Rowe doc­u­ments Ozark food his­tory

Siloam Springs Herald Leader - - FRONT PAGE - By Janelle Jessen Staff Writer

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.

Photo submitted

Chef Erin Rowe, a Siloam Springs na­tive, re­cently pub­lished An Ozark Culi­nary His­tory: North­west Arkansas Tra­di­tions from Corn Dodgers to Squir­rel Meat­loaf.

Photo submitted

Erin Rowe stomped grapes at the Ton­ti­town Grape Fes­ti­val while re­search­ing her book on Ozark culi­nary his­tory.

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