I was at first reluctant to attend the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Field Trip to Bentonville. Wouldn’t it be for chefs and restaurateurs? Would someone who is not particularly apt in the kitchen be worthy to take up the SFA’s offer to take part? But, I bit, and ended up well fed in more ways than one.
The SFA, part of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, is about more than eating: It is about nourishing Southern communities and telling their stories. Bentonville was the perfect setting for the field trip: Its growing immigrant community has introduced culture as well as cuisine; its super-wealthy business families have plowed their dollars back into their hometown. The past decade has brought enormous change, making Northwest Arkansas the most vibrant area of the state.
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Since this is the dining page, first the food:
We ate Mexican food, Salvadorian food, Chinese food, Indian food. In a nod to a settlement with deeper roots in Northwest Arkansas, Italian food. We drank the local coffee (Onyx) and breakfasted on “okratouille” from the young “food and beverage hounds” of Oven & Tap. We shopped in the Bentonville farmers market, where Hmong vendors sold beautiful leafy vegetables and other locals sold the last of the strawberries.
But the meat of Southern Foodways’ field trip was in the two days of morning talks, where speakers addressed subjects from meatless chicken nuggets to the plight of Italian immigrants in the Delta in the 19th century and their move to Tontitown, from overlooked activism by black women who worked to improve health and civil rights to how Walton money has (perhaps ironically) made Bentonville a magnet for progressives.
If there was a leitmotif on Day 1 of the field trip (Friday, June 13), it was crickets. Yeyo’s Mexican Grill, the subject of an upcoming short documentary by SFA, served a lunch at Compton Gardens of street tacos stuffed with grilled meats, vegetables and jalapenos, along with chunky guacamole, refried beans, queso — and seasoned crickets. “Just take a couple,” the server suggested, so I did. One was enough, but now I can say I have eaten a cricket. (Actually, what I ate was a grasshopper, but the difference between the two, both physically and gastronomically, I assume, is minimal.) Yeyo’s has both a food truck on the square and a bricks and sticks location in the 8th Street Market, where it adds mezcal to the menu.
Immersion in the booming South Asian population of Northwest Arkansas meant dinner at Flavors Indian Cuisine, one of the many restaurants owned by Indians and Pakistanis in Northwest Arkansas, and lessons in cricket afterward from the Northwest Arkansas Cricket club. On the cricket pitch (at Phillips Park’s baseball fields), with instruction from Bentonville’s Cricket for America players, we hoisted the incredibly heavy bats and hit away at tennis balls in a much-simplified version of the game.
Back to Flavors. The buffet was fragrant with the spices and dishes of southern Indian, offering a feast of lamb marinated in yogurt, ginger and garam masala (vindaloo), chicken in a curry of coconut milk and tomato sauce, chicken cooked with tomatoes, cashews and spices (rayalaseema), deep fried boiled eggs, Indian cottage cheese cooked with ginger and tomato sauce (reshmi paneer), rice puddings and the like. SFA folk came around with pitchers of Golden Ale from Bentonville’s Bike Rack Brewing Co., the perfect complement to Indian food. Topping it off was Kwality ice cream, made of milk and ground cashews. The television was tuned to what has to be a channel devoted to cricket, perhaps the world’s most complicated game and one now come to Arkansas.
Day 2 started off with eggs scrambled with buds of loroco, a Central American plant; plantains; and sweet empanadas from Bentonville’s Little Beans. Talks, at the Meteor Guitar Gallery just off the square, concluded with a demonstration in how to eat lychees, mangosteens and durian fruits and a lunch of roast duck and pork-stuffed buns from Tang’s Asian Market. In a nod to Tontitown, Matt McClure, the acclaimed chef of The Hive in Bentonville, served up spaghetti, the best fried chicken in the world, roasted eggplant and Southern (no sugar) cornbread at dinner.
If anyone needed proof that immigrants enrich culture and community, she got it here.
The speakers — the main course — used food as a jumping off point to talk about social justice, politics and cultural change. University of Arkansas historian Jeannie Whayne reminded us of the trickery used to lure Italians to the Delta, where instead of promised freedom they were forced to do farmwork under a system of peonage like that imposed on sharecroppers. When at the turn of the century the Catholic immigrants fled to white, protestant Northwest Arkansas to make a new life, they weren’t greeted with open arms. One writer said they “disgusted the whole community.” But they stayed, farmed and had successes, and Tontitown became the home to one of Arkansas’s most famous restaurants, Mary Maestri’s, in 1923.
Speaker Jennifer Jensen Wallach, a native of Rogers who is a food historian and a history professor at the University of North Texas, illustrated how her native Arkansas has changed with a simple slide: It was of a flyer from the Aloha Chinese Restaurant from the Rogers of her youth (lunch for $2.45). While as a child she was fed with fish sticks, tuna casserole and AQ Chicken, she noted that today she can, should she choose, eat a cricket. Immigrants who’ve brought their native dishes to Northwest Arkansas are providing genuine cuisine. Wallach noted Tyson Inc.’s response to today’s demand for healthy, plant-based products: its development of meat-free chicken nuggets, a food that requires no slaughter of animals. She also noted the chicken industry’s reputation as cruel and its labor practices as exploitative.
Cherisse Jones-Branch, a professor of history at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, specializes in the economic history of the Delta and is writing a book about the role of unsung African-American women activists. Her talk was revelatory to our nearly all-white group: She spoke about Eliza Nolden, who was flogged by a white planter in 1938 and who responded with a lawsuit against her attacker. She provided history on African-American home demonstration agents in the first half of the 20th century who fended off a suspicious white power structure by declaring they were merely improving the health of the black labor force when, along with canning, they were talking to black farm women about birth control and how to register to vote. She talked about the Arkansas Association of Colored Women, which fought for the Fargo Training School as an alternative to incarceration for young black girls who had been convicted of crimes. And about Annie Zachary Pike, a black Rockefeller Republican who served on the Arkansas Welfare Board in the 1960s and who still gets people to the polls today.
Political change in Northwest Arkansas, a region that sent two women Democrats to the legislature in the last election, can be traced in part to improvements in the quality of life: That was the thesis of Angie Maxwell, the director of the Diane Blair Center of Southern Politics at the University of Arkansas. Maxwell, a native of New Orleans, said she found the more open and egalitarian nature of Arkansas — as opposed to the stratified society entrenched in her home town — freeing. She noted the 11/11/11 opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where “men in Razorback sweatshirts” mingled with the suits to enjoy Alice Walton’s world-class museum. She believes the influx of progressives that can be traced to the opening of the museum and new investment in Bentonville — from bike trails to craft beer to new businesses to new flavors — will chip away at the more regressive politics of Northwest Arkansas. While acknowledging she’s not on board with all of the Walton endeavors — such as charter schools — Maxwell said should the wealthy elsewhere take to heart the Walton investment in projects that lift up the whole of the population, Arkansas could see more thoughtful politics. Maybe rise up from 49th or 50th place in education, or health, or children’s welfare.
That is SFA’s goal for all of the South, not just Arkansas. As the final dinner wrapped up, Southern Foodways Alliance Director John T. Edge declared, “The South is a broken-ass place. Let’s all work together to mend this broken-ass place.”