REX NELSON: Defining Arkansas food

Thanks to tens of thousands of miles put on the car and hundreds of restaurants visited through the years, Kat Robinson has become the expert on Arkansas food. She already has graced us with two books on pie--Arkansas Pie and Another Slice of Arkansas Pie. She also has written extensively about Arkansas diners and dives in two other books, Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley and Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta.

All of that research and writing was just setting the stage for the most comprehensive book on Arkansas food ever published, Robinson's Arkansas Food: The A to Z of Eating in the Natural State.

"Arkansas food is far more than fried pickles, cheese dip and chocolate gravy, though we will lay claim to all three and celebrate them ecstatically," Robinson writes in the introduction to this latest book. "It's our desire to take that first bite of a Johnson county peach in the hottest part of summer, or to whip up any number of gravies to go along with the preferred meat or starch of the day. It's our summer plate, our ancestral go-to that hearkens back to sitting down briefly at lunch to consume just a bit of what we had just picked from the garden, to savor quietly before resting during the hottest part of the day. It's the stew of culinary traditions absorbed in whole by a state awash in generations of immigrants from across the globe, assimilated in our culinary lexicon and humbly shared, rarely bragged upon, happily consumed. ... I've been immersed in this cuisine all my life, and I've studied it intently these past 11 years, and I still feel I've just scratched the surface."

I'm glad Robinson mentions the summer plate. When I think of Arkansas food, I think of vegetables straight from the garden along with a fried meat and perhaps a wild berry cobbler. That's what we would have on those summer days when my father would come home from work at 1 p.m. for the day's biggest meal. He would then take a short nap before returning to his store in downtown Arkadelphia. In the summer, my grandparents in Benton and Des Arc also had their big meals of the day at about 1 p.m. Arkansans ate breakfast, dinner and supper in that order.

I marvel at the misconceptions among young people and non-Arkansans when it comes to what constitutes Arkansas food. Those who moved here from elsewhere will mention sweet tea and fried green tomatoes. I never had either growing up. If you wanted your tea sweet, you put your spoon in the sugar bowl in the middle of the table, got a scoop of sugar, put it in your glass and stirred. It wasn't brewed that way. Sweet tea was much more of a signature item in the Deep South than in Arkansas. If your tomatoes fell off the vine when still green, you put them in the windowsill and let them ripen there. We never had chocolate gravy, either.

Robinson writes: "Almost every person I know my age or older who spent any time in rural Arkansas craves the apex of heat in our midyear; not for that heat but for the lunchtime meal we would savor and share together--the summer plate. As a child, it was the essence of humility, simply leftover cornbread and peas and whatever my maternal grandmother had picked that morning--fresh corn cut off the cob, sliced juicy tomatoes, sliced cantaloupe, chunks of white onion. If one of us had gone out that morning and caught a mess of bream, and if it wasn't too hot yet, Grandma Bear might take the cleaned fish and fry them on one burner."

Robinson writes that she and I "have been known to bemoan the fact that outsiders look in on us for our outrageous dishes--cheese dip, fried pickles and chocolate gravy--skimming on the sensational rather than looking for what we really eat. As time and generations pass, I fear the summer plate could fade. It is, in the end, the one dish that appears all over Arkansas, a single uniting idea that brings us to savor our bounty at the height of its glory."

One person who understands is Scott McGehee of Yellow Rocket Concepts, the culinary company that operates popular restaurants such as Big Orange and Local Lime. Robinson notes that McGehee has fond memories of summer plates at the table of his grandmother, Ruby Thomas, who made the Red Apple Inn on Greers Ferry Lake near Heber Springs one of the top places to eat in Arkansas when I was a boy.

"There were many similarities in our experiences," Robinson writes. "Both our families celebrated the bounty of the garden with fruits and vegetables harvested before the heat of the day drove everyone inside. There was often fried fish and cornpone. What separated our families in our dining situation appeared to be economics. Ruby Thomas' summer plate included items that had been cooked in an oven or on the stovetop without the concern of heating the house. Her table might have fried okra or beans from a hot pot."

Arkansas--and its food culture--has never been easy to explain to outsiders. We're mostly Southern but also a tad Midwestern and a bit Southwestern. We're a state in between. We're unique.

"Arkansas is a stubborn, hang-on-by-your-teeth subsistence land that adapts to weather, new folks and the lay of the land," Robinson writes. "Its cuisine isn't Southern or Appalachian or Midwestern, though elements of all of these things are evidenced by our communal meals. Its regional specialties are tied to its geographical holding place. My own experience of country fried venison and sugared rice as breakfast was certainly as strange to my Delta friends as their dinners of wild duck and rice were to me."


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 02/13/2019