The American South is full of unique culinary traditions, and Arkansas is no exception. With sweet native fruits, greasy deep-fried dishes, and decadent desserts, the Natural State’s most famous foods and drinks are worth making a trip for.
Home to portions of the Ozark Mountains, comfort foods are well-loved in “The Natural State”. Here’s a look at nine of our nine favorite food and drink items in Arkansas, in no particular order:
Don’t panic– despite its name, Arkansas’ favorite dessert contains no possum. It’s actually a pecan sandy crust filled with layers of cream cheese, chocolate pudding, and whipped cream.
It’s not clear where the treat’s misleading name comes from, but some theorize it’s a reference to “playing possum”. The chocolate pudding is obscured under the thick layer of whipped cream, therefore “tricking” observers into thinking the pie is something it’s not.
Regardless, possum pie has been part of Arkansas’ cuisine for years. The dessert first made an appearance in an Arkansas newspaper in 1974, but it was called by a different name. Over the next several decades, the pie began popping up in bakeries and cafes throughout the state.
PattiCakes Bakery in Conway sells a wide variety of pies, including possum pie, along with other pastries and desserts. Food can be ordered online ahead of time for pickup.
Now popular at steakhouses and county fairs, fried pickles were invented in Atkins, Arkansas. In 1963, Bernell “Fatman” Austin owned the Duchess Drive-In, just off of Highway 64. He created fried pickles as a way of attracting business to the restaurant. He developed a special recipe for breading the pickle slices and the side dish quickly became popular.
The Duchess Drive-In closed in the late ‘60s and the building was later destroyed in an accident. The Fatman opened a new restaurant, the Loner, in 1968, and continued to serve his signature menu item. For the next 10 years, he offered hamburgers, french fries, and fried pickles to interstate travelers along I-40.
Fried pickles have spread far and wide since the 1960s, but the original recipe is brought back every year at the annual Picklefest in Atkins. The Austin family sells more than 10,000 slices of Fatman’s Original Fried Dill Pickles each year at the event.
Highlights of the Atkins Picklefest include a pickle-eating contest, a car show, a parade, and a talent show. The event is usually held in late May.
You may be familiar with breakfast gravy, a savory sauce that’s often poured over warm biscuits. Chocolate gravy is used in the same way but has a lightly sweet taste. It’s a popular dish all throughout the Southern United States, including in Arkansas.
Chocolate gravy is made from margarine, cocoa powder, sugar, and flour. It’s then thinned with water or milk. It’s most often spooned over biscuits, however, it’s also delicious on pancakes, toast, and even fruit.
The Rolling Pin Cafe in Fayetteville serves biscuits with three choices of gravy, including chocolate gravy. They also have a number of other highly rated breakfast and lunch dishes.
Cheese dip is probably the most controversial item on this list– just ask the Texans. Arkansas cheese dip was invented in 1935 by Blackie Donnelly, owner of the Mexico Chiquito restaurant in Little Rock. In Texas, however, the dish is called “queso”, and one story says it was invented in the early 1900s.
Cheese dip can include just about any ingredients you’d like, as long as it’s made of a liquified cheese base. Ground meat, vegetables, herbs, and spices are all common additions to the white or yellow sauce.
Whether you call it cheese dip or queso, and regardless of which state invented it, Arkansas does claim one cheese-dip-related honor: it’s the home of the annual World Cheese Dip Championship.
Thousands of people come from all over to attend the championship festival. Cheese dip makers face off, competing for the title of Big Dipper in both professional and amateur categories. There is also a People’s Choice award, voted upon by festival attendees.
Many people bring muffin tins to hold their cups of cheese dip as they compare different varieties. Each attendee receives a bag of tortilla chips and two voting tokens upon entry. The festival is typically held in October in Little Rock.
Arkansas Delta Tamales
The Arkansas Delta covers the entire eastern side of the state, bordering right up against the Mississippi River. The region has its own unique culture, different even from other areas in Arkansas. In fact, the Delta region is home to a dish that you won’t find anywhere else: Arkansas Delta tamales.
Of course, tamales themselves didn’t originate in Arkansas. The corn-based dish can be traced back to ancient civilizations in modern-day Mexico, but they have since spread far and wide. It’s possible that Arkansas Delta tamales began with Mexican immigrants who worked in the cotton fields. Others say the recipe came back with U.S. soldiers after the Mexican-American War.
Delta tamales differ from traditional Mexican tamales in a number of ways. They are made with corn meal instead of masa powder, and they are simmered in pots rather than steamed. Delta tamales tend to be longer and thinner than their Mexican counterparts, and they are typically filled with pork.
Pasquale’s Original Tamales is a tamale truck run by Joe and Joyce St. Columbia. The St. Columbia family has sold Delta tamales in West Helena since the early 1900s. The tamale truck is open on Fridays and Saturdays only, but you can also order online and have the tamales shipped to you.
Before Coca-Cola and Pepsi took the world by storm, smaller, more local soda brands were all the rage. In Arkansas, that local brand was Grapette. As the name suggests, Grapette is a grape-flavored soft drink that was first produced in 1940 in Camden.
Benjamin “Tyndle” Fooks was a traveling salesman in the ‘30s who didn’t like the grape sodas that were available at the time. He sought to create a better-tasting grape drink. It took two years, but he eventually came up with a soda recipe that he believed was better than any other. He called it Grapette, and it soon took Arkansas by storm.
Over the next few years, Fooks also introduced Lemonette, Orangette, and other soda flavors, though none were as popular as the original grape. The brand enjoyed great success for several decades before sales began declining in the 1970s. In 1975, Grapette was discontinued.
However, in the year 2000, Walmart began producing Grapette once again, after striking a deal for the exclusive rights to the drink. You can find Grapette and Orangette in Walmarts throughout the country. Grapette International also sells concentrates and syrups for soda fountains and slushie machines.
Arkansas is not the largest producer of watermelon in the country (that honor goes to Florida), but cities and towns throughout the state claim to have the world’s sweetest melons. More than 200 farms in Arkansas produce watermelon, with more than 1,500 acres dedicated to the fruit.
Cave City holds an annual Watermelon Festival each July. Guests can enjoy live music, a kids’ fishing derby, a 5k, and a watermelon parade. Farmers and gardeners compete for the title of “Prize Melon”.
You can always find watermelons in grocery stores, but they’re best enjoyed at the height of the season, and even better when locally grown. Watermelons are typically harvested in the summer; during this time, you’re likely to find large, delicious melons filling the stands at local farmers’ markets.
Soul food is an important category of cuisine in the South. When enslaved Africans were brought to the United States, they brought many of their cultural traditions with them, including food, music, and art. Fish is one of the dietary staples of West Africa that enslaved people could also find and eat in the American South.
Catfish are plentiful in the lakes and rivers of Arkansas. It’s also easy to prepare, making it a popular choice for fish fries. When the cotton farming industry collapsed in the mid-twentieth century, many cotton farmers flooded their fields and raised catfish instead.
Fried catfish can be found in hundreds of restaurants throughout “The Land of Opportunity”. The Whippet in Prattsville is a family-owned restaurant and dairy bar that considers catfish to be their specialty. Guests can dine in or call ahead for to-go orders. Be sure to check their hours of operation ahead of time.
Known as “America’s first grape”, muscadines are native to Arkansas and are the first variety of grape to be cultivated in the Americas. They were first grown over 400 years ago by Native Americans in the South.
Muscadines can be eaten fresh, though they have an unusual taste compared to other grape varieties. They are most commonly used in wines and homemade jams. The grapes grow wild in Arkansas (though not generally in the northern part of the state).
Muscadine Farm in Hot Springs, AR, allows you to pick your own grapes during the picking season. Picking season usually starts in early September, around Labor Day weekend. The farm asks that guests bring exact change (no debit or credit cards).
If you’re planning on traveling in the Natural State, be sure to check out the distinct local flavors. You won’t regret trying Arkansas’ most famous foods and drinks– but don’t be surprised if you find yourself unwilling to leave.