Rowe documents Ozark food history
Chef Erin Rowe explores the intersection of Ozark history and traditional foods in her new book, An Ozark Culinary History: Northwest Arkansas Traditions from Corn Dodgers to Squirrel Meatloaf .
The book tells a narrative history of the Ozark food heritage and includes recipes for locally unique foods, gathered from farmers, local families and even restaurants such as The Wooden Spoon in Gentry and Monte Ne Chicken Inn in Rogers. It has chapters on canning and pickling, wild things, the vineyards, game and fish, apples and pies and sweets.
In the book, Rowe tells how to prepare locally gathered foods such as persimmons, polk greens, black walnuts, morel mushrooms and wild berries, as well as locally caught game such as venison, squirrel, rabbit and wild turkey, and fish such as catfish, crappie, perch, bass and shad. She also explores foods that were grown on the farm, such as poultry, apples, corn and grapes.
To research the book, Rowe used a hands-on, journalistic technique. She stomped grapes at the Tontitown Grape Festival, made hominy and lye soap at the Cane Hill Harvest Festival, volunteered to help farmers with their harvests and sat around dozens of kitchen tables with a glass of sweet tea, painstakingly measuring out and recording recipes that were previously made from memory.
Rowe, who now lives in Bella Vista, grew up in Siloam Springs and graduated from Siloam Springs High School in 2000. After attending Hendrix College, then joining the Peace Corps, Rowe decided to get involved in the art world. She got a job selling fine art on the Hawaiian Island of Maui, the third largest destination in the world for art acquisition sales, she said.
Gourmet restaurants were scarce in Northwest Arkansas when Rowe was growing up, but in Maui, Rowe fell in love with plentiful gourmet food. When she sold a piece of art, she would treat herself to a gourmet meal at one of the island’s many fine restaurants.
The Culinary Academy of Maui served a gourmet meal once a month, and Rowe found herself
I’m from Siloam Springs and I had never heard about our Ozark food history and culture. If nobody writes it down it will get lost over time. Nobody is even going to know we had a heritage in the first place. Erin Rowe, chef and author
eating there often. She eventually began attending the school and graduated from the two-year program in only one year. After graduating, she continued to live in Maui and began writing restaurant reviews for a local society magazine.
“I realized I could write about food and do it well,” she said.
Returning to Arkansas
When Rowe returned to Arkansas, she understood flavors and food in a much deeper sense.
“When I came back to Arkansas, my eyes were opened,” Rowe said. “I started to notice what makes our food unique.”
Many people are under the impression that Ozark food is simply southern cuisine, but Rowe discovered that Ozark food is specific to the region because it is based on ingredients that are available in the Ozark hills. The elements of Ozark food are related to what people can grow in the ground, and the animals and plants that live in the streams, rivers and woods, she explained.
Once back in Arkansas, Rowe began working in Bentonville at both the Peel Mansion Museum and Heritage Gardens, and The Crystal Bridge Museum of American Art. Working at the museums piqued her interest in history.
“The combination of my interest in food and interest in history converged on a point,” Rowe said. “I realized that nobody is writing our heritage or stories down about our food ways.”
Rowe realized that the region is changing with an influx of people who aren’t native to the area.
“I’m from Siloam Springs and I had never heard about our Ozark food history and culture,” Rowe said. “If nobody writes it down it will get lost over time. Nobody is even going to know we had a heritage in the first place.”
Rowe started with a contract with Arcadia Publishing, known for publishing local history books. She began her research in the Rogers Public Library, checking out books about the history of Northwest Arkansas and Arkansas food. She also worked with the Siloam Springs and Rogers Museums to collect pictures.
Rowe began to interview her friend Gail Brewer, who taught her traditional recipes such as cornbread and pickles, and shared shoe boxes of old pictures. Brewer introduced Rowe to her Uncle George House, who was born in the earlier part of the twentieth century and was a rich source of information.
Each person Rowe met in the course of her research led her to more people that could help her. One day while driving, she noticed a fruit stand in Tontitown and pulled over to talk to the owners. She met the Montegani brothers, who have grown grapes in Northwest Arkansas for five generations. After visiting with the brothers for a while, Rowe asked for permission to help them harvest grapes. They told her to show up at dawn. Much to their surprise, Rowe did show up at sunrise ready to work.
“Everyday was like a new day, driving the back roads of Arkansas looking for a story,” Rowe said.
At the Cane Hill Harvest Festival, Rowe approached a woman who was presenting a hominy making demonstration and asked if she could help her can the hominy after the festival. Rowe went to her home and learned how to can, and saw where she stored her canned goods in a cellar dug into the side of a hill.
Rowe also got a chance to interview Chef Miles James, who is very much part of the Northwest Arkansas food tradition, and visit his restaurants.
“It was literally me trying to live out our real history, to dig deep into our soil and to walk into forests and try to collect things, not just as a historian but as a real person who’s lived it,” Rowe said.
When she isn’t busy researching and writing, Rowe teaches private cooking classes and gives talks about the history of Ozark food. In the future, she would like to develop and lead food tours of Northwest Arkansas.
Rowe’s book is available locally at Heart of the Home in Siloam Springs; Honeycomb Kitchen Shop and House of Webster in Rogers; the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville; the Fayetteville Visitors Center; Post Family Winery in Altus; the Clinton House Museum in Fayetteville; and at the University of Arkansas Bookstore in Fayetteville. It can also be purchased directly from Rowe at a discount or online at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.
More information about Rowe and her book is available on her Chef Erin Rowe Facebook page.
Chef Erin Rowe, a Siloam Springs native, recently published An Ozark Culinary History: Northwest Arkansas Traditions from Corn Dodgers to Squirrel Meatloaf.
Erin Rowe stomped grapes at the Tontitown Grape Festival while researching her book on Ozark culinary history.