The perfect Arkansas summer meal

The website www.delish.com, which is owned by the giant Hearst Corp., recently had a feature it titled “All-American Eats: Must-Try Foods from the 50 States.”

The editors at the website chose one ingredient or dish to represent each of the 50 states.

What did they choose to represent Arkansas?

Chocolate gravy.

That’s right. Chocolate gravy.

I had two grandmothers who were great Southern cooks. Both lived and cooked into their 90s, and neither ever prepared chocolate gravy.

I conducted an informal poll on my Facebook page, and the majority of those who responded had never had chocolate gravy when they were growing up.

Yet here’s what the folks at Delish wrote about Arkansas: “Chocolate gravy (a thickened chocolate sauce) is a common accompaniment for biscuits in the South. It’s a breakfast staple in Arkansas. It is thought that recipes for the decadent Southern treat were developed using chocolate pudding as a base in the 19th century. While there is no documentation about the addition of biscuits to the mix, it makes sense that a common baked good was grabbed at some point to dip in the chocolate gravy — and thus a breakfast tradition was born.”

“A breakfast staple in Arkansas.” Come on.

Had they said cream gravy or even redeye gravy, I would have given them a pass.

Too often I see editors in places like New York and Chicago coming up with what they think those of us in Arkansas should be eating and drinking as opposed to what we’re actually eating and drinking.

A couple of other examples are sweet tea and fried green tomatoes, both of which have become “trendy” in Arkansas restaurants but neither of which I was raised on.

When I was growing up in Arkansas, if you wanted your tea sweet, you took a spoon and put sugar in it. It wasn’t automatically brewed that way.

Yes, my grandmothers fried about everything — potatoes, okra, squash. But we were much more likely to have fried green apples (I could use a dish of those right now) than fried green tomatoes. If the green tomatoes fell off the vine early, they were put in the windowsill to ripen.

Sweet tea and fried green tomatoes are more of a product of the Deep South than of Arkansas. Again, though, we have folks who weren’t born and raised here (along with misguided Arkansas young people under the age of 50) incorrectly defining Arkansas cuisine.

Go ahead and have your chocolate gravy, sweet tea and fried green tomatoes. Frankly, I like all three. Just don’t try to tell me they’re Arkansas staples.

That brings me to the July issue of Arkansas Life magazine, which is a feast for the eyes that features beautiful food photography and stories on Arkansas food.

The editors at the magazine were nice enough to ask me to come up with my perfect Arkansas summer meal. I chose fried crappie and bream. Neither fish would have made the Delish list since I doubt the Yankee editors could correctly pronounce crappie or bream.

Here’s what I wrote for an Arkansas audience: “I’ve never been asked one of those High Profile-style questions about ‘what would you have for your last meal?’ But I’ve given the subject some serious thought and come to the conclusion that my last meal needs to occur in the summer since both Arkansas streams and gardens figure into the equation.

“Here goes: My last meal would consist of freshly caught pan fish (bream, crappie or a combination of both), fried potatoes with a bit of onion, slices of cornbread slathered in butter and the following items straight from an Arkansas garden: sliced tomatoes, green onions, sliced bell peppers and sliced cucumbers.

“The fish must be pan fried, not deep fried, and should be consumed the day it’s caught if possible. Also, it’s best if the vegetables are gathered from the garden on the same day. Wash it down with lots of iced tea. You really shouldn’t have room for dessert, but if you insist, it needs to be summer wild berry cobbler using either blackberries or dewberries. You should have the chigger bites to prove you actually picked those berries.

“Some of my fondest childhood memories are of days spent at the small cabin that was owned by my grandparents on Lake Norrell, a Benton city water supply lake that covers 280 acres in northern Saline County. It’s the lake where I learned to fish, frog gig, swim and water ski. Mornings were spent ‘perch jerking’ on the dock out front with my grandmother, using cane poles from cane my grandfather had cut. The bait consisted of either the red wigglers my grandfather raised in his worm bed (I got the duty of pouring the kitchen scraps and coffee grounds in that bed) or the catalpa worms gathered from the giant catalpa tree out back. Mam-Maw, as I called her, cleaned whatever we caught (‘If it’s big enough to bite, it’s big enough to eat,’ she would say) and pan fried the fish for lunch. I’ve never had better meals.

“My father also loved to fry the fish he caught. When he died last spring, we decided to hold a fish fry at the church following the memorial service. There was no way to catch the number of bream and crappie needed to feed that throng (my dad was a popular guy), so we catered catfish from Dorey’s in Leola. Still, I have to believe my late father, grandmother and grandfather would have appreciated the gesture.”

That’s my ultimate summer meal in Arkansas.

What’s yours?

When you pick up the magazine, you’ll see the photo that accompanied my short piece. I had warned the editors at Arkansas Life that Arkansans are savvy and that they shouldn’t try to pass off a piece of fried catfish in a photo as either crappie or bream.

Alas, I had to give up a bag of my precious crappie for the photo shoot.

In thinking about what I would rate second on my list of Arkansas summer meals, I came up with this: A bacon and tomato sandwich (no lettuce for me) using Arkansas tomatoes and high-quality bacon. Wash it down with a cold glass of milk and have half an Arkansas cantaloupe for dessert. And, yes, I put salt on my cantaloupe. The same goes for watermelons and grapefruit.

You’ll recognize the common denominator in both of my meals: Arkansas tomatoes.

Paul Greenberg writes his annual ode to the Bradley County Pink.

In a note last month to Paul and me, Bob Nolan of El Dorado wrote lovingly of the tomatoes being picked daily from his garden: “They are not Bradley Pink, of which you rhapsodize so eloquently. They are more pedestrian Early Girls and Celebrities, which I selected with great care and attention for early harvest. … I violated my self-imposed, long-entrenched rule of planting, in that I planted two weeks before Good Friday,

“The Lord, in his mercifulness, did not smite my garden down, and quite the contrary, has blessed it with abandance. I must admit, after only two weeks of having these home-grown delicacies daily, I still swoon with the indescribable aroma, flavor, texture and shape of these beauties. I almost forget, during the bleak winter months, the nuances of these gifts from the earth, but it comes quickly back to me with my first slice and then taste.”

I agree with all of that.

You can have your chocolate gravy.

I’ll take one of those tomatoes.

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11 Responses to “The perfect Arkansas summer meal”

  1. Karen Smith Moore says:

    Chocolate gravy? Please. I was grown before I ever heard of it.

    Now, my family has carried on the tradition of the perfect summer Arkansas meal. My husband’s garden is coming into its own right about now and I’m fixing purple hulls, tomatoes (at every meal), fried okra in cornmeal, boiled yellow squash and fresh corn on the cob. In a bit, we will have some pintos and new taters along with sliced tomatoes.

    As you can see, we turn into vegetarians in the summer time. There are just too many delicious veggies fresh from the garden.

    (now we did have fried green tomatoes and sweet tea growing up, but one of my Mam Maws was raised in Texas….)

  2. Kat Robinson says:

    I found surprise with the selection too, Rex, but for different reason. I would have thought the definitive research Nick Rogers did into the history of cheese dip would have set it on that spot.

    But at least chocolate gravy is an Arkansas creation. Everything I have tracked down leads it straight to the Ozarks, where post-World War II home cooks challenged by the new wave of cookbooks like Betty Crocker and Better Homes & Gardens tried making something “trendy” that would compare to strange (and now all but gone) delights such as Hot Dog Casserole and such. They had powdered cocoa and butter, flour and sugar and they sure knew how to make a roux.

    My shock in your piece doesn’t come from your choice of fish — I have caught and consumed more than my share of sun-ear, crappie, bass and bream — but in your side items. I also love and adore Arkansas tomatoes and cucumbers… but where, dear Rex, where are the peas? The blackeye peas, crowder peas and of course the mighty PurpleHull? Where are the butterbeans? The snap beans? Have you a place on the sideboard for a dish of those?

  3. George Baker says:

    Rex you hit the nail on the head azs usual. I grew up in the deep south, Alabama. Georgia and Florida and never had chocolate gravy. My Grand Maw Baker made tomato gravy and regularly fried chicken, including the feet which were my dad’s favorite piece. I have 59 tomato plasnts this year and each one has a bout 30 good sizedx tomatos aboard. Beverly and I eat more tomatos than the average bear, probably 20 0r 25 a day. The good quality bacon you mentioned is essential.
    Yesterday Beverly and I went to the garden and picked a small mess of butter beans and had them for the 4th. My dad, after he retired raised butter beans and sepoerated the immature ones from the mature ones, a treat that cannot be bought in any store I know of. He saved them for when all us boys were home, what a treat. G.B.

  4. rexnelson says:

    All of you are making me hungry — Karen, Kat and George. And, by gosh, Kat you can throw in those purple-hull peas with the fish. I will eat every last one of them, maybe with some homemade chow chow — Rex

  5. Bill Conine says:

    It is 10:00 am. I just read this and find myself starving to death. I agree with all of your foods picked, except I did grow up with chocolate gravy. Both of my grandmothers fixed this as Saturday or Sunday morning breakfast treats with those old “cathead’ bisquits. We did drink the tea sweet out of big goblet glasses almost too big for a boys hand.

    I love thinking about those days.

  6. AllenK says:

    How funny that I would follow the last reply! Bill beat me to it. I have eaten the same chocolate gravy and cathead biscuits as Bill. I didn’t have the same appetite for the gravy as he did,but I loved the cathead biscuits. I remember the big tea pitcher,but I was a hardcore Coke drinker when I was a kid. Didn’t pick up the sweet tea addiction until later years. And there was always pepper sauce on the table too for the greens,and Mexene for the pinto beans. Good times.

    My other grandma has only tried making chocolate gravy in the last few years. She has made homemade biscuits for the majority of her 93 years though. She and my Grandpa had a huge garden in Gum Springs,and we spent many days and nights shelling peas and shucking corn. You might get rewarded for that work with a fresh cantaloupe or watermelon from the garden though.

  7. Hank Perrin says:

    Good article Rex, but I beg to differ on a couple of things. The only part of Arkansas in the Deep South is the Delta, and Helena is the town that defines it. I was raised there, and I assure you that we had sweet tea and fried green tomatoes with alarming regularity. Choclate gravy? Never heard of it. Must be some mountain invention as one of the writers above says. Also, while we had plenty of crappie and bream (love ‘em), catfish was king.

  8. Hank Perrin says:

    Not a good typist. I meant “chocolate”!membersrurbwa

  9. Prissy Hickerson says:

    Chocolate gravy? Never had it, never made it. But growing up in Southwest Arkansas we had pan fried crappie, bream, white perch (never catfish) freshly caught from Black Bayou in Northwest Louisiana where my parents had a cabin. Gravy? Why fish gravy of course! You throw the cornmeal (left over from breading the fish) into the skillet, brown until chocolate colored, pour in hot water and simmer. It was a heart attack on a plate, served over white bread with a dollop of ketchup. I don’t know if anyone else has heard of this gravy and I haven’t had it since childhood but remember it was my favorite part of any fish fry.

  10. ellenk says:

    The meal I have to have whenever I come home is: catfish, hushpuppies and pinto beans. Not sure (and don’t care) where they come from, but they are best in the South. I’ve gone to a Friday Night fish fry here in Wisconsin twice … and both times I got sick. Not sure what they are doing to the fish up here!

  11. Joellen says:

    Prissy, I too grew up enjoying fish gravy. I’m from Southeast Arkansas, still live there, so maybe it’s just something us old stump jumpers have knowledge of. And Rex, I grew up on sweet tea and lots of fried green tomatos. My favorite summer meal: Purple hull peas, cornbread, fried corn (fresh off the cob), fried okra, garden fresh sliced tomatos and onions.

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