Words by Best Chef Lee Richardson
Arkansas is reasonably the South’s most overlooked and underappreciated contributor to the recent emergence of our newfound American foodie consciousness. This state is a virtual unknown. It doesn't have the tourist and commercial draws of a coastline or booming metropolis.
Prior to the recent interest in sustainability and small-farm agriculture, the busy, bustling, rat-racing public - forever in search of newer, bigger and better - had little interest in the small-town feel of The Natural State. Today, Arkansas finds itself befitting to be the next big culinary destination.
Arkansas cuisine is one of staples, not extremes. It is a state of significant spectrum, offering end-to-end defining elements of Southern cuisine and culture. By name alone, Arkansas starts with its Native American heritage. Its most significant influences come from African, English, Scotch-Irish and German traditions. I find the cuisine is best described as essential country cooking, with all of the African elements of Soul and thrifty preservation techniques such as pickling, canning and fermentation.
Arkansas produces vast amounts of commodity chickens and rice, sweet potatoes and pecans. We have the transport infrastructure and retail outlets to get these products to the rest of the world. Closer to home, a rapidly growing farmers market community has gone online to share our abundance of pastured eggs, heritage poultry and hogs, some grass-fed beef and lamb. We enjoy Arkansas Black Apples and Arkansas Traveler Tomatoes, Hope Watermelons, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, purple hull peas, squash and okra, plenty of sweet corn and more greens than you can shake a stick at.
This is a wine-producing region. I get fresh buckwheat flour to make pancakes from an old-fashioned stone mill, called War Eagle Mill, in the northwest corner of the state. I go to the Delta in DeWitt for paddlefish caviar.
What defines the world’s most recognized cuisines is the sense of place found within the experience of a product; whether it's the seasonal emergence of a local fruit or vegetable, a regional technique or preparation. As America continues to turn its back on processed foods and looks for heritage livestock, heirloom fruits and vegetables and honest cooking, The Natural State is well-positioned to find itself as a place of interest. Come, get a taste. But if you arrive between Thanksgiving and the end of January, we’re going to be in the deer woods or the duck blind, hunting!