Learning to love ourselves

I wrote in the previous post about Lee Richardson, the talented chef at Little Rock’s Capital Hotel who came here from New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina.

Let’s make one thing clear: There were a lot of great cooks and chefs in Arkansas before Lee joined us.

Lee is a superb chef and deserves the national attention he’s receiving. But this has been Lee Richardson’s most important contribution to our state: He made us finally begin to fully appreciate what we’ve always had.

In the months before Ashley’s and the Capital Bar & Grill reopened, Lee traveled the state, getting to know those who raised the vegetables, the apples, the peaches, the strawberries, the pecans, the pigs and the cattle; the people who produced the milk and cheese; those who fished the streams; those who baked the bread and bottled the wine.

He was amazed that a state of fewer than 3 million people could offer such a rich, varied, bountiful harvest.

It’s an old story in Arkansas with our much-discussed inferiority complex — the natives are the last people to truly appreciate what’s here. It sometimes takes an outsider to educate us.

When it came to Arkansas cuisine, that outsider was Lee Richardson.

Here’s what my friend John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss wrote on the Gourmet magazine (rest in peace) website back in December 2008: “Arkansas has long gotten short shrift. Even by Southern standards. Writers for culinary glossies have often deigned a visit, a taste, a report.

“Sure, chow geeks have Craig’s Bar-B-Q and Family Pie Shop, both in DeValls Bluff, programmed into their GPS systems. Ditto McClard’s Bar-B-Q, since 1928, the Hot Springs purveyor of hot tamales and sliced pork.

“Kitchen wonks know about Microplane, the Russellville-based company that discovered high-grade rasps and planes could be used in the kitchen as well as the woodworking shop. And students of agri-activism will no doubt point out that Heifer International, the nonprofit that promotes animal husbandry in the developing world, is based in Little Rock.

“But for most of us, Arkansas has always just been the place that gave birth to Bill Clinton. It has been that state wedged, somehow, between Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma. It has been a province without a personality, a place neither here nor there. (Such sentiments are unfair and inaccurate, but they’re honest reflections of the culinary and cultural zeitgeist).

“Don’t despair, citizens of Arkansas. There’s hope for you yet. Soon, your culinary treasures will be trumpeted. Soon, the blogocracy will descend, in search of Petit Jean ham and White River paddlefish caviar.

“If that comes to pass, Lee Richardson, chef at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, will have earned a large measure of the credit. He’s not a local — he’s a native of Louisiana who made his bones at John Besh’s grand Restaurant August in New Orleans. But he’s intent on showcasing all that is localish.

“To prove my point, I could walk you through the menus at Ashley’s, where breakfast means sausage gravy, poured from a warmed porcelain pitcher, over cat-head biscuits. And dinner means sorghum-roasted duckling with black apples and bitter oranges. Or I could plant you at the Capital Bar & Grill — where lunch in this, the capital of American rice growing, translates as rice-fried catfish and pickled green tomatoes, served on a disk of jalapeno cheese pudding with a dipping sauce of malt vinegar remoulade.

“But I’ll direct your attention, instead, to the gift basket I found in my room when I checked into the Capital. I was in Little Rock to give a talk at a literary benefit. It wasn’t a paying gig. But it did come with payoffs: dinner in the wine cellar beneath Ashley’s; a breakfast, also at Ashley’s, of buckwheat pancakes and house-made sausage; and that gift basket, a hamper really, overflowing with Arkansas provender.

“I spied three different sorts of Arkansas apples. And some Arkansas squash, too. And two paper pails of spiced Arkansas pecans. And a jar of Arkansas rice meal, accompanied by a handwritten recipe card. Yes, there’s a bottle of Australian Shiraz in the mix, but you’ll note that it’s flanked by two jelly jars filled with honest Arkansas moonshine.

“All of which is to say that Richardson, it seems, has his head on straight. He knows what curious culinary folks want, and he’s committed to delivering the best Arkansas has to offer. And that’s a good start.”

Well said, John T.

Take, for instance, that Arkansas caviar. Lee has used it while bringing it to the attention of people both inside and outside the state.

What do you mean you didn’t know caviar comes from Arkansas? Our freshwater caviar is served in some of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

Joe York, who makes documentaries at Ole Miss, has turned out more than 25 short films for the Southern Foodways Alliance. He’s currently working on a feature-length documentary to be called “Southern Food: The Movie.”

Joe spent several days in Arkansas, making sure our state is a part of the Southern food story.

I took him to Lassis Inn in Little Rock for fried buffalo ribs and to Gene’s in Brinkley for the Sunday night wild game dinner. On a cold morning, Joe went out onto the Mississippi River with Lee Ross and Billy Ray Manues from DeWitt in search of paddlefish and their tasty eggs.

Joe wrote a piece on the harvest for the most recent issue of Gravy, a Southern Foodways Alliance publication.

“Growing up in Alabama with my steelworker dad and my high-school-teacher mom, we didn’t eat that much caviar — and by ‘that much,’ I mean ‘any,”’ Joe wrote. “Caviar just wasn’t for us. It was for action-movie villains who shoveled it into their big, evil mouths and then shot people dispassionately for trivialities like forgetting to feed the cat or not liking caviar.

“But not long ago, I heard that folks from Arkansas were working the Mississippi River to harvest sacs of roe from a peculiar fish that looks like a small dolphin sans blowhole with a canoe oar for a nose. I thought I’d better give caviar a chance.

“Lee Ross is one of those folks. He runs a catfish joint in DeWitt, but between November and March he also deals in caviar. On cold winter mornings when reasonable folks are settling into their third cup of coffee and thinking about calling in sick, Lee and his sidekick, Billy Ray Manues (who Lee says looks exactly like the Red Baron as portrayed on a box of Red Baron-brand frozen pizza), are already howling down the river in search of these fish with black gold in their bellies.”

They’re after paddlefish. We tend to call them spoonbills in Arkansas (isn’t it interesting that we have what’s generally considered a “trash fish” and what’s generally considered a “trash duck” by sportsmen that are both called spoonbills by Arkansans?).

When asked if they like the eggs, Billy Ray said: “I don’t want that crap in my mouth.”

Lee Ross said: “I eat it up there when we process it, but I don’t really know how to eat it. People have told me they eat it with toast and butter and smear it on there, or on them little pancake things. I like it all right, but it just ain’t something I want to eat.”

Lee Richardson makes sure that artisans such as Lee Ross get their due.

Lee Richardson is one of us now. If you doubt it, check out an interview with him at the Viking Range Corp. website.

When asked what his favorite pastimes are when he’s not cooking, eating or drinking, Lee answered: “Deer hunting and late-night blues. Getting in the woods and letting loose a litle inhibition are both a little like medication when I get caught up in the grind.”

When asked his philosophy in the kitchen, he answered: “I have one major driver: My cooking is a very personal and intimate communication between myself and the recipient of my food. With that as an understood foundation, I focus on a continual and incremental growth and improvement as opposed to say perfection and only perfection at every step of the way.”

Thanks, Lee, for making us realize what we already had when it comes to Arkansas food.

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