Merriam-Webster’s take on cornbread is “bread made with corn meal.” A definition so simple leaves ample room for creativity, which is exactly what Arkansans have found since 2011 at the state’s annual Cornbread Festival. Inspired by ancient Native American culinary customs, cornbread recipes have been perfected in southern family kitchens for generations. Considering the deep roots of this commonplace staple, it’s no wonder a festival in its honor has become one of the region’s most beloved and anticipated.
Returning to SoMa Saturday, October 27, the Arkansas Cornbread Festival is the brainchild of local digs developer Anita Davis. Davis launched the fest as a way to raise awareness of the once-declining stretch of Little Rock’s Main Street, south of Interstate 630, and strengthen community over crowd-pleasing cornbread and delightful tunes from local faves.
This year’s contest will test the talents of both professionals and amateurs. Along with a panel of celebrity judges, anyone with a tasting ticket ($8 in advance, $10 day of) will cast a vote for the best per-category cornbread and side-item chefs.
Running the gamut from savory to sweet, let’s take a look at some of the top-ranking hobbyists and professionals through the years.
In 2011, Terry Wright’s Cracklin’ Cornbread claimed Best Amateur, Best Amateur Traditional, and Best Overall. Amateur counterpart Johnny Reep did the Little Rock Firehouse Hostel & Museum proud with his non-traditional recipe. And the crowd was sweet on Ramona Cash’s Citrusy Corny Cornbread, which walked away with top Best Amateur Sweet honors.
The festival’s maiden year was stellar for professionals Old South Cornbread from El Dorado and SoMa’s own Loblolly Creamery. Old South's Big Daddy’s Hot Water Cornbread won Best Professional Traditional. This palate-pleasing recipe also repped the Natural State at the 2012 New Orleans Roadfood Festival. Loblolly’s Creamy Caramel Polenta Cake with Buttermilk Ice Cream and Fruit Compote stole the à la mode show for Best Professional Non-Traditional.
New talents emerged victorious in year two. Chef Marvin Mosley’s Savory Fried Cornbread had the right mix of apple sauce, Sprite, and pimento to win Best Professional Traditional and Best in Show for Fresh Ideas at Philander Smith College. Brown Sugar Bakeshop’s dark rum-infused Caribbean Cornbread bested the Professional Sweet category.
Every cornbread connoisseur knows the importance of complementary food fare, and so, in 2012, the ever-present sidekick gained its own contest category. Crowd-pleasing Coconut Curry Collard Greens stole the show, making The Root Cafe the first Best Side Item winner in cornbread history.
In ’13, Best Overall was served up by trio Doug Melkovitz, Patrick Cowan, and Cassie Toro. I’m guessing they had everyone at “bacon” with their delightful Jalapeno-Bacon Skillet Cornbread. Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church cooks claimed Best Amateur Traditional with Cotton-Pickin’ Soul-Kickin’ Cornbread, and Sweet Soul’s Chicken and Dumplings won for Best Professional Side.
Thrice-crowned De’Andrea “Sweet Dee” Gooden ahMAIZEd judges with her Best Non-Traditional and Best of Show cornbread in 2015. Her Heavenly Baked Beans wowed the crowd, too, taking Best Side honors. In ’16 and ’17, home-chef Marielle Carbajal took first and second place, respectively. Last year, Rosalia’s Family Bakery walked away with second-place spoils in the professional division, and The Root Cafe reigns victorious with their 2017 champ: Cast-Iron Cornbread.
More than 3,000 cornbread lovers showed up for the first fest, and the popularity of what Reader’s Digest calls one of the best fall food festivals continues to grow. Mark your calendar and plan to attend this year’s Arkansas Cornbread Festival. All the flavor and fun your fall-loving heart can stand will be yours for the taking between 11:00 AM and 4:00 PM Saturday, October 27, 2018, between South Main and 14th-17th Streets. See you in SoMa!