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Food 0

Foods with Arkansas Roots


Arkansas, abundant in culinary heritage, offers a delectable array of dishes influenced by its diverse culture and distinct geographic regions. The state boasts an impressive collection of unique and mouthwatering foods from the majestic Ozark Mountains to the fertile Mississippi River Valley.

Many write about Arkansas’s culinary dialect. Instagram influencers and creators rapidly fire the tastes they find around the state. But there are a handful of bites that originated with Arkansans. Whether knowing the first foods discovered by European settlers among Native American traditions or trying to survive off what they could forage, five foods stand out as uniquely Arkansas dishes.

  • Chocolate Gravy
  • Steven’s Special – Cheese Dip
  • Hushpuppies & Fried Catfish
  • Possum Pie
  • Fried Pickles

If you grew up in Arkansas, your grandmother or her mother is probably credited with a “famous” recipe passed down through generations. Don’t you wish we were better at slowing down and asking how and when our families started making these things? Nonetheless, we probably didn’t feel it was important because it seemed like it had always been.

Image from the World Championship Chocolate Gravy Cookoff held in Searcy.

Introducing Chocolate Gravy

One of the most iconic Arkansas dishes is chocolate gravy, a sweet and savory sauce crafted from cocoa powder, sugar, milk and butter. Traditionally, the gravy is poured over biscuits or pancakes. It is a staple of Arkansas cuisine, often served on special occasions such as weddings and family gatherings or a weekend family breakfast.

While the official origins are debatable, many believe that this breakfast delicacy came with the Appalachian settlers, who used powdered cocoa as an affordable way to elevate a mundane breakfast tradition. Adding a little cocoa powder and sugar to regular gravy brought a celebrated treat without having to stretch out too many of the usual kitchen commodities.

Another similarly beloved Arkansas delicacy is the chocolate roll, a pastry resembling a doughnut and a fried pie. Bakeries in Leslie brought the family tradition to the public, but it’s a treat any time of day. Imagine a fried pie crust folded like a burrito around a chocolate ganache filling. I know…right?!?!?!?

Introducing Steven’s Special

Cheese dip is a creamy and savory Arkansas specialty you always want to devour. Known for its rich, gooey texture and creamy white color, Arkansas cheese dip is made with melted cheeses, spices, and sometimes even a hint of heat from jalapenos or green chilies. Its flavors and creamy consistency make it a surefire crowd-pleaser at any gathering or restaurant.

Insert the Steven’s Special. While no one is certain who Steven is, the regional dish is a plate of Mexican rice topped with fajita meat and vegetables and doused with housemade cheese dip. Some restaurants will change the name to represent a local chef or server, but it’s consistently the same. Served with tortillas, it’s a popular dish at local Mexican restaurants and easy to replicate at home.

Introducing Possum Pie

Possum Pie is the official pie of Arkansas, and if you attend any church potluck or summer family reunion, it’s easy to see why. It’s on every table!

In 1983, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette first mentioned the Possum Pie from Fred’s Fish House in Cord as a “Five Layer Delight.” In the early 2000s, a recipe contest for elementary students produced a “four-layer delight” under the title Possum Pie.

And yet more research for the 1980s reveals an Arkansas recipe called “The Next Best Thing to Robert Redford.” That recipe creator knew her audience and the church ladies I knew served a dessert including a shortbread and nut crust, a sweet cream cheese layer, a chocolate layer, and a whipped topping. The pie is a perfect summer no-bake recipe to make ahead or quickly double for a crowd.

Introducing Hush Puppies

Hush puppies, a beloved side dish or appetizer, are a staple at Arkansas fish fries and cookouts. These golden-brown morsels of cornmeal batter are deep-fried to perfection, making them a popular snack at fairs and festivals throughout the state.

The origins of hush puppies trace back to Native American cultures, where fried cornmeal mush was a typical dish. Others mention a fried cornmeal batter that fishermen would use to hush the dogs while they worked on the day’s catch.

Arkansans prepare hush puppies by combining cornmeal with flour, baking powder, salt and other spices. Onions are often diced or chopped and added to the mixture with buttermilk or milk to create a batter. The batter is then carefully dropped into hot oil and fried until golden brown.

Fried catfish is also a quintessential Arkansas dish that showcases the state’s freshwater bounty. Fresh catfish is coated in a crispy breading and fried until golden brown, creating a savory and succulent entrée. Catfish filets are often accompanied by hush puppies and coleslaw, making it a favorite dish at Arkansas fish restaurants.

Introducing Fried Pickles

Fried pickles, an Arkansas delicacy, have become a beloved snack for locals and visitors.

The origins of fried pickles can be traced back to the early 1900s in the southern United States as carnival food. However, it was in the 1960s that they gained widespread popularity in Arkansas. Today, fried pickles are a staple on the menus of restaurants, bars, and food trucks throughout the state. And it makes sense since we are home to Atkins, the Pickle Capitol of the World!

The unique blend of spices and herbs in the batter sets Arkansas fried pickles apart from other variations. The most common seasonings include garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cayenne pepper and salt. Some establishments also add secret ingredients and spices to give their fried pickles a distinctive flavor.

Fried pickles are typically served as an appetizer or snack, accompanied by a dipping sauce. The most popular dipping sauce is ranch dressing, but other options such as honey mustard, barbecue sauce, and blue cheese dressing are also frequently offered.

These are but a few of the many delectable foods that Arkansas is renowned for. Rice, duck, and barbecue keep people coming back and looking for other unique Arkansas flavors.

What about you? Do you remember the first time you ate any of these? Or do you have the recipe card in your grandmother’s handwriting that brings it all together?

Cover image used with permission from Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

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Keisha (Pittman) McKinney lives in Northwest Arkansas with her chicken man and break-dancing son. Keisha is passionate about connecting people and building community, seeking solutions to the everyday big and small things, and encouraging others through the mundane, hard, and typical that life often brings. She put her communications background to work as a former Non-profit Executive Director, college recruiter and fundraiser, small business trainer, and Digital Media Director at a large church in Northwest Arkansas. Now, she is using those experiences through McKinney Media Solutions and her blog @bigpittstop, which includes daily adventures, cooking escapades, #bigsisterchats, the social justice cases on her heart, and all that she is learning as a #boymom! Keisha loves to feed birds, read the stack on her nightstand, do dollar store crafts, cook recipes from her Pinterest boards, and chase everyday adventures on her Arkansas bucket list.

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