thinking that her description of the Delta cornucopia matches the Arkansas cuisine I've known since boyhood and encountered ever since. We in the Natural State eat barbecue, we eat cornbread, we eat pecan pie; we export chicken, we export rice, we export soybeans. But outside of some conscientious efforts to craft a truly Arkansan cuisine, which we'll get to, none of those tastes is quite synonymous with Arkansas.
Ah, but wait—she remembered another food. When her Papa would catch what he called a spoonbill fish, he'd take it to Mama and say, Fix some caviar from this. She'd salt it, taste it, salt it, taste it, then sell it for six dollars a pound, a bounteous amount in the pre-war Delta. "I couldn't imagine anybody choosing to eat raw fish eggs," my grandmother tells me. "Mama explained to me that some people really thought it was a delicacy."
That image, of a slit fish belly spilling tiny black pearls onto the countertop of a bustling farm kitchen, returned to my mind a week later at the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock. There, chef Lee Richardson told me the first dish he would serve an out-of-towner, his introductory Arkansas morsel, is a buckwheat silver-dollar pancake topped with a dollop of crème fraîche and a spoonful of paddlefish roe from the White River, via the downstream hamlet of Dumas. As a native Louisianan, Richardson sees food as cultural heritage—a view less common in his adopted state, where he is trying to foster a distinct taste that we may not yet have discovered. As executive chef of Ashley's, at the Capital, he works primarily with Arkansas-produced foods. These ingredients for his signature amuse-bouche come from such exotic points as War Eagle Mill in Northwest Arkansas and Seven Doves Creamery in Mena.
"The food of the aristocrats," he says, "is here." His creation is harmonic: the earthy flavor of the bread, the brief but evocative bloom of river water in the inky fish eggs, and the cool aftermath of the fluffy cream. It is pasture following stream following field.
This is Arkansas cuisine at its finest, a celebration of relatively unadorned foods such as these, prepared with a doting like love. The future of food here could be a bright one, if we embrace the possibilities of our versatile soil and temperate climate. Some work is in process. Progressive farmers' markets and vanguard Little Rock institutions such as Brave New Restaurant and Boulevard Bread Company source local goods and are working, individually and collectively, to revivify farm-to-table connections.
A smallish, landlocked state with Missouri's backwoods at its roof, Mississippi's catfish pipeline to its east, culinary powerhouse Louisiana to the south, and Texas' beef-pork-pepper riot at its southwestern corner, Arkansas resists glib division, but when it comes to food, primary are the Ozarks of the northwest, roughly, and then the Delta of the east and southeast. Historically, as now, life was work, money hard, and the only thing cheap was the time that a cook could invest in laboring over the family's meals. "In Arkansas, as with most cuisines, it kind of develops out of a poor man's kitchen kind of thing, rather than haute cuisine," says Rob Harrington, a culinary-tourism expert at the University of Arkansas. Unspoken there is just how much the state has going for it: We've never lacked for poor men.
Our hardship fare would look familiar to other Southerners. Take poke salad, for instance. This is traditional greenery for residents of the hills, but it's nothing likely to escape to the world at large, because without ample boiling and reboiling, consuming the weed can put you in a coma. Harrington notes a friend of his who found handwritten cookbooks in an old Northwest Arkansas farmhouse with recipes for deviled brains—"It didn't specify what kind, squirrel brains or hog brains," he says—that involved sautéing or pan-frying the organ and stirring in onion, tomatoes, salt, and pepper. My grandmother remembers how much her Papa and brothers savored scrambled eggs with brains: "That was a big treat when we butchered a cow," she says.
In a region where, at least historically, winemaking has not been pursued with vigor, Arkansas boasts a long tradition, dating to the Swiss and German immigrants who, in the late 1800s, scratched vineyards in the Ozark foothills and founded wineries such as Wiederkehr and Post Familie in Altus. More famously, the state cranks out almost half of the country's rice and is home to one of the world's leading poultry producers. With such provenance in mind, Richardson incorporates rice into his catfish breading, conveying the complexity and "fluffy, nutty nuance" of the grain.
Chef Lee Richardson is far from the first to exalt a humble ingredient. The Arkansas Classic Country Cookbook by Bess Malone Lankford and her mother, Ruth Moore Malone, both deceased since the 1994 publication, is a veritable tour of minimalist cooking. Peach Brandy requires just two items: one half-bushel of peaches and fifteen pounds of sugar. The dandelion wine comprises three lemons, two oranges, water, sugar, and a quart of dandelion blossoms. One of the prized local dishes of Marion, just west of the Mississippi River, is the Tang pie at the Shake Shack. The going rate for powdered Tang mix is twenty dollars for twelve pounds. Grocery shelves, like hilltop vegetable plots, can yield inspiration.
Arkansas folklorist Mike Luster notes some of the local gems achieved by simple insights: fried chicken paired with spaghetti devised by Italian immigrants in Tontitown in the northwest; fried dill pickles a little farther south in Atkins; chocolate gravy in the kitchens around Jonesboro in the northeast. "Hog fat and chocolate," Luster says. "It'd be like if they had barbecue ice cream or something." Chocolate gravy may be like sex: We all feel we've invented it, no matter how many people have done so before. When you raise, design, cook, and devour a food, it couldn't be more yours. But is there a flavor that could yet define the state?
"The signature taste is elusive," Richardson says. Arkansas is Southern, it is Midwestern, and in the Ozarks—with its black apples, walnuts, cold-water trout, and country ham—it resembles Appalachia. You could assemble a sprawling meal that brought together the tastes of these intersecting regions in a way that would be distinctly Arkansan, but it would take a savant such as Richardson to do it coherently. When I put the question of the state's culinary identity to my uncle, a lifelong Arkansan whose jobs have pulled him all over the state, he was stumped: "I have eaten food in every county in the state. If there's something distinctly Arkansan, I haven't found it." One possible exception he mentioned: the annual Coon Supper in the Delta town of Gillett, where the state's pols make a show of enjoying barbecued raccoon.
By contrast, we do genuinely adore pig. It's fitting that the state's big college team chose as a totem an omnivorous and altogether delicious mascot, the hog, which can grow plump anywhere in the state, and whose slaughter brings gory holiday to kitchens poor and otherwise. "One of Papa's favorite jokes," my grandmother tells me, "when he was choosing hogs to be butchered, he'd say, 'That one there is Lucille's. The auburn-colored one. It's smaller than the others, but it's pretty.'" She laughs at the memory. "I always wanted the pretty one."
The hog accomplishes the essential, unifying feat of Arkansas cuisine: At low cost, it renders delicious almost everything it touches. Richardson's fried black-eyed peas, an appetizer at the Capital Hotel's bar, share a boiling pot with aromatic hunks of pork before getting crispy in peanut oil. The Arkansas Classic Country Cookbook would have you believe we can't abide a vegetable dish—baked beans, green beans, fried cabbage, and wild greens—without running a hog through it. Our Senator Blanche Lincoln used to include a list of the state's barbecue joints on her official website.
If you were to take a visitor to one and only one restaurant to observe this porcophilia, try McClard's, a barbecue joint in midtown Hot Springs, in business since the '20s. It's famous for the "spread," a hillock of cheese, onions, baked beans, Fritos, and chipped beef, served over tamales threaded with hickory-smoked pork. As eponym would have it, the restaurant's very name oozes with the echo of hog drippings.