Arkansas food traditions

The land now called Arkansas has been inhabited for many generations, and a good number of ways to study and examine the past help to cast light on life in Arkansas then and now. One of the newest subjects to be studied is foodways: what did people eat, how did they obtain it, how did they prepare it, and how did they preserve it? Contemporary Arkansas festivals feature some of the most interesting foodway traditions in the modern world.

Corn (maize), beans, and squash were the primary foods of the earliest dwellers of Arkansas, although they occasionally added meat to their diet. The first European explorers to enter Arkansas were led by Hernando de Soto, who crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas in 1541 and died in Arkansas the following year. After de Soto came Jacque Marquette and Louis Joliet in 1673. These French explorers were responsible for the name of the state of Arkansas. After asking the Illini of the Mississippi River valley who they would meet in their travels south, Marquette and Joliet were told to expect the Ar-kan-saw, which was merely the Illini word for “people who live to the south.” Encountering the Quapaw villages where the Arkansas River meets the Mississippi, Marquette and Joliet applied the Illini’s label to the Quapaw, and the name went on to designate the river, the territory (once a county of Missouri Territory), and the state. The first permanent European settlement in the region was Arkansas Post, located near the Arkansas River not far from its confluence with the Mississippi. Arkansas is included in the land acquired by the United States by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and American settlers began to join the Quapaw, Caddo, Osage, French, and Spanish families who already lived on the land.

While some settlers established large cotton plantations in the flatlands of southern and eastern Arkansas, others took to the hills where they lived off the land as best they could. (This is called subsistence farming.) They planted various crops and raised chickens and hogs, but they also gathered berries and fruits from the forests and hunted deer, bear, and anything else that moved and might be edible. The hillbilly image of the Ozark Arkansan is largely shaped by stories (many highly exaggerated) told by travelers who met these hardy pioneers.

Even as Arkansas developed as a territory and then a state, memories remained of the early foods eaten by Arkansas settlers. Among the annual festivals still celebrated in Arkansas today are the Trumann Wild Duck Festival, the Gillett ‘Coon Supper, the Polk County ‘Possum Festival, the Dermott Crawfish Festival, the Arkansas Rice Festival, the Hope Watermelon Festival, the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, the Camden Daffodil Festival, and the Malvern Brickfest, not to mention Conway’s Toad Suck Daze.

Actually, the ‘Possum Festival has a spotted history. Beginning in 1915 as a challenge to neighboring communities, the Polk County ‘Possum Festival had a long and honorable history through the first half of the twentieth century. However, during World War II, when much of the male population was out of state serving in the armed forces, remaining citizens re-established Prohibition, forbidding the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Although the festival was attempted in 1945 and 1946, it was cancelled in 1947. A brief attempt to restart the festival occurred from 1995 through 2001, but with little success. Evidently for a ‘Possum festival to succeed, more than the meat needed to be marinated. J.