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Arkansauce: The state’s new food journal

I have some exciting news for those of you who love Arkansas food and the rich heritage of our state’s cuisine.

The Special Collections Department of the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville is about to publish the inaugural issue of Arkansauce: Journal of Arkansas Foodways.

I was honored when Tom Dillard, who heads the Special Collections Department, asked me to serve as the guest editor for this inaugural issue.

Here’s how the university describes the new food journal: “Arkansauce is a mix of popular and semischolarly articles, heavily illustrated with original documents, drawings and photographs. It focuses on topics including but not limited to nutrition, cooking, food customs, table manners, tableware, food history, chefs, food producers and production, restaurants, cookbooks, recipes, menus for both ordinary and special occasions, sociological aspects of foodways, the culinary heritage of minority groups and immigrants, and food-related poetry, mythology and literature.”

Arkansauce should be out by the first of January.

It’s the brainchild of John G. Ragsdale, who has done so much through the years to contribute to the study of Arkansas history and culture. Mr. Ragsdale is a special person and has a vision for what this publication should be.

I hope we can make him proud.

Here’s a short sample of what’s to come:

David Stricklin, who heads the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock, writes about hamburger joints: “One, for a really good hamburger, you need to get down and away from the factory model and find a place run by people who are likely to be there the next time you go to the place. Two, you need people to make the thing who will listen to you when you tell them how you want it prepared. These injunctions fit into my Unified Field Theory of Hamburger Excellence, which can be summarized in lay terms: The quality of a hamburger is found to be in inverse proportion to the quality of the sign outside the establishment producing and selling the hamburger for human consumption. In other words, you won’t find a truly great hamburger at a place with a sign that costs more than you car, i.e. at a fast-food chain.”

Kane Webb, the executive editor of Arkansas Life magazine, writes about Arkansas barbecue: “It is a moment of grace before the meal, a pause for reflection, gratitude and curiosity. Breathe deeply. Exhale. The mouth waters. You unwrap the wax paper, lift the barbecue sandwich — pulled pork, not beef, never beef — to your lips, bite with confidence and expectation and . . . analyze. This is the way Arkansans eat their barbecue. We may not all be food critics, self-styled foodies or gourmands, but, when it comes to pulled-pork barbecue sandwiches, we do have our standards.”

Ben Johnson, the dean of liberal and performing arts at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, writes about the good ol’ boys in a south Arkansas deer camp: “Time did not stand still at the Old Guard deer camp. Instead it was mixed up. The tales, fabrications, myths crisscrossed one another with such ferocity that history was bent and warped. One day Wilbur Mills was running for president and the next Bill Clinton dropped by to say he had another race in him. Tomorrow the camp founders would sign over to Witt Stephens the mineral rights on a new tract filed yesterday in the territorial land office as a Spanish land grant.”

Michael Dougan, a distinguished professor emeritus at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, writes about beans: “Arkansas needs a state vegetable. Although virtually every state in the union has a designated state vegetable, Arkansas passed a law in 1987 making the ‘south Arkansas vine ripe pink tomato’ the official fruit and vegetable. Just how the fresh fruity tomato (hence not store-bought) got to be a vegetable goes back in history.”

Trey Berry, a deputy director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, writes about small-town, locally owned restaurants: “Community and friendship. Those are the two words that are cemented in my mind when it comes to eating burgers in Arkansas. I know, most people think of sliced tomatoes, melted cheese, sesame seed buns or even the commercial double golden arches. But for this south Arkansas boy, dining at Arkansas burger eateries/joints/stands represents more than just a place to eat. Those eating experiences have shown me through my 49 years the importance of community, face-to-face conversations and lasting friendships.”

Kat Robinson, the Little Rock-based food and travel writer, writes about fried green tomatoes: “A green tomato is a sacrifice. It’s a red tomato that hasn’t had the opportunity to get that red. In good years you could eat them and not feel guilty — you’d have tomatoes coming off the vine all summer long. In bad years, though, you wouldn’t take them unless they were windfalls or you just couldn’t help it. Green tomatoes were also used for other things like pickles and relish. Perhaps they came from the leftovers, I don’t know.”

Ray Wittenberg, the advertising and development director for the Oxford American, writes about Mary Thomas’ Family Pie Shop in DeValls Bluff: “Just a quick word about DeValls Bluff because I can’t separate the town from the pie shop. It’s a scruffy old river town where my grandfather used to keep a boat, a small, wide-decked paddle wheeler called the Amharlee, named after the three men from St. Louis who owned the boat and brought it down the Mississippi and abandoned it for unknown reason at DeValls Bluff in the ’40s. Before Hot Springs was the place to cool off, folks from Little Rock would drive over to the White River and cast out for a sandbar on the weekend. My grandfather would have friends down for eating, cards and drinking. Mary Thomas would have been in her early teens back then.”

Louise Terzia, the director of development for the Historic Arkansas Museum, writes about blackberry cobbler: “Just the words ‘blackberry cobbler’ conjure up for me overexposure to summer sun, wasps, chiggers, stickers, mouth-burning inky oozing juices, endless waiting and hanging around the kitchen with the oven hot. Until yesterday, I firmly believed our mother made the best blackberry cobbler. Summers in Shreveport, my brothers would ride their bikes to the place where blackberry vines hung with the sweetest, darkest berries.”

Tom DeBlack, a professor of history at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, writes about Chicot County restaurants: “History has not been kind to the Arkansas Delta. Once the center of wealth and political power in Arkansas, it is now the poorest region in the state and one of the poorest in the nation. Many of the Delta’s once vibrant, agriculturally based towns are either dead or dying, and prospects for the future are uncertain. In at least one regard, however, the Delta more than holds its own with the rest of the state for there, in a number of establishments large and small, can be found some of the best food anywhere. Nowhere is this more evident than in a 10-mile span of U.S. Highways 82 and 65 in Chicot County, stretching from the Mississippi River west to the county seat at Lake Village.”

This has been a fun project. I hope you enjoy the finished product.

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