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Arkansas cuisine

The Oxford American is out with a new issue, and this one focuses on Southern food.

John T. Edge, who heads the Southern Foodways Alliance over at Ole Miss, was the guest editor for this issue. He makes clear that he likes people “for whom food is a caloric fuel, sure, but also a means of cultural expression, on par with music and literature.”

I’m one of those who believe there’s no greater expression of our Arkansas culture than our food. Last night, I sat at one of my favorite Arkansas restaurants — Gene’s in Brinkley — eating a couple of fried fiddlers. For those of you not familiar with the finer things in life, a fiddler is a small catfish that’s typically fried whole.

My late grandfather in Des Arc would go to the fish market on Main Street there and request that they save him any fiddlers brought in by the commercial fishermen on the White River. So my taste for fiddlers developed early in life. You cannot find fiddlers in many restaurants these days. But my friend Gene DePriest in Brinkley does them right.

In this food issue, Sam Eifling, one of our talented Arkansas writers, has an essay on Arkansas food. As Sam points out, it’s tough to define a distinctive Arkansas cuisine in a state that’s mostly Southern but also a little bit Midwestern and a little bit Southwestern.

“The future of food here could be a bright one, if we embrace the possibilities of our versatile soil and temperate climate,” he writes. “… Progressive farmers’ markets and vanguard Little Rock institutions such as Brave New Restaurant and Boulevard Bread Co. source local goods and are working, individually and collectively, to revivify farm-to-table connections.

“A smallish, landlocked state with Missouri’s backwoods as its roof, Mississippi’s catfish pipeline to its east, culinary powerhouse Louisiana to the south and Texas’ beef-pork-pepper riot at its southwestern corner, Arkansas resists glib division, but when it comes to food, primary are the Ozarks of the northwest, roughly, and then the Delta of the east and southeast. Historically, as now, life was work, money hard, and the only thing cheap was the time that a cook could invest in laboring over the family’s meals.”

After a fascinating journey through the Arkansas foodscape, Sam concludes that we love our pigs.

So what is Arkansas cuisine?

Here’s my best shot: Traditional country cooking done simply and done well, using the freshest ingredients possible.

Growing up in Arkansas, I was fortunate for several reasons when it came to enjoying food.

For starters, I’ve always loved to eat. I’m much like the family friend who, when my mother would ask if he were hungry, his father would quickly reply: “He’s breathing, ain’t he?”

I was also fortunate that all four of my grandparents lived into their 90s. I was able to spend a lot of time with them. One set of grandparents lived in Des Arc. My other grandparents lived in Benton. Both sets of grandparents had great gardens, chicken yards and fruit trees. And both grandmothers were superb cooks.

If they were still with us, they would be “busting up the garden” right now in these early and thankfully sunny days of March. Soon, I would be having soaked salad with fresh lettuce, radishes, bacon and that vinegar-bacon grease combination that’s so addictive. That salad always tasted like an Arkansas spring to me.

While spending summer days in Benton or Des Arc, I would go out early in the morning to gather fresh eggs and vegetables from the garden. I sometimes actually dream of picking okra, cucumbers, purple-hull peas, corn and pole beans with my grandmother in Benton and my grandfather in Des Arc.

I’m also fortunate that I grew up eating the food cooked by Mrs. Lucille Balch. We weren’t wealthy. But because my mother worked as the business manager for my father’s sporting goods store, we did have a maid at home. In this more enlightened time, I realize I should have referred to her as Mrs. Balch. But in the 1960s and the 1970s, our black maid was simply Lucille to me. In my mind, she was a member of the family. She helped raise me, for goodness sakes.

I loved her, and I loved her cooking. Her fried chicken. Her chicken and dumplings. Her fried apples. Her squash and onions. Her fried eggplant.

When I was home in the summer, our “dinner” was in the Old South tradition — at 1 p.m. My mom and dad would come home from work to eat the huge meal Lucille had cooked. My dad often would take a short nap on the couch before heading back downtown.

“Supper” was at night. It was more simple. But there were few things I liked better in the evening than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the cold fried chicken left over from earlier in the day and a glass of milk. Sometimes, a fresh cantaloupe would serve as dessert.

Like I said, I was fortunate.

You sometimes see that stock question that asks “what would you choose for your last meal?”

I’ll equivocate a bit and give you several answers.

If it’s around Thanksgiving or Christmas — Arkansas wild duck and cornbread dressing.

It it’s in the winter — fried quail, rice and gravy, biscuits and strawberry preserves.

If it’s in the spring, summer or early fall — fried crappie, fried potatoes and sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and green onions fresh from the garden. Please throw in some dewberry cobbler for dessert.

Let’s eat.

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