History is Served dinner to celebrate 2019 Arkansas Food of the Year

Historic Arkansas Museum - Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The “History is Served: Arkansas Foodways Dinner Series” makes its return on Thursday with this year’s dinners focusing on ingredients that are integral to Arkansas’s food culture. In recognition of the 2019 Arkansas Food of the Year, as deemed by the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the first dinner’s signature ingredient is catfish.

Celebrating one of Arkansas’s most beloved dishes, “Catfish Tales in Four Courses” will explore the deep connection our state has to the dish. The sold-out dinner will be prepared by Chef Scott Rains of Table 21. The evening will also include a talk by Rex Nelson, a senior editor and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

As the state’s food of the year, Catfish was also honored at this year’s Arkansas Food Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in February. The following piece, included in that event’s program, was written by Cindy Grisham, Arkansas Food Hall of Fame committee member and celebrated food author:

It is only fitting that our 2019 Arkansas Food of the Year is catfish. It was the first food promoted by the first travel writer to the state. Known only as “A Gentleman from Elvas,” he arrived in the company of a rather unwelcome guest, Hernando de Soto, but his chronicle of the trip published in 1557 touts the catfish found at Pacaha as the best they have encountered during their entire trip. Plus, it appeared that the chief there may have been one of Arkansas’s first catfish farmers, because, no matter how many they consumed from the moats surrounding the village, the supply never dwindled.

It is still plentiful, with little children and old men pulling the big, whiskered fish out of rivers, creeks and farm ponds across the state. Although rising prices for feed reduced the number of farmers in the business a few years back, Arkansas remains the third largest producer in the nation.

A true food of the people, it is consumed with relish by everyone regardless of race or class. It can be found on the finest menus in the most exclusive restaurants, as well as in just about every small town diner and roadside convenience store. In my 1977 Southern Junior League Cookbook, tucked in between Filets Farcis a la Crème from the Junior League of Charleston and Cold Poached Salmon from the Junior League of Dallas, is Southern Fried Catfish from where else, the Junior League of Little Rock. By 1997, the ladies from Little Rock feature recipes for baked catfish, blackened catfish and even catfish pate.

We all love catfish, but the sides consumed with it can cause some problems. Crispy, onion tinged hushpuppies are a staple across the state, although many folks prefer a simple slab of crusty cornbread; but the rest of the plate is a bit more of a problem. Coleslaw is a popular side item, whether its dressing is creamy or the more tangy vinegar-based kind, and beans are always a hit with soupy pintos fighting for the right to sit on the plate with sweet, sticky baked beans. A relish of some sort is needed and that can range from cabbage based chow chow to the sweet and spicy green tomato relish. In some homes, spaghetti is the side of choice. No matter what you put next to it on the plate, catfish will always be the star of the show and truly deserves to be the 2019 Arkansas Food of the Year.

The dinner series, a program of HAM’s Arkansas Foodways Initiative, is sponsored by the Historic Arkansas Museum Foundation Board. The remaining dinners in this year’s series include “If Reasons Were as Plenty as Blackberries: Arkansas Fruits and Berries" with Jon Arrington of The Root Café on June 6 and “The Genealogy of Food Traditions: The Summer Vegetable Plate” with Scott McGehee of Yellow Rocket Concepts on July 11.