Nov. 21: A celebration of Arkansas’ food culture

WHO: Those who love Arkansas food and the state’s unique food culture.

WHAT: A gala to celebrate Arkansas foodways.

WHERE: The Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 21.

WHY: To raise money for the Arkansas exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Tickets are $125 each. Food and wine stations will feature special pairings of Arkansas fare with Presqu’ile wines. Presqu’ile is a California vineyard with Arkansas roots. For more information, call (501) 661-9911 or email morris.leslie@sbcglobal.net.

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On Saturday, Arkansas food expert Kat Robinson, whose latest book is “Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley,” will speak at the SoFAB Institute’s new culinary library and archive in New Orleans.

Thanks, Kat, for spreading the great story of Arkansas cuisine to the Crescent City and beyond.

The library and archive officially opened Wednesday.

Here’s how the Times-Picayune in New Orleans described the facility: “For the past eight years, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum has collected menus, cookbooks and pamphlets from food companies and much more. The library opens with almost 12,000 cookbooks, SoFAB president Liz Williams said. The books will not circulate; the collection is intended for research. … Williams said that other libraries — including the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, which has a large culinary collection — have sent their cookbooks here, and libraries are happy to know of a place that wants them. Other books were donated in honor of relatives who collected them by people who inherited cookbooks. Ken Smith, the former chef of Upperline, donated his huge cookbook collection when he left the restaurant business. SoFAB started collecting books a few months before Hurricane Katrina, and between 600 and 700 were lost in storage at Southern University of New Orleans. Afterward, publishers sent box after box of generous donations.”

Williams also put out a call for regular folks across the South to send in cookbooks.

Arkansas answered that call better than the other Southern states. Though Williams is a New Orleans native, I think she has a soft spot for those of us from Arkansas. That’s one reason Kat is on the program for the library’s first Saturday and probably why Liz Williams asked me to be on the SoFAB Institute board.

“We are going to have a wonderful resource for home cooks, culinary students, scholars and researchers here in New Orleans,” Williams told the New Orleans newspaper. “And it will continue to grow with new books, old books, pamphlets, postcards, papers, all kind of ephemera. We consider ourselves a repository and not a regular library. You can find that old book that most libraries would have sent to deaccession because they need the space. If you want to do historical research, this is the place you can put your hands on those older books and pamphlets.”

Let me back up and give you a bit of background.

Then, let me tell you about the event of the year for Arkansas foodies, which will be held Nov. 21 at the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock.

SoFAB is the parent organization of the New Orleans-based Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

It’s the brainchild of Williams, whose bachelor’s degree and law degree are from LSU. Here’s how the organization’s website (www.southernfood.org) describes her: “Always fascinated by the way the lure of nutmeg and peppercorns motivated the exploration of the world, Liz Williams was lucky to be born into a family of Sicilian heritage in New Orleans. She grew up eating in two great food traditions. She is a founder and president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Much of her research and writing centers on the legal and policy issues related to food and foodways. Besides establishing this new museum, which opened in June 2008, she consults on issues of nonprofit management and governance as well as public-private partnerships, intellectual property and publishing.”

As president and CEO of the University of New Orleans Foundation for five years, Williams played a key role in the opening of the D-Day Museum (now the World War II Museum) and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum opened its doors less than three years after Katrina as the city was struggling to recover. It found a space in the Riverwalk Marketplace, an indoor mall of mostly small shops that had grown up in an area that had been developed for the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair. Though based in Louisiana, the museum was designed to celebrate the diverse food of the entire region. The museum was viewed as a place that would host exhibits, demonstrations, lectures and tastings. It would showcase the food and drink of the South. Partners would be other local and regional museums, restaurants and academic institutions.

The museum’s exhibits would focus on:

— The food and drink of the South

— The ethnicities that have contributed to Southern food and drink traditions

— The farmers, fishermen, hunters and gatherers who have produced the South’s food through the decades

— The processors, inventors, chefs and business owners who run restaurants and stock stores with Southern products

— The home cooks and families who have passed down recipes and food traditions for generations

There was one big problem. The Riverwalk already was in decline, drawing fewer visitors with each passing month.

In 2011, the Howard Hughes Corp. bought the mall and decided to undertake the first major redevelopment of the Riverwalk since it opened in 1986. The new owners decided to transform the Riverwalk into an outlet mall designed to attract the thousands of cruise ship passengers coming and going to the nearby ship terminals.

“We are part of a movement across the city where retailers are discovering the city,” Howard Hughes Corp. senior vice president of development Mark Bulmash told WWL-TV. “About two and a half years ago, we had a lot of resistance from retailers. There was a lot of work involved.”

The company let the existing leases run out and closed the Riverwalk for interior demolition. Earlier this month, the names of more than five dozen retailers that are headed to the outlet mall next summer were released.

Rather than letting panic set in, Williams saw an opportunity to move the museum into one of the city’s historic structures, the Dryades Market.

The building at 1504 O.C. Haley Blvd. will be converted into a new Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Plans for the building include the Leah Chase Gallery, the Museum of the American Cocktail and the Gallery of the States. There will be a demonstration kitchen, a museum shop and a full-service restaurant and bar. The second phase of the complex will include additional galleries, a children’s gallery and a rooftop garden.

The Dryades Market opened in 1849. Three years later, the market was expanded by the city. The original building was demolished in 1857 to make way for an expanded market that included updated equipment. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the city of New Orleans paid for improvements that included brick and iron columns. Electrical lighting was added in 1903, and the market became a popular spot for political rallies and other meetings. In 1911, that building was demolished and replaced with a $60,000 structure that included a refrigeration plant. It was renovated in 1932-33 at a cost of $125,000. The building was turned over to a private owner in the 1970s.

Randy Ensminger — a Little Rock businessman who is a foodie of the first order — has been on the SoFAB board for a number of years. The Nov. 21 gala was his idea. Randy is developing a gorgeous piece of property along the Little Red River near Heber Springs known as Primrose Creek. He loves Arkansas as much as anyone I know. He wanted to not only raise money for the Arkansas exhibit in the Gallery of the States at New Orleans but also begin an event that fellow foodies would love. He hopes to make it an annual affair, something that will be near the top of the social calendar each fall.

The exhibits in the Gallery of the States — which will be created by curators from each Southern state — will explore and celebrate the food items, recipes, people, brands, dishes, agriculture, industry, cooking techniques and history that make each state different. I’ve never felt that Arkansas has received its due as a great food state. The food focus in the South has always been on Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida and some of the other Southern states. Talented young producers, chefs and food bloggers are changing that.

We’re entering a golden age of Arkansas food and drink.

“Arkansas has an opportunity to showcase it culinary heritage with a permanent exhibit at the museum,” Ensminger says. “The Arkansas exhibit will allow our state to take its rightful place alongside other Southern states long known for outstanding food and beverage producers, products and purveyors.”

In addition to celebrating Arkansas’ culinary culture, the permanent exhibit will be designed to encourage visitors to the museum to travel to Arkansas and experience our state’s food.

We have something special going on here. It’s time to let the rest of the nation know.

 

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