Here are some unique foods in Arkansas that might not be as well known in the rest of the country.
These days Arkansas is a wonderful foodie destination. You will find amazing restaurants in the cities as well as fun, quirky, and delicious holes in the wall in the most unexpected places.
However, it is said that early travelers did a lot of complaining about the food that they were served while visiting the state of Arkansas.
Although the area was blessed with plentiful game, travelers seemed to have felt that the cooking was a little too simple and plain.
Fortunately that has changed today!
History of Cooking and Food in Arkansas
Historically, game was the most common of the foods in Arkansas. In fact, in its early years of statehood the nickname of Arkansas was the Bear State due to the enormous number of black bears. Bears were a source of meat and oil and hides.
Even after the bear population began to dwindle hunting was an important way for the locals feed themselves. Wild game was consumed at home and also sold in the towns.
For many years food was prepared around the fire or the fireplace and was usually cooked in cast-iron pots, pans, and spits. In fact, did you know that the dutch oven is the official cooking vessel of Arkansas?
During the mid to late 1800’s hogs became the main source of meat. The word “meat” basically meant pork. During this same time if an Arkansan said bread – they most likely meant cornbread because white wheat flour was rarely available.
All vegetables, including greens, were cooked.
After the 1850’s cooking in Arkansas began to change as cast iron ovens became more popular. Steamboats were bringing a larger variety of food items. Exact measurements appeared and home cooks began to rely more on written recipes.
Still the mountain areas were more isolated and those who lived in the hills continued with their own ways of cooking for many years.
If you would like to learn more about the history of foods in Arkansas this is an interesting post that you can read.
What Are Some of the Unique Arkansas Foods?
Probably the most well known of the unique foods in Arkansas is cheese dip.
Cheese dip was brought to Arkansas by a restaurant owner named Blackie Donnelly who returned from a trip to Mexico with spices and ideas.
He whipped up a spicy, drippy, yellow concoction to serve to his patrons back in the 1940’s.
Cheese dip was an immediate hit in the area and is now found at all types of restaurants across Arkansas.
You can learn more about the history of cheese dip in the state as well as find a list of our favorite cheese dips in Little Rock in this post.
The World Cheese Dip Competition is even held in Little Rock.
One of the most delightful foods in Arkansas is chocolate gravy. It is said that chocolate gravy was first created in the Arkansas Ozark mountains. It is typically considered a breakfast food and is served over biscuits, but some of the older folks will have it for a light dinner.
Southerners have been drizzling their biscuits with sweet foods like honey, or sorghum, or molasses for generations. It would be my guess that chocolate gravy was invented by a creative mountain women with a craving for chocolate.
Chocolate gravy is made from a mix of oil or butter, flour, milk, cocoa powder and sugar. Chocolate gravy is considered to be quite a treat and is still served at breakfast restaurants in the state.
Try it at Gadwall’s Grill if you are in Central Arkansas.
Fried pickles are one of the most unique and delicious of the Arkansas foods.
The Atkins Pickle company was the main industry in Atkins, Arkansas for many years. In fact, the town was once dubbed the “Pickle Capital of the World.”
The fried pickle was created by Burnell “Fatman” Austin in 1963 at The Duchess Drive-In in Atkins. They were an instant hit.
There is no longer a pickle company in Atkins but the heritage lives on in the Atkins Pickle Fest as well as the fact that fried dill pickles are offered as an appetizer in many restaurants around the state.
Dill pickles battered and fried and served with Ranch dressing are such a treat! Some restaurants served fried dill pickle spears but I like the chips better. Tim’s Tavern in Benton, Arkansas serves delicious fried pickles!
Arkansas Possum Pie
Don’t worry. There is no possum in Arkansas possum pie.
Possum pie is a layered dessert that starts with a delicious pecan shortbread crust followed by layers of cream cheese, chocolate pudding, whipped cream, with more pecans sprinkled on top.
It is said that the name came from the fact that the pie is “playin’ possum.” It pretends to be something it is not, hiding its delectable chocolate layer until the pie is sliced.
Stoby’s Restaurant is supposed to have the best possum pie in the state but you will see it other places and it is popular with home cooks as well.
Arkansas Delta Tamales
One of our favorite foods in Arkansas is the delta tamale…and they have an interesting history!
An Italian immigrant, Pasquale, came to America in 1892 and began to travel up the Mississippi River on a riverboat. He made it as far as Helena, Arkansas before running out of money.
He began swapping recipes with the Mexican immigrants who had come north to work in the farm fields in the Mississippi Delta. This led Pasquale to begin making his own version of a tamale with somewhat different meats and spices.
The next step in the evolution of the Arkansas Delta tamale was when a young African American couple, Maggie and Eugene Brown, came to Pasquale wanting help to open a soul food restaurant in a building that he owned.
Pasquale had one condition – they had to make and serve his tamales. They agreed to his terms, changing the recipe just a little to fit the soul food vibe of their restaurant. The restaurant was very successful!
There is much more to this story but the bottom line is that the Arkansas Delta Tamales were an Italian meets Mexican meets Soul Food concoction.
Today, you can still buy Pasquales Tamales in Helena, Arkansas.
Another of our favorite tamales in the state are found at Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales. We also really enjoy steak and tamales at the Tamale Factory which is located near Augusta, Arkansas.
Cavender’s Greek Seasoning
Cavender’s Greek Seasoning has been made in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas since 1969. It was the invention of Spike and Katherine Cavender.
Spike had been making a special and “secret” seasoning spice for years to give to friends and family.
According to a grandson, one day his grandfather and father bottled up a batch of the seasoning and took it to some local grocery stores.
His grandfather claimed that if he “went back and the stores were sold out, he was gonna market the stuff!!” When they returned all the spice blends had been sold.
Cavenders is now a delicious part of Arkansas culinary history.
Some “experts” like to say that Arkansas doesn’t have its own barbecue tradition and that we simply borrowed from the traditions of our neighboring states.
It is true that we serve both pork and beef barbecue and that our sauces run the gamut from thick and tomato-y, to sweet and saucy, to thin and spicy, to tangy and vinegary.
However, I’ll tell you that I have eaten barbecue all over the US and some of the best is found in Arkansas.
In my opinion Arkansas is a highly unrecognized barbecue state.
The James Beard award winning, Jones BBQ in Marianna, Arkansas is one of the most venerated barbecue restaurants in the world and the oldest black-owned business in the nation.
One thing that decidedly is uniquely “Arkansas” is our habit of slapping a ladle full of coleslaw on your barbecue sandwich. The cool and crunchy coleslaw is perfection with the warm and spicy barbecue.
The barbecue pictured below is from Sim’s Bar-b-que in Little Rock which is one of our favorites.
In addition to barbecue you can find various other smoked meats around the state!
The concept of smoking meat is as old as the idea of eating and preserving food. But the cooks of Arkansas have taken this to an art.
Obviously, barbecue is the most well known smoked meat product…but we aren’t just talking pork or beef here. These places smoke chickens and turkeys, hams, and even cheeses.
Burge’s is known for smoking turkeys and hams. In fact, their smoked turkey salad sandwich is one of our favorite sandwiches in Central Arkansas.
Coursey’s is located near the White River and is a perfect place to stop and grab some smoked meats and cheeses to have a sandwich on the river.
Muscadines and Muscadine Products
Although the Cynthiana is the state grape of Arkansas the muscadine is actually more well known locally.
The muscadine is one of the few grapes that is native to Arkansas. These grapes have thick skins, large seeds, and a unique, soft, musky-flavored pulp.
You can make wine from them and many of the local wineries do…but, and this is a personal opinion, I would say that muscadine wine is an acquired taste.
Some people love it though so give it a try and let me know your opinion!
However, you can’t beat muscadine jams and jellies. They are delicious! These can be found at farmer’s markets, roadside stands, and shops that specialize in local goods.
Stuttgart, Arkansas is the duck hunting capitol of the world and every year, around Thanksgiving, they host the World Championship Duck Gumbo Cook-off. I would say that duck gumbo is one of the most flavorful and unique foods in Arkansas.
The cook-off is part of the Wings Over the Prairie Festival which also hosts the World’s Championship Duck Calling Competition.
The duck gumbo cook-off hosts more than 55 teams that compete from all over the country and the judging is completely blind. The winner walks away with the title of World’s Best Duck Gumbo.
This is a wild and crazy as well as delicious event!
Grapette was a soda originally created in Camden, Arkansas by Benjamin “Tyndle” Fooks. Apparently he didn’t like any of the grape flavor drinks that were available and decided to create his own.
Thousands of taste tests later, in 1939, he had developed a flavor that he believed, and many agreed, was superior to all other grape sodas available at the time.
In addition to a finely tuned flavor Grapette’s also had unique packaging. Most soft drinks at the time were sold in twelve-ounce bottles. Grapette was sold in a six-ounce clear glass bottle, which helped to show off the beverage’s purple color.
Grapette quickly became popular and expanded across the US using the slogan “Thirsty or Not.”
Fooks sold his business in the late 1960’s and Grapette eventually quit being sold in the US although it was still popular in other countries.
In the late 1980’s Sam Walton of Walmart fame approached the owner of Grapette saying, “I want Grapette in my stores.”
It took several years but Grapette is now sold at Walmart.
Mountain Valley Water
Mountain Valley Water is another beverage that is indigenous to the state of Arkansas. It comes from a spring in the Ouachita mountains near Hot Springs, Arkansas. This spring is clear and pure as it filters through granite-based aquifers.
There is no sodium in the water but there is a healthy blend of minerals and the taste is amazing.
Mountain Valley Water claims to be, “America’s original premium spring water.” I believe it!
Hot Springs has been a tourist destination for thousands of years due to the belief that its thermal waters had healing properties both for bathing and drinking.
This water has won multiple awards, is still sold in glass bottles, and is a favorite of chefs.
This is one of the foods in Arkansas that you will definitely want to try especially if you are visiting the Hot Springs National Park.
I do know that watermelon is not just an Arkansas food. They are grown all over the south. However, if you are visiting the state in the summer you should really try an Arkansas watermelon.
Some of the best and the sweetest watermelons are grown in the state.
Cave City, Arkansas claims to be the home of the sweetest watermelon in the world. Check out their Cave City Watermelon festival website!
Hope, Arkansas calls itself the Watermelon Capitol of the World. This area is known for growing both delicious as well as HUGE watermelons and they host a watermelon festival every year to celebrate.
Yes, yes, you can get strawberries almost anywhere. However, spring in Arkansas is about more than the gardens and flowers. It is also about strawberries! There is nothing sweeter or more delicious than a red, ripe, Arkansas strawberry.
About 90% of the Arkansas strawberry crop is sold locally. Most Arkansans go straight to the farm to buy flats of strawberries. Y’all they are SO good.
The strawberry season is very short. Of course it is weather dependent but it usually starts in the beginning of April and is over by early June. So don’t wait to taste your Arkansas strawberries!
Many of the restaurants offer seasonal items on their menu that feature these delicious delights.
The best known is probably the Bulldog Restaurant in Bald Knob. During strawberry season they have the most delightful strawberry shortcake on their menu that you have ever tasted! People come from miles around to have it.
These are some of the best and most unique foods in Arkansas that you have got to try while you are in the state.
Arkansas is also known for many other foods. We do catfish and hushpuppies really, really well. You will also want to try fried chicken, chicken fried steak, fried okra….yes, we like fried foods around here.
Arkansas also grows more rice than any other state and we are becoming a leader in growing soybeans for edamame.
The produce is amazing in Arkansas. You will definitely want to visit a local farmers market. Purple hull peas are a favorite, squash, cucumbers, okra…
Tomatoes y’all, especially heirloom varieties, are one of the foods in Arkansas that you will want to experience if you are visiting in the summer season.
Arkansas also has many up and coming breweries that you might want to visit as well as some distilleries.
Come to Arkansas for a great food experience.
Thanks for stopping by!