Love food, laid back vibes, and beautiful scenery? Head to Arkansas, where you'll find some great Southern cuisine in unique ways. Try these four food travel experiences which will get you immersed in the best of Arkansas' dining scene.
Learn to Cook with a Dutch Oven
The Dutch Oven is the official state cooking vessel of Arkansas. So, what is a Dutch oven? A Dutch oven is not a pot or a kettle. Instead, it's a stand-alone cast iron vessel that has three legs which provide stable support. The vessel is placed on top of a coal fire so that the heat from the coals reaches into the pot. Because the Dutch oven contains a tight-fitting lid and heat-absorbing cast iron, the pot acts like an oven and cooks food all the way through. For centuries prior to the invention of the Dutch oven, most baking was done in brick or baked clay ovens, but the small size of the Dutch ovens suited the early explorers and hunters who came to settle in Arkansas.
In 2001, Senator Joseph K. Mahony, II introduced Senate Bill 402 to designate the Dutch oven as the official state historic cooking vessel, which was approved and signed into law on February 28, 2001.
Today, Arkansas embraces this heritage by offering numerous Dutch oven cooking classes in the state parks. These classes are relatively inexpensive, ranging from free to $20, and are put on by the park rangers, who continue to use Dutch ovens in outdoor spaces. Cooking workshops are held monthly and the schedule can be found at the Arkansas State Parks website. Or, head over to the Ozarks Dutch Oven Group where you can find more events and cook-offs.
Try Squirrel, Buffalo, and Possum Pie
Squirrel, buffalo, and possum pie? Yeah, you can eat them in Arkansas. Arkansas began as a hunters' state and continues to have a large hunting population which celebrates wild game and hunting fare.
Every September, the city of Bentonville, Arkansas hosts a Squirrel Cook Off which celebrates the state's "hillbilly heritage," founder Joe Wilson explains. Teams must produce dishes that include at least 80% squirrel meat and one side dish. Past teams have made squirrel pizzas, Caribbean jerk squirrel, and squirrel meat spring rolls.
If you'd prefer larger game, head over to Ratchford Farms, where owner L.C. Ratchford operates a no stress ranch. Cattle and buffalo are raised gently and not harmed with the use of cattle prods and other objects. The buffalo are wild animals, but L.C. and his crew manage them with gentle persuasion and the use of treats. Ratchford Farms is known for its jerkies and sausages and you can purchase elk and buffalo jerky at their farms or in nearby stores.
While it's perfectly possible to eat squirrel and buffalo in Arkansas, possum pie isn't really made with opossums. Possum pie is actually a cream pie where the chocolate lays in the center of the pie, "playing possum." The pie is found throughout Arkansas, though Stoby's in Russelville and Conway are two of the best-known purveyors of this Arkansas treat.
Dive Into the Cheese Dip
Arkansas is believed to be the birthplace of cheese dip and the state has a serious love affair with the football game necessity. Some historians believe that Tex-Mex restaurant Mexico Chiquito in Little Rock first invented cheese dip in 1935. Their famed cheese dip is still a secret recipe, though some writers have tried to guess the recipe.
How much do Arkansasians love their cheese dip? There's a movie based in Little Rock about cheese dip, the World Cheese Dip Championship is held in Little Rock, an American Idol winner named it his favorite dish in his hometown of Conway, and there's even a Cheese Dip Trail marked out by the Arkansas Tourism department. It's safe to say that cheese dip is an essential dish to try while in Arkansas.
In a state famous for being home to the supersized Wal-mart empire, it's no surprise that Arkansas is home to BIG food. Start with big steaks: a 33-ounce Porterhouse steak at Taylor's Steakhouse in Dumas, the as-large-as-you-want-it steak at Tamale Factory in Augusta, and the colossal Roast Prime of Beef at the Colonial Steakhouse. Or, try the Excaliburger at the Ozark Cafe in Jasper, which has a full beef burger wedged between two grilled cheese sandwiches which make up the "bun." At Ed Walker's Drive-In in Fort Smith, you can try a Giant Cheeseburger, which is made with a 5 pound patty and cut into eighths, to feed a family of eight (or one incredibly hungry person). For dessert, head over to Burl's Country Smokehouse, where you can find cinnamon rolls that are the size of your head.
For more about Arkansas' love of big food, check out the stellar Arkansas Food Glossary from Kat Robinson.