A few years ago, a staff member at the governor's office ran across the Alabama Barbecue Hall of Fame, and sent a note to the Department of Arkansas Heritage suggesting somebody should take a look at that.
In June 2015, Stacy Hurst, who directs that department, did just that, pulling together a small committee of Arkansas foodies, historians and enthusiasts to explore the idea of creating an Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.
The concept, she explains, involves food "as history, culture and community" and an understanding as Arkansans, foodwise, of "what makes us interesting, what makes us unique, what makes us authentic."
The goal is to create a "robust conversation" on developing a sort of state solidarity based on what we eat and where we eat it.
On Feb. 28, the department will induct the inaugural class for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame, recognizing Arkansas' "legendary restaurants, proprietors and food-themed events," with a business-casual reception (5:30 p.m.) and induction ceremony (6:15) at Ron Robinson Theater, 100 River Market Ave., Little Rock. It will announce the winners in four categories: Arkansas Food Hall of Fame, Proprietor of the Year, Food-Themed Event and People's Choice.
The Arkansas Hospitality Association, Ben E. Keith and C&M Distribution will supply hors d'oeuvres and libations. Gov. Asa Hutchinson will be among the speakers and will help hand out the awards -- 12-inch custom-designed plates in shadow boxes for easy display. Tickets, if any remain, are $20. Call (501) 324-9349 or email email@example.com.
At a September news conference, Hurst and Hutchinson announced the creation of the Food Hall of Fame as well as the 12-person committee of foodies and food professionals, which in addition to Hurst consisted of Paul S. Austin, Evette Brady, C.C. "Chip" Culpepper, Cindy Grisham, Montine McNulty, Tim Morton, Rex Nelson, Tim Nutt, Kat Robinson, Christina Shutt and Lisa Speer.
Out of the 300 nominations from the public that closed Nov. 9, they chose these finalists:
• Arkansas Food Hall of Fame (non-chain restaurants that have been in existence for at least 25 years): Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, Marianna; Craig's Bar-B-Q, DeValls Bluff; Feltner's Whatta-Burger, Russellville; Bruno's Little Italy, Little Rock; Sims Bar-B-Que, Little Rock; McClard's Bar-B-Q, Hot Springs; Doe's Eat Place, Little Rock; Lassis Inn, Little Rock; Neal's Cafe, Springdale; Kream Kastle, Blytheville; Franke's Cafeteria, Little Rock; and Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales, Lake Village.
• Proprietor of the Year (a chef, cook and/or non-chain restaurant owner, in business for at least a year, who has made significant achievements in the food industry): Joe St. Columbia (Pasquale's Tamales), Helena-West Helena; Capi Peck (Trio's), Little Rock; Scott McGehee (Yellow Rocket Concepts, including ZaZa, Local Lime, Big Orange, Lost Forty), Little Rock; Paul Bash, Ed Moore, Louis Petit and Denis Seyer, Continental Cuisine partnership (originally Jacques & Suzanne's; subsequently, together or individually: Alouette's, Graffiti's, Purple Cow and Cafe Prego).
• Food-Themed Events (annual "unique food festivals and events that give residents a taste of Arkansas foods and hospitality" that have been held for at least five years): Annual Bean Fest and Great Arkansas Championship Outhouse Races in Mountain View; Gillett Coon Supper; World Championship Duck Gumbo Cook-off in Stuttgart; World Cheese Dip Championship in Little Rock; and Cave City Watermelon Festival.
• A single winner of the People's Choice Award, chosen not by the committee but based solely on the number of nominations for a non-chain restaurant or food truck that has been in business for at least a year.
The reception will feature Arkansas-themed appetizers and craft beers. "It'll be different and fun, and folks can come right after work," Hurst says. Folks will be able to take food and drink into the theater for the induction ceremony.
Food for the future
Hurst says the Food Hall of Fame will be an ongoing project, and after this year's festivities wrap up, post-event analysis will provide clues on how to improve it for subsequent years.
"We'll have opportunities to add, to tweak, and other ways to recognize" outstanding Arkansas food establishments, and "we anticipate every year adding another layer onto this effort," she says. That could include developing an annual food symposium, either a daylong or possibly an overnight event, featuring lectures and demonstrations. The Southern Foodways Alliance's annual event, for example, features a food-centered art installation.
In coming years the project could focus on specific Arkansas food items -- cheese dip (Hurst imagines a potential "cheese dip trail," for example), barbecue, catfish, cornbread, Delta tamales (the menu mainstay of three of this year's nominees).
Other "layers" might include a Heritage Food Trail, recognizing locally owned, longtime institutions as tourist destinations. A partnership with the state Department of Parks and Tourism to promote heritage-based food tourism is (if you'll pardon the expression) already on the table. Promotion efforts would focus not just on the Hall of Fame winners but on all of the nominees.
The Food Hall of Fame will continue to induct three Hall of Fame honorees, and one proprietor, food-themed event and People's Choice winner each year. Hurst says nominees who don't make it in this year are certainly eligible for renomination.
Proprietor of the Year nominee Joe St. Columbia says his Pasquale's Tamales in Helena-West Helena may be the oldest tamale establishment in the state.
His father and grandfather, who emigrated from Italy to the United States in the late 1800s, started the business in a grocery store in the early 1900s, while there was an influx of Mexicans into the southeast part of the state. (The family history is encapsulated at the restaurant website, sucktheshuck.com.)
"They taught my father and grandfather how to make tamales, and they taught them how to make spaghetti sauces," St. Columbia says. "It was an international exchange of cultures."
Their Delta tamales used a better grade of beef and seasonings in the filling, he says. "I didn't invent it. But it's a gourmet, quality product. [Today] we use top sirloin and chuck roast."
In the '20s, a young black couple looking to open a soul food place took over the tamale portion of the business. The St. Columbia family provided them with a building and a grubstake (so to speak), and they formed a partnership.
The St. Columbia family continued to own what was then called the Elm Street Tamale Shop through the Depression and the Second World War. St. Columbia's brothers took control in the '60s, and "it did real well," Joe St. Columbia recalls. When one of the brothers died, he took over the business.
"We kept the same recipe," he says. "I changed [the name] to Pasquale's Tamales because that was my father's name." They've added a factory and now ship tamales across the country.
"It's sort of like the Bush family -- only my dog knows the secret recipe," St. Columbia quips about the bean company and its TV commercials. Actually, he's trained a son to take over when the time comes. "He knows everything I know."
The annual Gillett Coon Supper, which takes place every January in the former high school auditorium in Gillett, between DeWitt and Dumas in southern Arkansas County, has become a major political event. Just about anybody who's anybody, in office or seeking it, shows up.
But it didn't start out that way, says Larry Bauer, treasurer of the Gillett Farmers and Businessmen's Club, which organizes the supper.
They're touting 2018 as being the supper's 75th annual, "but it actually started before that," Bauer says. It originated as a party after a raccoon hunt. "The PTA had it for a couple of years in the school" before the club took charge.
It used to be a fundraiser for the high school's athletic booster club. The school closed in 2009 after consolidation with the Humphrey and DeWitt districts. Now the money goes to scholarship programs. They've distributed $53,000 so far of the $95,000 they raised last year.
The supper draws anywhere from 600 to 750 people each year, which practically doubles the town's population of 700. So rather than the politicos boosting the attendance, it's more the other way around: The politicians started showing up because of the size of the crowd.
The politicking began while Bill Clinton was governor, Bauer recalls. Former U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, "who has a house across the street from the school gym," started inviting people to pre-event receptions. (Berry still supports the supper with a fundraiser on his farm that also raises scholarship money for Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.) "[Former Gov.] Mike Beebe claims that's where he got his start," Bauer adds.
The event drew national attention in 2014 when then U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and his opponent, then U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, both attended. Bauer remembers a two-person team from CNBC showing up from New York, partaking of the supper's main dish (with some reluctance), and then falling prey to a satire site's ''report'' that the supper had run out of coon and had served several hundred pounds of possum instead.
Then-Gov. Mike Huckabee showed up in 1998 accompanied by a fellow Republican, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, directly from a duck hunt and in camo, which led to what Bauer recalls is probably the only resolution the club ever voted down -- to ban wearing camouflage at future coon suppers.
The supper now features alternatives to raccoon -- brisket and ribs -- and side dishes, including sweet potatoes and rice.
Contrary to the popular myth, raccoon doesn't taste like chicken, Bauer says. "It tastes like raccoon." Last year, the barbecue-smoking team added a little lemon to the recipe, "and that took a lot of the wildness out of the taste."
More information is available online at ArkFoodHOF.com.
Style on 02/21/2017
Food-Themed Event nomination, World Cheese Dip Championship in Little Rock
Print Headline: Shrine to dining: Inaugural class of Arkansas Food Hall of Fame to be inducted next week