Kat Robinson is such a recognizable figure in the Arkansas food scene that sometimes to get the full customer experience, as opposed to the food writer experience, she visits restaurants in disguise.
“I’ve developed a particularly signature look over the years,” Robinson said, “the hat, the duster, the big flowy sleeves.” Since Robinson’s documentary film “Make Room For Pie: A Delicious Slice of The Natural State” came out, she says, she tends to be recognized on sight by more people when she’s out reviewing food. “That’s good, I guess, but there are times I just want to be regular folk. … I want to write about what everyone gets.” (She wouldn’t say how she disguises, because then she wouldn’t be disguised.)
After talking with Robinson by phone for 40 minutes about Arkansas restaurants, it became clear very quickly that she’s kind of an encyclopedia on the subject. She’s written several books about the state’s food offerings, four of which serve as travel guides about where to find the best plates or pies. She wrote two more books in 2020; they just weren’t the books she had in mind when the year began.
“Initially I had two books that I was already researching for the year that I’d hoped to have by the end of the year,” Robinson said.
One book would have been about the history of cheese dip, different cheese dip styles, where to find them and how to make them, Robinson said. The other book was to be in a similar style, highlighting catfish customs in Arkansas. Robinson planned to assemble these two books the same way she put together “Another Slice of Arkansas Pie,” in which she traveled to all 75 counties in Arkansas to research pie in each county.
But COVID-19 changed her plans. “I was really afraid at the beginning of all of this because we didn’t know how the virus was spread,” Robinson said. “I could accidentally carry this into populations in rural parts of the state, especially with restaurateurs who are much older than I am.” Arkansas has a lot of septuagenarian restaurant owners right now, she said, and the thought that she might spread the virus while interviewing them was too risky.
The books weren’t all that went by the wayside. Robinson also had 22 public appearances scheduled between April and May. She was set to keynote the South Arkansas Literary Festival and was scheduled for a solo turn at the Six Bridges Book Festival.
“These are the ways that I fund what I do,” Robinson said. “I don’t charge restaurants for any of it. Coming into this year, I was very excited because I got to the point where, between book sales and public speaking, I could pay all the bills, and in many ways, a lot of that got taken away from me,” she said.
Robinson was also in talks with PBS about doing an agritourism special that would have aired in December. Robinson previously worked with PBS on “Make Room for Pie,” a documentary about pie featured in Arkansas restaurants. It was nominated for a regional Emmy award in 2018.
“I’ve wanted to do this special for a while because I think agritourism is extraordinarily overlooked,” Robinson said, “but when March 30 came along, we met by Zoom, and it felt like in many ways trying to save face. The project we wanted to do [was] impossible at [that] point in time, and I mentioned, ‘There’s a lot of people I know who are cooking at home that normally don’t, and they’re going back to their family traditions and putting their own swing on things.’ ” Robinson worked with Arkansas PBS to create a no-contact cooking program called “Home Cooking With Kat & Friends.” The one hour special aired in June.
“I recorded my segments over three weekends in May, and I contacted a lot of different people and they did auditions by phone, and we chose six to be a part of our lone program. It was completely no contact, none of us saw each other, we were all in our own homes.
“And about the time that I started rolling with that, I put out a message on Facebook.” She was looking for quarantine recipes. Forty-three different people contributed 80 recipes that became “43 Tables — An Internet Community Cooks During Quarantine.” The collaborative recipe book, which features appetizers, salads, soups, vegetables, breads, entrees and desserts, serves a 2020 time capsule that highlights how people spent quarantine time in a beneficial way.
“The book is a moment in an uncertain time, a culinary record of what happened in those scary months,” Robinson said in a press release. “It’s singular in its composition and subject matter — I have yet to find any other compilation created like this during the pandemic. COVID-19 may have kept us in our homes, but it did not quell our desire to break bread with one another.”
While working on “43 Tables” and “Home Cooking with Kat & Friends,” Robinson, for the first time in a decade, found herself with a lot of time to cook rather than writing about those who cooked for others.
“Between the months of March and July, I was making anywhere from two to five meals a day,” she said. If she had an idea for the home cooking show, she’d make it and film and photograph it. “I would make up several meals, and then I would distribute them to my mom, my partner, people that I knew who would open their doors and find a prepared meal in a bag waiting for them. It’s a huge departure for me. Up until 2007, when I left KTHV [Robinson worked as a producer with KTHV, Channel 11, for years doing a morning show], I did a lot of cooking but once I started covering the restaurant scene, well, you don’t make food when you already have food,” she said. While making all of these different recipes, she started to develop a more personal cookbook idea.
“This was something I planned to write perhaps when I retired or if there was ever a slow season … but I wasn’t expecting this,” she said. Robinson said the original idea for the book was Arkansas recipes we should all know.
“I don’t know if this happened with you, but a lot of people started having crazy dreams because everything was such a shock. I guess it was a PTSD reaction,” she said. “For me, it was remembering moments from my childhood that I hadn’t thought about in decades, and they all tied to food. I started cooking the things that I remember from my past and that’s where ‘A Bite of Arkansas’ really comes through. I had such personal connections with each of the dishes I was making. Everything seemed to conjure a memory, and I wanted to capture that because I’d never really sat down and written down all the recipes that were in my head.”
“A Bite of Arkansas” is divided into courses that might conjure memories for anyone who grew up in Arkansas. “Upon Awakening” features recipes such as sugared rice, chocolate gravy and made-from-scratch cream gravy. “Bites In Between” has recipes for Rotel cheese dip and Mexico Chiquito-style cheese dip, a recipe that Robinson’s worked for years to replicate. “From The Bowl” features recipes such as chili, chicken soup, gumbo and red beans and rice. “Things Noodles Go With” has a recipe for turkey tetrazzini or chicken spaghetti, meatloaf, meatballs and ratatouille. One of Robinson’s favorite dishes she made this year is her fried chicken recipe, which appears on the cover of the book. Another favorite is in the “Sweeter Things” chapter: a recipe for old fashioned chocolate hand pies.
Robinson said the biggest challenge of putting the book together was that “I had to accept that I was going to expose a bit more of my personal life than I had felt comfortable with before. I’ve very much tried to keep my own history out of the equation. One of the big things as far as just writing about what’s going out in the world is, it’s not about me. I’m not part of that story; I’m just sharing that story. I had to let go of the notion that these are private things and they shouldn’t be shared. Some things in there are funny and some things are just practical, but there’s some things that I’ve never talked about before, like how my mom and I just barely hung on back in the late ’70s and early ’80s whenever we first moved to Little Rock and we were dirt poor. She was trying so hard to make sure we were able to survive on her nurse’s salary and that meant austerity, sure, but it also meant that our food memories — even if they’re just crazy food memories that aren’t attached to a price tag, like talking about Poncho nachos and cheese dip — they were these real luxuries we were able to afford when we were just scrambling. … It’s hard to admit that you’re poor, and that is something that I guess is just part of how we grow up here is we’re never supposed to admit that we have those sort of challenges,” she said.
Robinson said the biggest lesson she learned in the kitchen this year wasn’t quite a kitchen lesson, but a lesson in availability.
“I’ve always been able to scrape together whatever I have and make good dishes, and that’s what I did in March, April and early May. As soon as our farmers markets started to open and we had available strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes and squash and all this bounty from our gardens, everything I made just blossomed. There’s one thing eating for comfort and sustenance, but this was eating for joy. If you open the book and you see the front cover page and all those vegetables — I went vegetable crazy. I have never more appreciated the fact that I live in a state that has such a diverse and wonderful availability of fresh, homegrown produce.”
“People wanted fresh produce so much after being self-isolated for that time that our produce wasn’t just a commodity, it was like a love letter from the fields. And being able to go out to a market where masks were required and knowing this was a safe place for me to visit fed into my soul because I’m a traveler; I love being on the road. It’s one of the reasons why being a food writer has been remarkable for me because I’m able to take off and go to all these communities and meet people and be out in the air. To not be able to do that has hurt my soul.”
Robinson does have plans to get back on the road again in 2021, but not without protocols.
“I’ve made the pledge, I will not eat inside a restaurant until this is over,” she said. “I will support my restaurants, I will order, I’ll even go in and shoot food, but I’m not taking my mask off because I don’t want to risk spreading COVID-19.”