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Arkansas treasures

The tasty kind

By Adrienne Freeman Contributing Writer

This article was published August 22, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.

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WooHoo Snack Mix and What’s This Spice are two of the entrepreneurial entries in Arkansas-based food companies. Melinda Nabholz Smith, a Conway native, and Jesse Simmons of Newport backed up their recipes with their confidence and checkbooks. Arkansas can claim more than a dozen tasty treasures to delight The Natural State.

The spring and summer have been filled with sweet fruits and fresh vegetables whose vibrant colors entertain the eye while their seasonal savoriness delight the palate. As the fresh bounty comes to a close, do not despair. Arkansas has many other “homegrown” delights to get residents through until next spring.

Some are well known: Four wineries – Post, Wiederkehr, Mount Bethel and Chateau Aux Arc — all operate in the Altus area. Their success has inspired other winemakers in the area. According to several wine-centric websites, Arkansas has been producing grapes and wine longer than any other Southern state. With the law change that allows the products of “small farm wineries” to be sold in grocery and convenience stores, a whole new group of consumers has discovered the homegrown varietals.

The Tri-Lakes area claims the softer-beverage honors, with Mountain Valley Water flowing freely in Hot Springs, and Grapette and Orangette sodas bubbling over in Malvern.

The seasoning and sauce markets are prolific, too. Cavenders Greek Seasoning, that “secret ingredient” to great meats, has been produced in Harrison for more than 40 years. The original recipe is manufactured today by the third generation. What’s This!!! Spice Co. in Jackson County doesn’t have that kind of history, but owner Jesse Simmons has been selling his homemade spice blend since 2003, initially selling just a few cases a week.

“It was my Saturday play job, you know — nervous energy. But by word of mouth between aunts, uncles, friends and friends of friends, I had orders to ship all over the United States,” Simmons said.

Now with more than a dozen distinct products and always growing, Simmons works constantly to develop new variations, including healthier no-sodium versions, flavored salts, fish batters and Rockabilly Rub — a barbecue rub with a nod to the Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway 67 that begins just down the road from his plant in Newport.

All What’s This!!! (whatsthisseasoning.com) products are mixed, bottled, capped, labeled, dated and shipped on-site, but some bottles are filled with custom spices for dozens of companies located nationwide. In the R & D lab, Simmons points to hundreds of small bottle samples preserved for quality control for custom clients.

“You know the people you see on TV on the Food Channel? We aren’t allowed to talk about it, but we do several blends for them right here. We do some others here that are not on TV but are well-known, but we can’t talk about that, either. I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you,” Simmons said with a playful wink.

Not a food, but certainly a star in the culinary world, is the Pope County company Microplane. By no fault of its own, Microplane unwittingly found that its woodworking plane was prized by chefs, cooks and homemakers as a grater. According to the company’s history on Microplane’s website, they were as surprised as anyone when, more than 30 years ago, a Canadian housewife borrowed her husband’s rasp from the garage to use as a fruit zester. Microplane now manufactures an entire line of zesters, graters and other tools.

Arkansans are players in the snack market as well. J & M Foods, founded by the Parham family in Little Rock, started producing its famous cheese straws more than 20 years ago. Now you can find tea and sweet cookies, in addition to the classic cheese straws — all in gift baskets and gourmet shops all over the world.

A newer entry in the snack field is WooHoo Snack Mix (woohoomixes.com). Conway native Melinda Nabholz Smith started selling her snack mix around the holidays in 2008 with a goal of earning some extra cash for her daughter’s 16th birthday. She tinkered with her mother’s recipe, added a little heat, and it took off.

“My friends always wanted it. They called it ‘snack on crack’ because they couldn’t stop eating it,” Smith said.

Described as “an extraordinarily crunchy, nutty snack – a little bit sweet with just enough heat,” it has been shipped from Washington state to Maine, and all places South.

“I plan to introduce a new product in October, similar to the original but drizzled in white and milk chocolate,” Smith said. “It is a holiday favorite.” Her aspirations don’t stop there. “I plan to develop a Toad Sucking WooHoo to honor my mother, Barbara Jean Nabholz, one of the original founders of the Toad Suck Daze Festival in Conway.”

Additional products and sizes are on the drawing board for this enterprising entrepreneur. WooHoo!

All companies mentioned have active Facebook and Web pages. Take a look.

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