What to say about the cuisine of Arkansas? Like so many others from the nation to the South to even Arkansas itself, I am finding it extremely difficult to pin down. Hanna Raskin of Slash/Food quotes Chris Smith, director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, who sums up Arkansas food best:
"Arkansas is one of those states where the Northwest is different than the Southeast, and the Northeast is different than the Southwest," Smith says. "I don't think it has as much fried food as Louisiana, and I don't think it's as Mexican as Texas." [Raskin]With that, I face the daunting task of finding some of the food of 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)
I say with some exasperation that this state has been somewhat difficult for me to explore. The reason I say that is because it is absolutely so difficult to pin down any one or two recipes that exemplify "Arkansas". It's "typical Southern food". It's dry rub brisket 'cue and wet pork 'cue. It's Cajun. It's Ozark. It's becoming more and more international, with Thai and Latino and other flavors. It's pretty much goddamn everything, isn't it? And so it is very strange (or perhaps very fitting) that, with such culinary diversity even the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans felt it needed to have an exhibit in 2009 about Arkansan food because so few people - even Southerners - are not aware of the true diversity of the cuisine that is "Arkansas" cuisine (note: had I known about this place I would've gone out of my way to see this museum in November when I was in NOLA for the AAA meetings).
It is not, I might add, all Sonic and McDonald's (thank you, President Clinton).
Even Arkansas.com's "Southern cuisine" webpage offers very little that is specific to Arkansas. So they just reiterate Arkansas' culinary diversity:
Just about every type of cuisine is available in The Natural State. The state's Southern heritage, not to mention its agricultural background, influences much of what can be found here. But not everything is fried. Healthy alternatives are readily available, many made from locally grown produce. Nouvelle cuisine has a home here as well, as does continental, Cajun, vegetarian and various ethnic choices. [Arkansas.org]The Dutch oven is also an important part of Arkansas' pioneer past, so much so that it is the official State Cooking Vessel. Since so much about Arkansas food is so difficult to pin down, I figured I would at least narrow down my recipe choices to those that can be fixed in a Dutch oven.
This made things a little bit easier. The next step was to find a typically Arkansan, or at least typically Southern, dish that can be prepared this way.
My friend Jim, who is Californian by birth but Arkansan by heritage, was not much help here (thanks, Jim). But one tradition he carries on every New Year is the ritual of making a heaping helping of Hoppin' John. This dish is a mixture of black-eyed peas, rice and some sort of pork usually ham hocks and/or bacon. In her cookbook The New African-American Kitchen, Angela Shelf Medearis - the "Kitchen Diva" - notes that Hoppin' John comes from East Africa:
Black-eyed peas [and with it, Hoppin' John] were transported from Africa to the West Indies and then into the Carolinas before the 1700's... Some say the dish got its name from the word bahatta-kachang, meaning peas with cooked rice, which is of East African origin. Others say the name comes from the tradition of having the children of the family hop around the table on New Year's Day before eating the dish. [Shelf Medearis, p. 130; emphasis mine]It is a uniquely Southern dish, though I did ask my mother if she had ever heard of it. She said it sounded familiar (after all, Maryland's foodways are somewhat rooted in the South, even if less so today than in the past - but that discussion is for another post). I can't say I grew up eating this at all (like I said: somewhat rooted in the South). We usually just ate the snacks and finger food we made for the previous night's festivities.
According to Jim and more academic sources, eating a bowl of Hoppin' John on new Year's will bring you good luck. I need some luck, and many Arkansans will have eaten this on New Year's. With that and the addition of the rice (Arkansas' chief agricultural export), it just seems like an obvious dish to make.
The recipe: Hoppin' John
The basic outline for Hoppin' John is deceptively simple: black eyed peas and rice mixed, usually mixed with some sort of meat and often some sort of vegetable. But in reality, there is no one way to prepare Hoppin' John. Some recipes call for soaking dried black-eyed peas overnight, others call for cooking them straight up, still others demand only fresh ones. Some suggest you prepare the rice first, others require you to add the rice uncooked. Some call for sausage, others bacon, still others ham hocks. I tried two recipes. The first turned out particularly bland and mushy - a mess of Damned black-eyed peas staring up at me in some twisted Southern version of Dante's Inferno in a Dutch oven. The second, from Kentucky native Ronni Lundy's Butter Beans to Blackberries: Recipes from the Southern Garden, turned out much, much better.
The ingredients are, by and large, very cheap:
* black eyed peas (a 1 lb bag will run your a grand total of - here it comes - $1)
* long grain white rice (rice: the main export of Arkansas! You can also find a 1 lb bag of this for $1 - $2)
* ham hocks (I got two lbs for about $1.50 per lb at Giant)
* various vegetables: jalapeño, red bell pepper and Roma tomato (I grew the chile myself, while the rest came to about $1 each - the bell pepper and tomato are not in Lundy's recipe, but do show up sometimes in Hoppin' John. I just wanted to add them.)
* onion (bought at the farmers' market several weeks ago at $3 for a small boxful)
* bacon grease or vegetable oil (I had both lying around. To get bacon grease, you need bacon. 6 to 7 slices will net you a little over 1/4 cup)
* water (lots of it. You're set if you paid your water bill)
Again, there are many ways to prepare this dish. Lundy recommends soaking 2 cups of black-eyed peas overnight in enough water that 2 inches worth come above it. I only soaked them for an hour, and was pleased with the results.
The rest takes a while, but is not that difficult. Put the peas in your Dutch oven-like cooking vessel with a ham hock. I also put my jalapeño and onion in with it. Bring it all to a boil, and keep them at a low boil for 90 minutes.
Next, as Lundy instructs, put enough water in the Dutch oven to have about 3 cups of liquid (I lost enough of my liquid that I had to add more during the initial boiling). Throw in 2 cups of uncooked rice, cover and simmer without removing the lid for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let it steam for another 10 minutes.
Here's where I should have used the onion: Lundy says you should saute it in a tablespoon of bacon grease or vegetable oil (but use the bacon grease if you have it). Here I also put my chopped up bell pepper in the skillet.
Saute until the onion is soft while the rice is steaming, and then add to the Hoppin' John.
As I said before, my first outing with Hoppin' John was, well, not good. This was much better. Yes, for my tastes, it needs a little dash of salt, and the tomato and peppers are a welcome addition. But I think the Hoppin' John really means to showcase the black-eyed pea and its flavor. It really goes well with some collard greens - I made some with yet another ham hock - and cornbread - in this case, a corn stick made, yes, with bacon grease. In all, this is good, cheap and hearty food, and may become a new tradition in my kitchen every New Year's. Or at least around New Year's. The only thing I have to watch out for is this: I burned just a bit of it. So next year it's going in my slow cooker, in which I have yet to burn anything.
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".