|Is this Arkansan cuisine? Photo: Flickr / patrickwoodward|
New Orleans' Southern Food and Beverage Museum is aiming to elevate the status of Arkansan eats with an upcoming exhibit devoted to the state's culinary traditions. As collections manager Chris Smith has discovered, however, Arkansas residents' edible habits aren't easily summarized.
"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."
Smith is working to define Arkansas cuisine by relying largely on a massive collection of books submitted by sympathetic cooks after Hurricane Katrina destroyed a chunk of the museum's holdings.
"We had to start from scratch," Smith explains. "I put out a call to librarians and anyone else who might have old books they were discarding. We got more books from Arkansas than anywhere else. People from Arkansas were fantastic."
The museum received 30 boxes of community cookbooks from Arkansas, planting the seed for the exhibit that's slated to debut late next month.
"We really hit the jackpot with Arkansas," Smith says.
The mid-20th century cookbooks depict a state of diverse kitchens shaped by German immigration, homegrown spice producers and an enduring affection for the Dutch oven, which Arkansas in 2001 honored as its official state cooking vessel.
Smith isn't sure why more foodies don't flock to Arkansas, but suspects the state's mountainous terrain – which complicates farming and makes even its biggest cities hard to reach – may contribute to its widespread neglect. And, he adds, its proximity to culinary meccas like New Orleans and Memphis probably hasn't helped.
"Arkansas may be overwhelmed by its neighbors," he says.
Still, Arkansas hasn't turned on its more famous neighbors. By helping New Orleans' culinary chroniclers in their time of need, Arkansas' cooks may very well have assured themselves a more prominent position in the South's future food scene.