It was another busy Saturday morning on the square in downtown Bentonville. Hundreds of people, many with dogs on leashes, wandered about, checking out the offerings at the farmers market.
There were tomatoes, peaches and other fruits and vegetables that one can find at farmers markets across Arkansas in the summer. But there was also an international flair, befitting the melting pot Bentonville has become as people from around the world move here to work for Walmart or one of the hundreds of Walmart vendors with offices in northwest Arkansas. There were several stalls featuring vegetables used in Asian cooking. There were others that had a south-of-the-border flair.
Just off the square at the Meteor Guitar Gallery, nationally known poet Patricia Spears Jones was at the microphone. Jones was born in 1951 at Forrest City. She attended segregated schools there and has vivid memories of when the black schools would close in the fall so children could help their parents pick cotton.
Jones, who has lived in New York City since the 1970s, earned a bachelor's degree from what's now Rhodes College at Memphis in 1973 and a master's degree from Vermont College. She was back in Arkansas thanks to the Southern Foodways Alliance, which asked her to participate in what the Ole Miss-based organization calls its Summer Field Trip.
Asian vegetables on the square. Saturday morning poetry-to-go with a good cup of coffee from Onyx, which I sipped while sitting in an intimate performance venue. It was just another day in cosmopolitan Bentonville.
I've attended such events in Louisville, Ky., and Jackson, Miss. The SFA chose to visit Arkansas this year in part because of some quality Indian food that the organization's director, noted Southern food writer John T. Edge, purchased one day in a Phillips 66 gas station off Interstate 40 near Mulberry. Tucked inside the station is the India Restaurant, which serves everything from an Indian lunch buffet to truckers' specials. Edge was particularly impressed with the samosas, which owner Satish Sharma serves with cilantro and tamarind chutneys.
Edge, who's generally recognized as the foremost authority on Southern food, knew that this wasn't the kind of thing that visitors to Arkansas expect. And he loves surprises. He saw the chance to plan an event that would defy the Arkansas stereotype.
"People want to portray the South as a simple place, and even a simplistic place, but it's not," Edge told an interviewer from Garden & Gun magazine last year. "It's complicated, and that's where the beauty comes from."
During the Summer Field Trip's opening session on a Friday morning, Edge talked about how charmed he was by the fact that he could buy Indian food along with red wigglers for fishing in the same place.
Melissa Hall, who also works for the SFA and was the featured speaker earlier this year at the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Little Rock, said she "only thought" she knew Arkansas food before making trips to the state to plan the Bentonville event.
Mary Beth Lasseter, another SFA employee, called Bentonville "a wonderful example of what happens when people from all over the world come together in one place."
People certainly came from across the country for this event. They were here from not just Southern states but also places such as Oregon and Illinois. I watched them on that first morning as they made the walk down the scenic trail from Compton Gardens to the south entrance of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Most of them saw deer running through the woods, headed toward the Bachman-Wilson House that was designed in 1954 by Frank Lloyd Wright. I could tell from the looks on their faces what they were thinking: "This isn't what I was expecting in Arkansas."
Historian Jeannie Whayne of the University of Arkansas talked that first morning about the state's history of migrations brought about by the need for labor. She centered her talk on the Italians who left Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village and made the long trip from southeast Arkansas to northwest Arkansas to found Tontitown.
Back at Compton Gardens for Friday lunch, attendees ate food served by Yeyo's, the outstanding Mexican restaurant in Bentonville's hip 8th Street Market. That night, dinner was at Flavors Indian Cuisine in Bentonville. The buffet featured sambar and biryani. After dinner, there were cricket lessons in a nearby park. Yes, cricket. In Arkansas.
Lunch on Saturday was cooked by Tang's Asian Market of Springdale, which has a Wednesday through Sunday lunch featuring glazed duck, pork belly, bao buns and more. At the upscale 21c Museum Hotel that night, chef Matt McClure of The Hive served up the traditional Tontitown combination of fried chicken and spaghetti.
The SFA, which does a lot of oral histories across the region, has a current project exploring the south Asian eateries and markets of northwest Arkansas. In addition to Tang's and Flavors, businesses featured in the project include:
• Aroma in Bentonville, which draws on the owners' family recipes from Pakistan. The lamb chops and biryani are crowd favorites.
• Pandiya's South Indian Cuisine in Bentonville, which offers assorted curries served on banana leaves.
• Food truck Indian Dhaba at the 8th Street Market, with a large selection of western and northern Indian chaats.
• India Mart in Bentonville, which sells hard-to-find Indian vegetables, spices and prepared foods.
• Khana Indian Grill in Fayetteville, serving food and drinks from across the Indian subcontinent. Favorites include spicy sambar and kati rolls filled with chicken tikka masala.
• R&R's Curry Express and Punjabi Kitchen in Springdale, offering north Indian dishes with roots in the Punjab state.
• P&N Asian Market in Springdale, which serves Thai and Laotian food.
• Manna Oriental Market in Springdale, which usually has a line out the door on Saturdays as people wait to buy its blood soup.
• A'Chau Asian Market in Rogers, where the crowds show up on Wednesdays for fresh blue crab.
• Community Butcher in Lowell, which sells halal meat butchered to order alongside a selection of Middle Eastern products such as sumac and grape leaves.
• Kwality Ice Cream & Grill in Bentonville, with Indian sweets such as jeera biscuits and kulfi (a rich ice cream) in flavors ranging from mango to saffron pista.
• World Food Mart in Bentonville, which sells items such as house-made boondi ladoo (a chickpea-flour confection) and pre-mixed batters for dosas.
This is Arkansas. This is the American South in 2019.
As ESPN writer and Mississippi native Wright Thompson told an interviewer last year: "The South has always been a cauldron that's under a great deal of pressure and that creates things, whether you're talking about the fact that Muddy Waters and Tennessee Williams are from the same town or the fact that the restaurants we go to are all run by people who, depending on how you look at it, are either vastly different or exactly the same.
"They are Southerners making their stand, through the food they cook, through their restaurants through which it's served, through the communities they build around that food.
"They are saying, 'This is me. This is us. This is home.'"
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 07/14/2019