Editor’s Note: This is the first in a new monthly series that will consider food — not recipes so much as the conversation about food, about chefs, about trends, about people who influence food. So if you have a favorite chef, a favorite author, a favorite mentor in culinary magic, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kat Robinson expands the definition of “fast food” to “food delivered at the speed of light.” No, she doesn’t drive for DoorDash. Neither is she by trade a chef or a fry cook, although cooking is an important part of what she does. Robinson is an author, a television host, a publisher, a graphic designer, a former news producer, an experimental historian and, perhaps most important, she’s an influencer on the culture of food in Arkansas.
What makes her the very definition of fast food is that over the past year, while everybody else was trying to simply adjust to working from home, she created with Arkansas PBS the state’s first no-contact cooking program, “Home Cooking with Kat and Friends”; collected the recipes being baked, fried and served by people in her social media feed for a book called “43 Tables: An Internet Community Cooks During Quarantine”; and took a deep dive into her memories and her collection of cookbooks to write “A Bite of Arkansas: A Cookbook of Natural State Delights,” which comes out in softcover Jan. 26.
“Five books and a couple of TV specials later, and still when folks see me in public, they ask if I’m the ‘pie lady,’” she says, laughing, referring to a book titled “Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State,” released in 2012; an Emmy-nominated 2018 Arkansas PBS program — created with Fayetteville filmmaker Larry Foley — called “Make Room for Pie”; and a 2018 sequel, “Another Slice of Arkansas Pie: A Guide to the Best Restaurants, Bakeries, Truck Stops and Food Trucks for Delectable Bites in The Natural State.” “I didn’t realize how much Arkansas pie would change my life,” she says with a laugh.
“Kat and I had a blast working on ‘Make Room for Pie,’ and we’ve become good friends,” says Foley. “I mean, you can’t go wrong traveling around Arkansas, sampling home baked pies!”
More seriously, he adds: “Kat works really hard at informing folks about where and what to eat. If she says the place is good, and recommends something on the menu, trust her. She knows her stuff. If you see one of her books on sale at the counter, you’re at a special place. It’s like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
TOWN AND COUNTRY
Robinson grew up between Little Rock and Gurdon, where she says she “could easily see differences in how people ate early on.” Eating with her grandparents meant the traditional version of “eating local,” while with her mother, her experiences included dipped cones at Green’s Drive In on north Geyer Springs, Black Angus burgers, Minute Man and Taco Kid and Mexico Chiquito.
“I recall a visit to the Leather Bottle — my mom was out with friends and I was brought along,” she says. “She ordered asparagus and got into the conversation — and when she got around to eating, the asparagus was gone. I’d never, to my knowledge, had fresh asparagus like that before and I was hooked” — so much so that her high school adventures revolved around trying new food. That pastime expanded when she enrolled in college at Arkansas Tech in Russellville.
“Roadtripping was popular in my circle,” she says. “In high school and college, driving to St. Joe for Ferguson’s cinnamon rolls and Coursey’s smoked hams and turkeys was a good reason to hit the road.
“Even in Little Rock, there were food adventures and expectations,” she adds. “I loved both Sim’s and HB’s. Sim’s got picked up and brought home when funds were good, and when I was in high school it was right down Barrow Road, so getting a sandwich was just something you did. I could ride my bike to HB’s and, when I had some allowance left over, I could get the small barbecue sandwich and extra sauce, and it was like I’d struck the jackpot.”
And of course Russell-ville provided Feltner’s burgers, Stoby’s cheese dip, Paradise Donuts, the Big Red Drive In, Catfish ‘N on the Dardanelle side and Romedio’s for fancy dining.
“There wasn’t a place in Russellville I didn’t try during my years there,” Robinson says. “The college town life was good for me, and I made enough to dine all these places by delivering pizza!”
JACK OF ALL TRADES
While neither chef nor food writer was on Robinson’s list of dream careers, she says she has been “either lucky or just determined” to do most of what she wanted to do.
“I wanted to produce TV shows and ended up producing the news [at THV] — not the sitcoms I was interested in when I was 12 but close enough. I wanted to work in a carnival — and ended up running a carousel in a mall for a while. I really wanted to be a disc jockey, and that ended up getting me my broadcast radio journalism degree from Tech. Most of all, though, I wanted to be a writer. Producing a TV news show in a smaller market means a LOT of writing — and then, of course, I was out making a living on it. I thought I’d be a fiction writer, but what sells for me are these nonfiction culinary guides and cookbooks. I’m grateful for that.
“The only two careers I dreamed about in childhood that I haven’t managed are being an architect and a horse jockey. Well, it’s not too late for me to design something, but being small enough to be a jockey? That boat sailed by the time I was 10!”
Credit for turning Robinson serious about food might go to the Society for Creative Anachronism, which she describes as a “worldwide group of reenactors focused on re-creating medieval times ‘as they should have been.’”
“Many events offered feasts, and those were filled with all sorts of delights,” she recalls of her early days in the organization 30 years ago. “I found myself starting to dig into historical food research even before I left college. It became a strong interest for me. While I was researching how Romans and Turks and Celts ate, I started really paying attention to what we ate, too. And I realized there were stories there to share.
“In 2007, I left the [TV] station to become a full-time writer,” she continues. “I found my hobbies and interests merging into something I could share with others. At that time, not a lot of folks were talking about Arkansas’ particular culinary gifts. Sharing those stories meant research first, and I dug into it with fervor — yes, both eating these dishes and documenting them. I started finding common threads and, over time, earned myself some expertise in the matter.
“All this to say, the interest in our local and regional foods has always been in me — the need to cook, to create and learn more, the enjoyment of sharing what I have learned. Being able to open the eyes (and mouths) of others to what a bounty we have here is a special joy I have.”
THEN CAME PIE
Robinson was working for the Arkansas Department Of Parks And Tourism in 2012 — after four years of freelancing and writing the “Eat Arkansas” blog for the Arkansas Times — when she “opened an email from a gentleman who said he was expanding an imprint for History Press and was looking for someone to write about food in Arkansas.”
“He had gone to Google and put in the words ‘Arkansas food,’ and my name came up in almost every site on the first page of results,” she says, laughing. “I thought it was a joke, but he offered me a contract if I’d just come up with something I could turn around in 30 days. My last cover story for the Times was on places that served pie in Arkansas, so I said I could do that. I spent every evening in the month of August 2012 writing and editing photos, and every moment of those four weekends driving through Arkansas, stopping places and trying pie.”
“Pie” turned out to be Robinson’s pièce de résistance. Soon the book became the Arkansas PBS program, then the sequel, and it probably explains how she came to open her own publishing house, called Tonti Press. It’s named after “Arkansas’ original Traveler, Henri de Tonti,” founder of Tontitown. “I felt like I was creating something that would allow me to evolve in the future. And I was right. I publish other authors now, and do layout jobs on the side. It’s not what I thought I’d be doing at this point in my life, but it’s satisfying and allows me to accomplish the things I need.”
But finding herself in the middle of a pandemic — and watching everything she had scheduled for 2020 canceled — was still “a huge shock to the system.”
“I had been going pell-mell at doing all the things for years. I was starting a tourism podcast, working on two more books, making contacts. There were a couple of TV specials in the works. And then… it just ended,” she says. “It took me a few weeks to get my bearings. My partner, Grav, reminded me I could write my way out of anything. That reminded me it was time to start digging through those hundreds of Arkansas church and community cookbooks I’d collected and see what I could make of it.
“At the same time, Arkansas PBS worked with me to create a TV special, ‘Home Cooking with Kat and Friends,’” she adds. “The whole show was put together on cell phones and in personal kitchens — we found folks to create recipes and had them shoot their own pieces, and I got to be the glue for it. The collaborative nature of it got me wondering. I put out a call on my Facebook page to see if anyone might want to create a cookbook like those church cookbooks. I had so many responses. So, after the TV special, I went to work on creating ‘43 Tables: An Internet Community Cooks During Quarantine.’”
All of those accomplishments didn’t make “A Bite of Arkansas: A Cookbook of Natural State Delights” a bit easier, Robinson says.
“I’ve been a journalist all my life. The stories I share aren’t about me. This time, though, it had to be about my experiences.
“I nearly ditched ‘A Bite of Arkansas’ a few times, because sharing details of my life felt odd,” she admits. “But the process of redacting the recipes I’d just known for decades, sharing those experiences in words, making the food, photographing each dish… it all made for material I wanted to lay out into the book and share.”
The hardcover edition came out in December — published, of course, by Tonti Press — and the response “has been much stronger than I expected,” she says. “I think the book ties into this need to create that many folks, encouraged to stay home, are experiencing. The hardcover keeps surfacing in the top five of new comfort food books on Amazon.”
Robinson says she hasn’t felt compelled to promote the book — because promotional campaigns mean newspaper, TV and radio visits and book signings, which just aren’t an option right now. But, she adds, “A Bite of Arkansas” is what journalists call “evergreen.”
“My past won’t change over time, and now I have a way to share all those dishes with others. It’ll be just as relevant 20 years from now as it is today. So I don’t let it stress me.”
Besides, she’s already in talks for more TV specials, and she’s busy planning “a series of compilations on the idea of church cookbooks.”
“In fact, I am already knees-deep into the ‘Arkansas Church and Community Cookbook, Volume 1’ — which I hope to have out by mid- to late spring,” she says. “The books will contain selections of recipes from a spectrum of cookbooks from the 20th century, from places here in Arkansas. I’ve already started cooking many of these dishes, adjusting for the times, and photographing them.
“It’s hard to set much in stone, though. I am hoping as it becomes safe to dine in restaurants and to travel again that I can resume and share out the podcast, ‘Kat Robinson’s Arkansas,’ and to be able to do more writing on the side. Amongst my longtime goals are a book on the Great River Road in Arkansas. But time will shape what happens next.”
‘A Bite of Arkansas:
A Cookbook of
Natural State Delights’
Hardcover, $37.99; paperback, $27.99 220 pages; 150 photos; 140+ recipes Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Walmart and Bookshop.com, which is connected to local booksellers throughout the United States. Signed copies of both the hardback and paperback are available through TontiPress.com or TieDyeTravels.com.
Books by Kat
“Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State”
History Press, 2012
“Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley”
History Press, 2013
“Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta”
History Press, 2014
“Another Slice of Arkansas Pie: A Guide to the Best Restaurants, Bakeries, Truck Stops and Food Trucks for Delectable Bites in The Natural State”
Tonti Press, 2018
“Arkansas Food: The A to Z of Eating in The Natural State”
Tonti Press, 2018
“101 Things to Eat in Arkansas Before You Die”
Tonti Press, 2019
“102 More Things to Eat in Arkansas Before You Die”
Tonti Press, 2019
“43 Tables: An Internet Community Cooks During Quarantine”
Tonti Press, 2020
“A Bite of Arkansas: A Cookbook of Natural State Delights”
Tonti Press, 2020
“The Arkansas Church and Community Cookbook Collection, Volume 1”
Tonti Press, coming in 2021
Becca Martin-Brown is Features editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @nwabecca.