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The perfect Arkansas summer meal

The website, 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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