#1 An American Institution
Jones Bar-B-Q in Marianna made headlines when it was honored with an “American Classic” nod by the James Beard Foundation in 2012. But that’s not the only distinction the storied diner holds—it’s also the oldest African-American-owned restaurant in the South. James Jones, grandson of the original owner, tends the pits now, stoking the coals on a family tradition that’s endured for more than a century.
#2 Hot Stuff
In 1968, University of Arkansas’ Joe McFerrin bred the perfect local tomato. Resistant to scorching heat and sweltering humidity, the open-pollinated heirloom Lycopersicon esculentum was tailor-made for hot Southern summers. Since being introduced to the public in 1971, McFerrin’s Arkansas Traveler tomato has become a regional favorite among green-thumbed pink-tomato growers for its durability and lush, juicy fruit.
#3 Burger King?
Minute Man, a fast-food burger chain created in Little Rock by Wes Hall, was one of the first restaurants in America to use a microwave oven—a Raytheon RadaRange—which enabled Hall to churn out his legendary mouth-burning Radar Deep Dish Pie. Hall also pioneered the kids’ meal—the Magic Meal—and the two-patty hamburger—the Big M—well before the Golden Arches started peddling Happy Meals and Big Macs. From the time Hall got his start in 1956 to its peak in the 1970s, Minute Man grew to 57 locations spread throughout Arkansas and seven surrounding states. Today, Minute Man fans can get their fast-food fix in El Dorado at the chain’s last remaining outpost.
#4 Got Milk?
When Eltheit Coleman started Coleman Dairy after moving his family to Arkansas in 1862, chances are he didn’t anticipate that what began as a modest dairy farm would eventually become the oldest family-operated dairy west of the Mississippi River, helmed by five generations of Colemans. And though the Coleman name was replaced last year with the Hiland Dairy brand (which purchased the company some 17 years ago), Eltheit’s descendants, Cherb and Walt Coleman, still operate the Little Rock plant, churning out thousands upon thousands of gallons of the good stuff each day.
#5 A Little Bit of This, A Little But of That
Though its provenance is debatable (Ozarks or Appalachia?), that strange Southern delicacy known as chocolate gravy has enjoyed a long history in the Arkansas hills. And it’s no wonder—its simple ingredients are all pantry mainstays that can be whipped together on the quick. Arkansas native Robert Brown of Brooklyn’s trendy Seersucker restaurant has somehow managed to elevate the dish, serving a quail entree crowned with cayenne-spiked chocolate gravy to legions of hungry hipsters. Can’t make it to New York? We’ve heard Ozark Cafe in Jasper does a mean biscuits ’n’ chocolate gravy.
Among the 50 states, Arkansas ranks No. 1 in rice production (to the tune of $859 million), No. 2 in chicken, No. 3 in catfish, No. 4 in turkey and No. 5 in sweet potatoes. (And No. 10 in soybeans, No. 12 in watermelons and No. 13 in grapes, but who’s counting?)
#7 Pit Mistress
We can trace our pit-barbecuing traditions back to one Mary John—or “Mary Jeanne,” if you’re a colonial French settler—a former slave who opened a tavern at Arkansas Post in 1840 after gaining her freedom. Local lore has it that Mary John, an early caterer of sorts, traveled up and down the Arkansas River, burying sides of beef in the coals of fire pits to render the tough flesh tender and juicy.
#8 Count Your Chickens
Think chicken has long been the protein of choice in The Natural State? Think again. For more than 100 years, “meat” meant “pork” in Arkansas. Pigs’ feet, smoked ham, brains, blood puddings, chitlins—it was a true nose-to-tail affair. In fact, chicken farming can only trace its roots back so far as the 1890s, when the poultry industry first emerged in—where else?—Springdale.
#9 Wine & Dine
Wiederkehr Village, population 38, is purportedly the smallest city in Arkansas, though it’s best known as the home of Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, a winery that’s been in continuous operation since 1880. The town’s creation, however, dates back only to 1975, and rumor has it had a little something to do with the local liquor laws (specifically, because Wiederkehr wanted looser regulations that would allow for its wine to be served in the on-site restaurant). Whatever the real reason, it was the only time that an entire area in Arkansas had been unanimous in seeking incorporation. Cheers to that!
#10 Pony Up
Since 2004, Oaklawn has been serving upwards of six tons of corned beef on its Opening Day, when the track’s signature dish sets you back a mere 50 cents—the going rate for the delicacy when the ponies started racing in 1904. As for the famed sandwich, it’s a mess of slow-cooked, brined-and-cured beef between two slices of white bread, held together for over a century by trademark olive-speared toothpicks.
It doesn’t have to be Arkansas Heritage Month to celebrate The Natural State’s culinary cornucopia. For those yearning for a taste, here’s a list of upcoming food fairs and festivals, and what to nibble on while you’re there:
May 3-4: 22nd annual Mayhaw Festival, El Dorado // Must-eat: Mayhaw jelly and…chicken wings?
May 16-17: 2nd annual Dermott Community Fest, Dermott // Must-eat: Friday night’s crawfish dinner
May 16-17: 25th annual World Championship Steak Cook-off at the Magnolia Blossom Festival, Magnolia // Must-eat: Angus beef ribeye
May 17-18: 21st annual Atkins Pickle Festival, Atkins // Must-eat: Fried dill pickles
June 12-14: Wynne Farm Fest, Wynne // Must-eat: The barbecue coming out of the Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned contest
June 12-14: 58th annual Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, Warren // Must-eat: The BLT contest’s winning entry
June 28: Emerson Purplehull Pea Festival, Emerson // Must-eat: Defending champion Linda Miller’s purplehull peas and cornbread
July 25-26: 75th annual Johnson County Peach Festival, Clarksville // Must-eat: Peach cobbler, duh.
July 25-26: 31st annual Altus Grape Fest, Altus // Must-eat: Fresh table grapes and homemade grape pie
Aug. 5-9: 116th annual Tontitown Grape Festival, Tontitown // Must-eat: Fried chicken and spaghetti dinner
Aug. 7-9: 38th annual Hope Watermelon Festival, Hope // Must-eat: Fresh-off-the-vine slices of watermelon—or Charles Primus’ rib sandwiches
Aug. 7-9: 35th annual Cave City Watermelon Festival, Cave City // Must-eat: The free watermelon on offer at 4 p.m. on Aug. 9
Sept. 6: Arkansas State Championship Hillbilly Chili Cookoff, Bull Shoals // Must-eat: Um, chili?
Oct. 11: 51st annual Wiederkehr Weinfest, Wiederkehr Village // Must-eat: Smoked brats and sauerkraut
Nov. 29: Duck Gumbo Cookoff at the 79th annual Wings Over the Prairie Festival, Stuttgart // Must-eat: The entry by returning champs The Flockers & Pluckers