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OPINION | REX NELSON: Bite of Arkansas

by Rex Nelson | February 6, 2021 at 8:46 a.m.

When the pandemic made its way to Arkansas last March, those of us who travel the state for a living had to make major adjustments. Few were affected more drastically than Kat Robinson, the Little Rock-based writer and food historian who has crisscrossed Arkansas for years.

"We didn't really know how it spread," she says of those early days of the pandemic. "I was concerned I might inadvertently bring the virus into communities on my tires or accidentally spread it amongst the restaurant community. So I made the difficult decision to isolate with my family."

Robinson quickly pivoted from traveling to restaurants and festivals to working on culinary projects at home. In May, for instance, she collaborated with Arkansas PBS on the program "Home Cooking with Kat and Friends." During the summer, she collected recipes through social media for a book titled "43 Tables: An Internet Community Cooks During Quarantine." That book was released in October.

Now, there's a second new book, "A Bite of Arkansas."

"I've never really sat down and written down the recipes I've used in my life before, not in any really organized way," Robinson says. "Being limited to what was in my cabinet and what I could get on grocery pickup, and finding the need to feed my folks, brought me back into the kitchen. For the first time in about a decade, I had time to cook rather than covering those who cooked for others."

Robinson writes about everything from the food served at her grandparents' homes to her cooking adventures in college. She has been influenced by her mother, Kitty Waldon.

"My mom has her own cookbook experience that has heavily influenced what I share," Robinson says. "In 1984, she was the editor of 'Cornerstone Cookery,' put together by the St. Vincent Infirmary Employee Council. Many of her recipes, some from our family and many from her friends and co-workers, made it into the book. It's the one cookbook I use before all others."

In the introduction to "A Bite of Arkansas," Robinson writes: "My sense of purpose was diluted. I recorded segments of the TV show, talking to myself through the camera, feeling like a dolt. I typed my redactions and corrections off every recipe I tried. I sometimes doomscrolled Facebook and Twitter and felt so guilty, seeing my restaurant friends doing everything they could to keep going and not knowing how I could help.

"I also saw a thousand new bakers created as people learned sourdough and coveted yeast. Scenes were crafted in the narratives of so many I knew and loved, recipes shared, tables filled with food worthy of a Thanksgiving banquet, shared between two or three, the rest packed up for meals that would sustain for weeks."

Pandemic isolation gave Robinson time to dig through her collection of church and community cookbooks. She is working on what will be her 10th book, tentatively titled "Arkansas Church and Community Cookbook Collection, Volume 1." Just days into the pandemic, Robinson noticed a change in her social media feeds.

She writes: "Where before everyone was shooting their plates in restaurants, now they were taking photos of what they were cooking. Folks were making bread and canning their own foods. Dishes that hadn't appeared for decades began popping up as folks went back to their old family cookbooks. It was glorious. Best of all, I saw people on my feed who didn't really connect before now sharing their recipes, tips and advice. Some even became good Internet friends."

Robinson views her two most recent books as a way to lift the spirits of Arkansans.

"We were all having a rough time of things, whether it was through job loss or handling the reality of educating our kids at home," she says. "We needed a bright spot. I was one of the many who found my income sharply curtailed. I very much understand. I didn't have funds to help everyone out, but I could provide a smile. Within '43 Tables,' there are 80 recipes. They come from the 43 contributors who reached me through Facebook. Honestly, I just sent out a call on Facebook, and folks responded.

"The recipes are widely varied and range from simple casseroles to marvelous cassoulet; sweets rolls and salads and soups and sweets. All the photographs come from the people who submitted the recipes. The photos come from cell phones and are taken where they were produced, in the kitchens of individuals who turned out sustenance to their own when times were tough."

Robinson says the virus "may have kept us in our homes, but it did not quell the desire to break bread with one another."

Robinson and I serve on the selection committee of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. We often marvel at the misconceptions among young people and non-Arkansans when it comes to what constitutes traditional Arkansas food. Arkansas and its food culture have never been easy to explain to outsiders. We're mostly Southern but also a tad Midwestern and a bit Southwestern. We're a state in between. We're unique.

In one of her earlier books, Robinson wrote: "Arkansas is a stubborn, hang-on-by-your-teeth subsistence land that adapts to weather, new folks and the lay of the land. Its cuisine isn't Southern or Appalachian or Midwestern, though elements of all of these things are evidenced by our communal meals. Its regional specialties are tied to its geographical holding place. My own experience of country fried venison and sugared rice as breakfast was certainly as strange to my Delta friends as their dinners of wild duck and rice were to me."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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