A cuisine based on community, family and a rural way of life – it’s the cornerstone of Arkansas cookery, but it’s not the limit.
In a state with a cultural menu that includes chocolate gravy, fried pies and stewed chicken and dumplings, innovation is taking over the kitchen, and new ideas are blending well with seasoned traditions.
The state boasts uniquely diverse geographical features that encourage different types of crops and harvests. In the Southeast, soybeans and rice reign supreme, while smaller regions feature bountiful and sought-after fruit and vegetables, such as Bald Knob’s strawberries and Cave City’s watermelons. Catfish farming ponds and chicken houses dot the land throughout the state. Fresh trout and bass grace the waters of the White River and its tributaries.
Local cultures also played a part in the development of the state’s fare. Cuisine developed from the meals we shared: potlucks at church and picnic lunches shared with family, barbecue dinners and fish fries, spaghetti suppers and cake sales. Arkansas’s food heritage comes from a history of neighbors breaking bread together.
A lot of that heritage is being put to good use in new ways, in the kitchens of Arkansas-based restaurateurs. Across the state, eateries are taking advantage of fresh produce and homegrown meats like catfish, pork and chicken — and reinterpreting the image of Arkansas cuisine. “We have seen growth in the number of meals eaten away from home,” says Dr. Robert Harrington, a culinary tourism expert at the University of Arkansas. “We have also seen a growing interest in contemporary interpretations of Arkansas cuisine in high-end restaurants such as Ella’s at the Inn at Carnall Hall, James at the Mill and the Capital Hotel. We have also seen a growing interest in the slow food movement in the state with two [Slow Food USA] chapters established and a growing number of farmers markets across the state.”
The slow food movement is dedicated to preserving the cultural legacy of eco-regions. Efforts to sustain Arkansas-based food development and to reduce “food miles” (the distance food travels from farmer to plate) have changed the gastronomic landscape for many chefs. Miles James, the executive chef at James at the Mill in Johnson, combines traditions and fresh Arkansas-grown food to create his unique Ozark Plateau cuisine. “We work with local farmers and use cooking methods like wood-burning grills and big cast iron skillets. [We use] War Eagle grits, local trout and a ton of local vegetables. We grow our own herbs at the restaurant. I try to take my experience from my travels and work with ingredients that are fresh. I want to work with food from around the world as well, like sushi-quality fish – grouper, snapper, calamari – but I always blend those with Arkansas ingredients like bacon or local vegetables or fresh greens.”
James believes it’s important to turn to local farmers and producers for a mutually beneficial working relationship. “We have developed relationships with several local farmers around here. We check in with them during the winter and let them know we’re going to need their products.
“A trout farm opened next door to us, which was extremely convenient. We buy fish that’s fresh caught each day and serve them that night. The reason we grow our own herbs is that we cut what we need each day – fresh-from-the-garden cuisine like the way it used to be, the way it had to be. So to me, that’s Ozark, the more local the better.”
Pleasing the Palate
Several restaurants statewide boast delectable menus, even in small towns like Johnson, a city with slightly more than 2,000 people on the outskirts of Northwest Arkansas’s urban corridor. Famed chefs Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and others are frequent guest chefs at the country club in Pine Bluff, a city about 45 minutes from Little Rock with a population of around 50,000. Smaller cities like Hot Springs and Conway also cater to folks with discerning palates, but for the most part, Little Rock and the surrounding metro area serve as the state’s capital of cuisine.
Downtown Little Rock’s Capital Hotel serves traditional regional fare with an upscale twist, the vision of executive Chef Lee Richardson, who brought his experience from the kitchens of high-end restaurants in the French Quarter with him when he relocated from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The creations range from rice-fried catfish with pickled green tomatoes, jalapeno cheese spoonbread and malt vinegar remoulade to mahi mahi with Arkansas Basmati, piquillo, eggplant and shrimp andouille butter.
The city’s culinary repertoire also includes Mary Beth Ringgold’s trio of restaurants, Cajun’s Wharf, Capers and Copper Grill all of which use produce grown within the state. Each restaurant specializes in a different sort of cuisine, with the venerable Cajun’s Wharf featuring fresh seafood specialties and an extensive wine collection and the newer Copper Grill dishing up gourmet selections with an upscale downtown attitude.
The list goes on and on, according to Chef Todd Gold, director of the Pulaski Technical College Arkansas Culinary School. The school got its beginnings in 1995. Today, with roughly 200 students, Gold says Arkansas will only continue to grow into a culinary destination like New Orleans or New York City.
The regional vice president of the National American Culinary Federation, who sampled fare from around the state on a trip, has told Gold how impressive his culinary tour was. “I think [the cuisine] is bringing a lot of people to our state and they’re realizing that it’s a great little secret,” Gold said.
Even more delicious, the price point on these meals makes it affordable for residents to enjoy top-notch cuisine regularly, Ringgold said. “From a price standpoint, you’re going to find a much better menu and be well-fed on $20 to $50 less than in a larger city. For an upper-end dinner, prices here average $25-$32 a person.”
Besides the ingredients, there’s one more Southern aspect at Arkansas restaurants – the hospitality. “I think the cuisine is less formal,” Harrington said, “as traditional dishes are based largely on at-home or community experiences,” creating a relaxed environment perfect for mixing good friends with good food.