Today's Paper State News Hutchinson 2024 LEARNS Guide Newsletters Opinion Sports Obits Games Archive Notices Core Values

OPINON | REX NELSON: Dragonwagon cooks

by Rex Nelson | February 18, 2023 at 2:50 a.m.

I'm not much of a cook, but I'm looking at recipes and getting hungry. Those recipes are in Crescent Dragonwagon's delightful 30th anniversary edition of "Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread: A Country Inn Cookbook," which was released by the University of Arkansas Press in 2021.

For decades, Dragonwagon has been one of our state's most prolific writers. Born Ellen Zolotow in New York City in 1952, she has written more than 50 books in various genres. She was also among the founders of Dairy Hollow House at Eureka Springs, the state's second bed-and-breakfast inn.

For almost two decades, Dairy Hollow House welcomed diners and overnight guests from across the country. It was featured in The New York Times, Southern Living, Bon Appetit and other publications. The inn was started in 1980 by Dragonwagon, then-husband Ned Shank and Little Rock musician Bill Haymes. Dragonwagon turned out what she called Nouveau'Zarks cuisine. The food consisted of contemporary interpretations of traditional Ozarks cooking infused with seasonal ingredients.

In 1986, the inn expanded with the purchase of a second building. Dragonwagon and Shank, a historic preservationist and artist, closed Dairy Hollow House in 1998. They created the nonprofit Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow in 2000 "to provide uninterrupted residence time for writers of all genres, including culinary, composers and artists ... to stimulate new thinking and energize creative expression."

In her introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of this classic book, Dragonwagon writes: "How do I welcome you to a place that no longer exists? In one way, easily enough: I could invite you over to my home, and in one of the brown pottery bowls Ned made, ladle you up some Cuban black bean soup with a small scoop of white rice on the bottom, plus some chopped red onion on top. And there you are--even though Dairy Hollow House, the inn on which this book is centered, is no more.

"But that soup definitely exists, reincarnating whenever I or anyone else fixes it. It's the same one I've been making for 45 years. It's the one Elsie Freund taught me. The one I have made, served, enjoyed and been complimented on in Arkansas, New York, Vermont and Washington, D.C., among other places. It's the one I served at the brunch following my wedding to Ned back in 1977."

Dragonwagon and Shank were pioneer members of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International and founding members of the Southern Foodways Alliance. In 1998, Dragonwagon told an interviewer that she was still "a work in progress." She had begun thinking about an Arkansas writers' colony based on her experience at the Ossabaw Island Writers' Retreat just off the coast of Georgia.

Shank was killed in an accident in November 2000. Dragonwagon moved to Vermont, where she lived for 15 years before returning to Arkansas.

"Dragonwagon lives in Fayetteville in the Washington-Willow District, where she's married to Mark Graff, a cybersecurity expert," Ethel Simpson writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Dragonwagon was the recipient of an Artists 360 Grant in 2019 and was named the Fayetteville Public Library's first writer-in-residence in 2020. She continues to write for print and online publication.

"'Fearless Writing,' the 12-session writing approach she began developing in 1980, has been presented throughout the country, in Mexico and Italy, and online. During the pandemic in 2020, Dragonwagon and Graff began reading a children's book aloud each night online. The first book they selected was 'Will It Be Okay?' from 1971. The response encouraged Dragonwagon to update it, and the book was reissued in 2022."

Dragonwagon's mother, Charlotte Zolotow, was an author of children's books and a well-known book editor for HarperCollins Publishers. Her father, Maurice Zolotow, wrote celebrity biographies.

Dragonwagon left home at age 16, married Mark Parsons in 1970 and lived in two communes--the first in Brooklyn and the second near Ava, Mo., not far from the Arkansas state line. Her "Commune Cookbook" was published by Simon & Schuster in 1971. Her first children's book was published the same year under the name Ellen Parsons.

"As a feminist, Ellen Zolotow didn't wish to use her husband's name or her father's," Simpson writes. "She chose the name Crescent (the word derived from a Latin verb meaning 'to grow'), and the couple adopted the name Dragonwagon as a statement that they were not taking themselves too seriously. She changed her name legally. The marriage ended in 1971, though the two weren't divorced until 1975. They had no children.

"After an interval in St. Louis, she settled in Eureka Springs in 1972. Working as a cook at the Crescent Hotel, she became part of the arts and hospitality communities. Her second children's book was published in 1975, and she published two cookbooks in the 1970s."

The original edition of "Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread" in 1992 sold almost a million copies.

"So how do I welcome you to a place that no longer exists?" Dragonwagon writes. "I welcome you to one that does. That place is the knowledge that though individual lives and the beloved people who live them end, life itself and love itself persist--rugged, resilient, evergreen. The knowledge that, while change is constant and periodic tragedy certain, we can also choose love and friendship, kindness and joy."

It's nice to have the legendary Crescent Dragonwagon back in Arkansas--writing, cooking and, as always, thinking deeply.

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

Print Headline: Dragonwagon cooks


Sponsor Content