Arkansas Food

From Unicorns to Plant-based Meats

By Jennifer Jensen Wallach

When John T. asked me to give a twenty-minute talk about the history of Arkansas food, I felt compelled to make the obligatory joke about what an impossible task this would be for a longwinded college professor. Nonetheless, I am honored to take on this important assignment and have spent the past few weeks reflecting about how I could construct a brief, yet intelligible, story out of the chaos of the past. I lecture about food history regularly and in fact just finished teaching a semester long course on the subject. The format and medium of the college class requires me to affect a certain level of detachment and to proclaim enough omniscience to set myself up as an authority who can dispense legitimate grades. However, when thinking about Arkansas, the locus of my childhood self, I found it far more difficult to channel the voice of scholarly authority and to conceptualize of food history in a way that wasn’t intensely personal or to begin in a place other than in my family’s kitchen in Rogers, Arkansas.

Jensen family, Rogers, AR, 1987.

Cookbooks and other food writing have helped set an expectation that food memories of a white, southern childhood should be framed with reminiscence about heirloom cast irons skillets, grandmothers who made ethereal baked goods without measuring a single ingredient, and home gardens bursting with flavorful produce that made grocery store specimens wither in the shame of comparison. I hope then it won’t disappoint you when I confess that that the first image that appears is my mind’s eye when I think about my own Arkansas food history, is a cylinder of gray Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup slithering out of the can waiting to be melted into a vat of canned tuna and egg noodles.

I also think about the challenge of gnawing off bites of microwaved, frozen Lender’s bagels, a feat that I repeated again and again despite the perpetual disappointment that followed. Sugary canned pasta sauces. Canisters of premade cake frosting. Fish sticks and frozen French fries. The occasional Sunday pot roast, cooked with potatoes, carrots, and barley, was one of the few meals we ate that was conventionally homey. These delights were punctuated with the occasional intermission of a bag full of Arby’s roast beef sandwiches, purchased from the drive thru window on the way home from church, or rarer still, a trip to the Aloha Restaurant, housed inside the Sands Motel on 8th Street.

Malleably positioning itself to satisfy a range of small town ideas about culinary others, the Aloha served Hunan and Szechuan dishes along with what they labeled “Popular dishes from other regions” for good measure. I loved the viscous hot and sour soup. Consuming it, I enjoyed a southern protestant equivalent of the Jewish American concept of “safe treyf,” slurping down whatever was served to me whether or not it resembled what I had heretofore recognized as food. I was delighted to be temporarily freed from the humdrum of bland industrial foods plucked from the notorious middle aisles of Food4Less.

When out of state company would visit, we instinctively knew it was time to perform a more self-consciously “Arkansawyer” identity. We took our guests to the Bean Palace Restaurant where we ate dense cornbread made from meal processed by a nineteenth century gristmill or to the “Arkansas Quality,” AQ Chicken House where we paid homage to our state’s ascendency as a poultry producer by dining on fried chicken served alongside heavily seasoned green beans and sweet corn. Although those carefully curated experiences served as convenient signifiers of region and self-consciously referenced “history” as a marketable commodity, I want to suggest that those tastes and those experiences were not any more authentically Arkansan than the tinned soup or fast food of my everyday childhood meals.

When out of state company would visit, we instinctively knew it was time to perform a more self-consciously “Arkansawyer” identity.

I want to make the case for an Arkansas food history that incorporates quotidian and industrial foods alongside foods that are artisan and/or local. Living as we do in the era of Michael Pollan, we have been trained to look to our great-great-great grandmothers as sources of culinary authenticity, but nostalgia for a purportedly purer culinary past can privilege certain food stories over others and hide unpleasant truths. I would be hard pressed to defend the industrial foodways of my childhood on either nutritional or aesthetic grounds, but as a scholar of African American food history, I feel compelled to offer the reminder that many of the items that white, southern foremothers “recognized as food” were prepared by unfree hands, a fact that taints the argument that solutions to problems with our current food system must necessarily involve looking backwards for culinary models. Keeping this in mind, I want both to respectfully acknowledge the delights and the dilemmas of the past while also taking some time to reflect upon the role Arkansas plays in our national culinary future.

The eclectically global and local food of my childhood was the outgrowth of myriad culinary exchanges taking place across centuries. Culinary historian Jessica Harris reminds us that when contemplating the origins of southern ways of eating “three is a magic number.” With broad strokes, she argues that Native, European, and African knowledge and sensibilities helped lay the groundwork for southern foodways. Giving at least a quick nod to each of these antecedents seems like a good historical starting place.

In eighteenth century Arkansas, French and Spanish explorers and settlers learned to relish Native American delicacies like smoked buffalo tongue and adopted the native trinity of squash, maize, and beans. This transfer of food knowledge expanded and sometimes challenged palates; it also revealed the limitations of cross-cultural understanding and highlighted the way that preconceptions can shape encounters with imagined others. For example, the eighteenth century Caddo enjoyed a diet that included deer, turkey, rabbits, and squirrels. They also ate wild plants like berries; hickory, pecan, and walnuts; persimmons, and maypop. They made flour by grinding up corn, sunflowers, or goosefoot seeds, transforming the resulting substance into bread or using it to thicken stews However, this fare, although impressive in its diversity and nutritional value, did not completely satisfy European expectations about what they thought, or perhaps what they hoped, “exotic” people living in an “exotic” place would eat.

In 1718, Frenchman Jean-Baptiste de La Harpe swore that the “savage” Caddo served him a feast of smoked unicorn, claiming that the delicious meat came from a “reddish” animal with a “horn, without branches.” The tenacious story of a mythical native cuisine survived the century, and Jeffersonian era explorers Freedman and Custis later claimed to have seen proof of the Arkansas unicorn in the form of a carefully preserved skin displayed at Arkansas Post. Returning for a moment to Pollan’s advice that we should look to the past for dietary guidance, we should remember that some of our Arkansas forebears saw unicorns as food. The impunity with which they cataloged, judged, and disrupted the culture of people about whose lives and larders they knew so little should serve as a cautionary tale rather than as a guiding light.

At the same time that they gathered information about Native foods, both real and imagined, Europeans busied themselves finding the means to produce many of their own familiar foods. They introduced wheat cultivation and fruit like peaches and strawberries as well as domestic animals like cattle and pigs, which transformed regional agriculture and local tastes. For example, here in the Ozark Plateau, European-introduced apples became the dominant agricultural crop by the nineteenth century. Many of the white settlers who successfully fought against the land claims of the Osage and later the Western Cherokee cultivated apples. They planted tens of thousand of acres and sold the fruit whole or transformed into juice or dried fruit, which they packed inside locally produced barrels and shipped by railroad to places as far flung as Maine and Canada. In 1913, researchers for the US Department of Agriculture noted that the rapid growth of the fruit industry in the Ozarks was one of the most “striking features of the agriculture of the United States.” The blooming trees were also a selling point to tourists who came to the Ozarks to gaze at the white and pink petals of the state flower and to sample this culinary import cum local specialty. Up to 30,000 people attended the annual Rogers Apple Blossom festival held in the 1920s.

Arkansans have had a long love affair with pie, and few fruits are as well-equipped to be elevated by encasement in a pastry shell as the apple. For many, quaint historical photos of smiling faces celebrating this miraculous fruit inspire vivid taste memories and deep nostalgia for comfort foods like apple pie. Psychologists tell us that the sight and scent of beloved childhood foods can trigger feelings of well-being and social belonging, sensations that are valid and affirming. Yet we must endeavor to contextualize a reflexive longing for a different culinary moment within the histories of colonialism and displacement, processes that inevitably complicate the mythical allure of past foodways.

Africans who arrived in Arkansas in small numbers in the eighteenth century and larger numbers in the next century provided the third foundational component of Arkansas food. They played a significant and enduring role in melding the tastes of the region. For example, Mary John, an enslaved woman from Louisiana was sold to Arkansan James Scull in 1811. She quickly earned a reputation as a marvelous cook, skilled in the art of pit barbecue, a local tradition still very much alive today. Her craft gave her a psychological outlet that may have helped her survive the trauma of slavery; it also gave her the means to earn her freedom. She used her skills to amass enough funds to purchase the right to control her own body for $800 in 1840. Six years later, she opened her own inn at Arkansas Post.

This tavern was built around the same time as Mary John’s tavern.

At that time, American tavern food, which catered to transient audiences without other dining options, was legendarily greasy, coarse, and uninspired. An 1844 visitor to a different Arkansas roadhouse complained about being served “wretched coffee” and “heavy cakes, one third of which seemed to be mere dirt.” In contrast, Mary John became famous for serving meals, including spectacular Fourth of July Feasts, that nourished not only travelers but also locals, who extolled her “splendid” and “never to be forgotten” meals. Although few details about her life or her menus survive, the fact that we know about her at all is a testament to how remarkably skilled she was, and her example hints at the influence of the tastes of the African diaspora on Arkansas foodways.

Histories of colonialism and displacement inevitably complicate the mythical allure of past foodways.

Cooks of African descent showed great ingenuity in foraging, hunting, and transforming whatever ingredients were available. The foundational recipes they created became a valuable cultural inheritance to the descendants of innovators like Mary John. The rare surviving copies of a 1969 pamphlet by Dorothy Brackin titled Arkansas Soul Foods offer an important glimpse of African American home cooking a century after emancipation. Brackin includes recipes for creative dishes like “Chitlin Patties,” made from ground chitlins, seasoned with thyme and fried. Published five years before my birth, Brackin’s Arkansas recipes also point to an enduring style of eating much different from that of my family, one much more tightly connected to locally sourced ingredients. For example, Brackin gives instructions about how to transform hunted or scavenged foods into dishes like “Wild Razorback Burgers” or farkleberry pie.

Benjamin Petefish, President of Polk County Possum Club, 1913-1934.

Like Brackin, many Arkansans from various backgrounds have demonstrated an appetite–whether spawned by economic necessity, a respect for the state’s culinary heritage, or a sense of adventure– for game suppers. During the 1930s, employees of the Federal Writers’ Project collected a Pulaski County recipe for “squirrel mulligan” that called for four squirrels, potatoes, sweet potatoes, okra, and whatever other vegetables were available. Between 1913 and 1947, in the Ouachita Mountains, the Polk County Possum Club served local marsupials with sweet potatoes, green beans, turnips, salad, and pumpkin pie to as many as 650 guests at an annual event. On the other side of the state, nostalgia for wild Arkansas foods is still manifested today at the Gillett Coon Supper, which has been taking place in Arkansas since 1947. In the weeks leading up to the event, local hunters kill enough raccoons to feed more than 1,000 diners. Ticket sales are used to fund scholarships.

This ongoing appreciation for local ingredients, however, has always been balanced by the constant infusion of new items and shifting conceptions of what it means to eat like an Arkansan. With that in mind, I’d like briefly to acknowledge the complex food habits of Jewish southerners, like Marie Cohen Ferris, who grew up in Blytheville in the 1960s eating a diet that showed the influence of both the African and the Jewish diasporas. There was space at her family’s table for both barbecued pork and matzoh ball soup. I should also mention the Chinese grocers in the Delta whose presence complicated a black/white racial binary. During the era of legalized segregation, they served the local black cliental. They also helped expand the culinary footprint of the region, growing, for example, ingredients like bok choy and yard-long beans in their gardens.

Chinese Arkansans were hardly the only newcomers to add their imprint to the foundational food culture created by Native American, European, and African sensibilities and ingredients. For example, in 1888, Habib Etoch, a Syrian immigrant to Helena, in eastern Arkansas, opened Habib’s Delicatessen, which he advertised as the “best restaurant” in the state. He became well known for his popular Bourbon-soaked fruitcakes, which he packaged in distinctive red tins and sold locally and nationwide. No stranger to culinary complexity, Helena is still home to Pasquale’s Tamales, made by a descendent of Sicilian immigrants who created a recipe inspired by Mexican techniques and Arkansas taste sensibilities. In the northwest region of the state, other Italian immigrants founded Tontitown at the turn of the twentieth century. They planted grapes and tomatoes and raised chickens, in the process creating the cross-cultural pairing of spaghetti served alongside fried chicken.

Data compiled by the Northwest Arkansas Council shows that this region of the state is steadily becoming more and more diverse. The influx of newcomers is rapidly transforming the food of the region. For example, after the Vietnam War, Fort Chaffee temporarily housed more than 50,000 Vietnamese, Laotian, and Hmong refugees, many of whom stayed in the region, expanding local tastes in the process. The Latino population, drawn to the state by jobs in poultry processing facilities, has grown dramatically, deliciously altering the foodscape of my hometown in the process.

When I think about the present and the future of Arkansas food, I am tempted to concentrate on the inspiring proliferation of new people and new tastes. If I still lived in Rogers, my son would likely become just as familiar with pupusas and bahn mi as I was with McDonald’s pancakes and Subway foot longs. However, the largest and most far-reaching transformations to the food practices of northwest Arkansas are in many ways less picturesque and Instagram ready.

The 1920s proved to be a culinary turning point in this region. Northwest Arkansas’s apple industry fell on hard times when drought, disease, and insects made it increasingly difficult for orchard owners to produce a profitable crop. Many responded by taking out small loans that enabled them to join in a different agricultural enterprise that also seemed well suited to this hilly terrain where key Arkansas crops like cotton and rice would not thrive. Many local farmers began raising larger and larger numbers of poultry, and soon chicken houses dotted the landscape. John Tyson, who moved to Springdale in 1931 along with his wife Mildred and his son Don, emerged as one of the innovators in this growing industry.

Tyson began his Arkansas career by utilizing newly completed Highway 71 to haul chickens raised by local farmers to markets in places such as Kansas City and Chicago. His hauling capacity exceeded his supply, so he started his own hatchery. Soon he was producing his own chicken feed, processing, and then distributing the slaughtered birds. He steadily began buying out his competitors, creating the enormous, vertically integrated Tyson Foods, Inc., of today. The affordable and abundant chicken produced by Tyson helped many Americans realize Herbert Hoover’s once seemingly unattainable campaign promise of having a “chicken in every pot” a reality. By the twentieth century, the company helped update that vision by endeavoring to supply a mechanically separated chicken nugget for nearly every American microwave. Today Tyson transforms 35 million chickens, 424, 000 pigs, and 130,000 cattle into food every week.

In economic terms, Tyson became a stunning success story, becoming one of the largest meat processing companies in the world. Between Tyson, the juggernaut retailer Wal-Mart, and the trucking company JB Hunt, northwest Arkansans have played an outsized role in feeding Arkansas, the nation, and large parts of the world. However, the rise of these corporations has been accompanied by controversy.

Among other things, Tyson has been accused of recruiting exploited, undocumented workers for dangerous and low paid jobs. Employees have complained about repetitive stress injuries, mangled limbs, about being denied bathroom breaks, and scores of other safety issues. Tyson has also been charged with egregious violations of animal welfare standards. Critics note that the corporation is responsible for creating staggering levels of pollution, generating greenhouse gas emissions and contaminating soil and water. The innovations and entrepreneurial vision that led to cheap chicken and make northwest Arkansas a leader in the field of meat production came at a price. However, Tyson, like the foodways of that state that helped create the corporation, is not static.

In January 2019, the British journal of medicine, The Lancet, published guidelines for what a group of scientists concluded was the most healthful and ethical way to eat, something they labeled “a planetary health diet.” They recommended dramatic cuts in the consumption of meat and a corresponding increase in plant-based food sources to create a diet that would be more nutritious for human bodies as well as more environmentally sustainable. This message has resonated with many. The Economist has declared 2019 “the year of the vegan,” estimating that today a quarter of 25 to 34 year old Americans are either vegetarian, avoiding meat but eating dairy or eggs, or vegan, avoiding all animal products.

Definitions of what is edible or ethical continually shift.

Intriguingly Tyson, whose innovations in meat production made animal protein cheaper and far more ubiquitous on American tables, may also be a leader in imagining a food future where meat holds a less prominent place in the Arkansan and the American diet. In 2016, Tyson surprised industry watchers when it purchased a 5% stake in the plant-based meat company, Beyond Meat, which has the stated mission to “build meat directly from plants,” specifically, in their case, from protein derived from garden peas. By helping reduce meat consumption, the company hopes it can decrease cancer and heart disease, dramatically reduce the production of greenhouse gases, and save billions of animals from slaughter. Recently, Tyson sold its stake in Beyond Meat. This was not because the company was surrendering its role in exploring a more plant-forward future. Instead Tyson announced that it was creating its own plant-based meat substitutes, creating what CEO Noel White predicts could become a “billion dollar brand.”

Beyond Meat factory.

These plant-based products, made in factories, certainly do not meet the Michael Pollan test as something great great grandmothers would recognize as food. However, these innovations may very well be at least a partial solution to some contemporary problems our collective grandmothers could not have anticipated. Arkansas has a rich and dynamic food history, informed by indigenous ingredients and ideas augmented by shifting input from people from throughout the globe. Intensely local tastes intermingle with more industrial ones. Hundreds of years of creativity and exchange have led to the creation of a rich and eclectic local food culture.

Food historians like me have the obligation to create a detailed picture of that past, which elucidates both the wisdom and the mistakes of the people who ate before us. By resuscitating forgotten stories, we pay homage to the contributions and struggles of those who have been overlooked. We also remind ourselves that definitions of what is edible or ethical continually shift.

There is both a moral and a practical danger in clinging too hard to aphorisms and absolutes as we seek to nurture ourselves and each other. The past can offer us insights and inspiration, but it is not a panacea. Nostalgia for vanished tastes can bind us together in ways that are affirming, but it can also prevent us from transcending the limitations of the past as we look for ways to construct a more just and sustainable future. One thing is certain: the Arkansans who are the heirs to a rich and diverse culinary past are also poised to play a large role in creating transformational foods of the future should they accept the challenge.

Jennifer Jensen Wallach, an Arkansas native, is an associate professor of history at the University of North Texas. She is the author of Every Nation Has Its Dish: Black Bodies and Black Food in Twentieth-Century America. She coedits the University of Arkansas Press book series Food and Foodways.