Culinary enthusiasts find all sorts of especially notable goodies across Arkansas: apples, peaches, tomatoes, fried pies, barbecue, watermelon (both red- and yellow-meated), catfish and, of course, poultry.
However, certain vocal foodies will claim the state’s signature dish is cheese dip — and they can present a convincing case. For one thing, cheese dip made its world debut in 1935 at Mexico Chiquito, a central Arkansas restaurant. Over the years, it was copied by other restaurateurs and spread across much of the country, often shown on menus as “queso.” Many of us consider a perfectly seasoned bowl of this delicacy as the dip du jour for Super Bowl Sundays. Some even include it in their wedding receptions.
In 2009, Little Rock attorney and filmmaker Nick Rogers produced a 20-minute documentary tracing the history of this gastronomical delight. The film, In Queso Fever: A Movie about Cheese Dip, quickly developed a large following on the internet and played at the Little Rock Film Festival.
The following year saw the inaugural edition of “The World Cheese Dip Championship” at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium. Dozens of teams from throughout America competed in the festival, which drew 6,000 spectators — hungry aficionados who consumed 225 gallons of the cheesy concoction. Several regional competitions affiliated with the championship event have since been organized.
In late 2016, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article on Arkansas’ claim as the birthplace of cheese dip. Indignant Texans immediately cried out, insisting that queso was a longstanding dish originating in the Lone Star State years before Mexico Chiquito’s cheesy appetizer hit the tables. The debate soon reached the Halls of Congress in Washington, D.C. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz from Texas promptly entered the fray, demanding an objective competition to determine which state could offer the tastiest version.
That contest, a blind taste test, occurred on Dec. 7, 2016, on Capitol Hill during the weekly Steering Committee lunch involving dozens of Republican senators. This distinguished group met in the Capitol’s Mike Mansfield Room (S-207), a large and handsome setting, complete with American black walnut paneling and a portrait of George Washington hanging above the fireplace. The Texas entry was provided by Uncle Julio’s of Dallas while Arkansas’ dish came from Heights Taco & Tamale Co. of Little Rock. Once the tasting was finished, a tally was taken. Arkansas won, hands down.
“It was a foregone conclusion before we left the state of Arkansas,” said Scott McGehee, the Little Rock cook, “so we were not surprised at all. Arkansas cheese dip is on a different level than Texas queso, that mild runny thing that they try to pass off as cheese dip down there.”
The editorial staff of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette celebrated the victory with a 400-word congratulatory piece titled, “Arkansas beats Texas (again).” That same day on the opposite page of the newspaper, columnist John Brummett also noted the outcome, writing, “The win … was so convincing that the Texans couldn’t even filibuster.”
Several of my culinary-inclined friends swear there’s no better comfort food than a fresh batch of homemade Arkansas cheese dip. Paired, of course, with a fine selection of local craft beers and a bowl of crisp tortilla chips.
It’s never too early to begin experimenting with your own recipe. A chunk of cheese is required — and it’s not uncommon to combine pepper jack cheese and processed cheese with milk and flour via a double boiler or slow cooker. Chopped tomatoes, garlic, onions and green chili peppers are typically added. Same for jalapeños. Some folks will include ground beef or venison or even bacon in their closely guarded concoctions. As for spices, cayenne, cumin, paprika and chili powder seem to be favored. But let your creativity run!
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, both of which are now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.