Hoppin' John may be traditionally Southern, and it may be traditionally African-American. But I was still hung up on finding something you could only find in Arkansas.
Snacking State-by-State: Arkansas
Official Name: State of Arkansas
State Nicknames: The Natural State; The Land of Opportunity
Admission to the US: June 15, 1836 (#25)
Capital: Little Rock (largest city)
Other Important Cities: Fort Smith (2nd largest), Fayetteville (3rd largest), Springdale (4th largest)
Region: South; West South Central (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Corn Bread & BBQ
Bordered by: Louisiana (south); Texas (southwest); Oklahoma (west); Missouri (north); Tennessee, Mississippi & the Mississippi River (east)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: rice (grain); South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato (fruit/vegetable); Dutch oven (cooking vessel)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: many of the typical Southern classics (corn bread, hush puppies, catfish, sweet tea, barbeque, fried pies, fried chicken, Hoppin' John), chocolate gravy (Ozarks), Cajun/Creole (crawfish)
John Egerton helps me out here, in his mammoth compendium Southern Food, a book not of recipes but about the cuisine and its history. One uniquely Arkansan recipe he finds: something called Chocolate Gravy, found specifically in the Ozarks:
[F]or sheer originality, nothing can match chocolate gravy, a breakfast meal of long standing in the Arkansas Ozarks. Made in a saucepan with butter, flour, sugar, cocoa, and milk, it is customarily poured over hot biscuits. A 1976 recipe collection of the United Methodist Church women of Conway, Arkansas, resurrects this remarkable dish, the origin of which is lost in history. [Egerton, p. 189]I couldn't get a hold of this cookbook, and Egerton doesn't provide any recipes here, so I went online. I found a very useful recipe on Saveur.com's website. Indeed, many commenters on the webpage for Chocolate Gravy, almost all of whom were Southerners, had never even heard of Chocolate Gravy, though some had (most with ties to Arkansas). One recent commenter suggests the recipe is of Cherokee origin. It's a shame that so few people know about this because it's a quick and simple thing to whip up and serve on biscuits, cake or ice cream.
The recipe: Chocolate Gravy
As with most gravies that don't come in a packet, Chocolate gravy is made with a fat, a liquid and flour for thickening. Only instead of chicken or turkey drippings and broth, it's butter and milk, with a few things. Most of these ingredients will be around your kitchen:
* milk (I had some)
* flour (again, not difficult to find in my pantry)
* powdered cocoa (I was actually out. It only costs $2.50 to $3)
* butter (had it)
* sugar (had it)
* vanilla (had it - not all recipes call for this)
Just make a gravy from this stuff: melt the butter while you whisk the dry ingredients together. Add the dry stuff to the butter, stir, and add the milk. Stir until thick and smooth.
I was worried about it not thickening at all. Instead, I think it got a little thicker than it was supposed to. I have seen gravies that are almost pudding-like, but I know they aren't supposed to be that way. That's what mine turned out to be - like a pudding.
It was a runny, gravy-like pudding, but like a pudding nonetheless. That doesn't matter because it was still absolutely delicious and easy to whip up. You can pour this on cake or cupcakes as a last-minute ganache (don't expect it to harden), or on ice cream as an alternative to chocolate syrup.
The first State of the New Year is done, fittingly with Hoppin' John. And again, let's hope it brings the good luck it promises. The folks in California certainly need it after the last few years of recession and the recent megafloods. California is also the next stop on my road trip, and having lived there for several years, I have a specific insight into California's food. If you think Arkansas was tough to pin down...
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. "Southern Cuisine: Arkansas Southern Cuisine & Free Southern Recipes". Arkansas.com (http://www.arkansas.com), 2010.
Egerton, John. Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History. First edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1987.
Lundy, Ronni. Butter Beans to Blackberries: Recipes from the Southern Garden. North Point Press, New York, 1999.
Raskin, Hanna. "Southern Museum Pays Homage to 'Arkansas Cuisine'". Slash/Food (http://www.slashfood.com), posted July 21, 2009.
Shelf Medearis, Angela. The New African-American Cookbook. Lake Isle Press, New York, 2008.
Saveur. "Chocolate Gravy". Saveur.com (http://www.saveur.com). Originally printed in Saveur Issue #126, January 2010.
Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Arkansas" page and the Food Timeline State Foods webpage link to "Arkansas".