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The South is home to storied food cultures too many to name.
If you go to Chapel Hill, you can expect vinegary North Carolina barbecue; go to New Orleans and it's jambalaya and crawfish. Arkansas, on the other hand, doesn't call to mind a particular palate. Parts of Arkansas have their mainstays: watermelon, Arkansas cheese dip, chocolate gravy. But while the state doesn't have a signature regional dish or flavor, the diversity of the food you'll find there tells a complex story of past generations of migration, a history of power and resistance, and the globalization-driven present trend of displacement, upheaval, and urbanization. Exploring those stories was the driving idea behind the Southern Foodways Alliance's choice to bring its annual summer gathering to Northwest Arkansas.
The Southern Foodways Alliance operates in a documentary space between food, culture, and politics. They work to capture the South's foodways, but not the ones most people might think of when they think of the South; instead, they tell the stories of the people and institutions who fall outside of the traditional Southern canon, like Tidewater Virginians, and Latinx New Orleans. The SFA has created a documentary archive, an oral history project, and a podcast highlighting the diverse foodways of the South. They also host two yearly events for folks to learn about and experience these different Souths, events which draw people for whom food is a career, people for whom food is a hobby, and people like me, who end up there because it's happening in our hometown.
"In this place, we are to center food and labor, but the labor has changed," said poet Patricia Spears-Jones as she opened the first day of the June weekend gathering in the Great Hall of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. Spears-Jones grew up in the Arkansas Delta while agribusiness ate away at the region's traditional economy. "On this side of the state, the labor is different, professional, away from the land. It is data-driven and market-based, it is international and yet oh-so-local."
Northwest Arkansas is wedged in between northeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Missouri, where the Ozark Mountains gush out from the West and the Great Plains. It was once hunting land for the Osage people; later, four routes of the deadly Trail of Tears converged in the Arkansas Territory as tribes from across the American continent were forced into Oklahoma reservations. Today, most of the region, which roughly encompasses three Arkansas counties—Benton, Washington, and Madison—remains rural, but also includes four of Arkansas' ten largest cities: Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale, and Fayetteville, which track in that order north-to-south along Interstate 49. The region's urbanization is clustered along that interstate corridor, and I grew up intimately familiar with what was then a two-lane highway, driving back and forth along it from my school in Rogers to my music lessons in Fayetteville to my summer job in Springdale.
Northwest Arkansas is not like the rest of the state, nor is it really like the rest of the South.
Most of the food I remember eating during my childhood seems, to me, unremarkable. We frequented Maria's, a Mexican restaurant just off the old highway, and Aldi, a German grocery chain that still has some of the cheapest produce in Northwest Arkansas. Some of our food was more locally-sourced: most hunting seasons, someone in the family would shoot a deer or two that we'd eat off of the rest of the year. My Papa grew arugula, snap peas, and okra in his garden, all of which made frequent appearances on our kitchen table. When I was a bit older we moved to a farm, where my dad kept a flock of chickens and a herd of miniature Hereford cows; we'd slaughter one every once in a while to sell off to my parent's friends, and keep some of the hamburger meat and steaks for ourselves.
We were in the minority, to move to a farm as the rest of the region was moving away from them.
Northwest Arkansas is not like the rest of the state, nor is it really like the rest of the South. It's a mostly rural—though increasingly dense—region where the economy is on the upswing. Walmart and Tyson, both headquartered in the region, dominate the landscape and exert constant and overpowering influence over the culture. The rigid old-money hierarchy and social tradition that mark much of the Deep South doesn't exist here, but the new money and resources of the Waltons and Tysons are creating a new sort of social ladder. The weekend's speakers, all of them Arkansans, were by and large honest about the complexities of living in a region where the economy is built by multinational, often exploitative corporations. SFA invested time and money into documenting the chefs, store owners, and farmers whose food we sampled, ensuring that their stories will stick in our regional memory for years to come.
The region holds nearly every piece of the American story wrapped up into one small corner of the Middle South. Beginning with the tale of Tontitown, an enclave settled by Italian immigrants fleeing disease and exploitation on Deep South plantations, and ending with a look at how Walmart, Tyson, and other corporations are remaking the region, SFA's two-day field trip was a tour de force that demonstrated how different communities and changing economic conditions have shaped the culture—and the cuisine—of Northwest Arkansas.
In the last decade of the 1800s, a group of Italian immigrants moved to the Arkansas Delta, lured by the promise of tenant farming jobs on Sunnyside, a cotton plantation. But the plantation was mismanaged, and disease and natural disasters plagued the immigrant community. In 1898, many decided they had had enough. They made the trek to Northwest Arkansas and created Tontitown, an Italian settlement that they built among the foothills.
The Tontitown Italians began a decades-long wave of immigration to the region. In her talk to the SFA field trip attendees, Jeannie Whayne, a historian at the University of Arkansas, said that the Tontitown immigrants didn't just become a critical part of the region's culture—they changed its food, too, with lasting effects felt up to the present day. The descendants of those original Italian settlers are still growing grapes, making wine, and running restaurants in Tontitown, though they've put their own spin on the Italian cuisine of their ancestors. The Ozark mountain climate doesn't let you grow the same grapes as in Italy, so the settlers cultivated new varieties, and began to make wine from the fruit that would grow, like strawberries. For the last meal of the field trip, hosted in downtown Bentonville's luxurious 21c Museum Hotel, we ate a Tontitown Italian dinner: spaghetti with meatballs, roasted okra, sourdough breadsticks, and 'Tontitown salad'—iceberg lettuce with a garlic vinaigrette and black pepper.
Food is never just food. It always points you to something more, something political and cultural, indicative of the spaces occupied by those who grew it, those who made it, and those who eat it. In Arkansas, the food culture of the northwest corner wouldn't be possible without the plantations, and now factory farms, across the rest of the state, which grow and export rice, soy, and cotton—commodities that for centuries have propped up the state's economy.
The Black sharecroppers of the Arkansas Delta whose grueling, underpaid labor was the backbone of the agricultural economy turned the growing and making of food into political activism. Cherisse Jones-Branch, a historian at Arkansas State University, drew out the story of power and resistance that emerged from rural Black women in the Arkansas Delta. In the 20th century, supported by federal programs and philanthropic money, educated Black women traveled to rural parts of the Delta to teach other Black women how to farm, can, manage money, and run a household. They also encouraged them to pay poll taxes, vote, and assert their voices as women and Black people in a landscape often hostile to both.
Northwest Arkansas's foodscape tells the story of past generations of migration, a history of power and resistance, and the globalization-driven present trend of displacement, upheaval, and urbanization.
"Don't equate rurality with ignorance," Jones-Branch said. Through these underground political networks, rural Black women worked to democratize agriculture and the political landscape of the state. But most of these networks, and the communities that housed them, no longer exist.
Though many of Northwest Arkansas's people consider their mountainous home separate from the rest of the state, there are inescapable links. In the Arkansas Delta, the job market has been gutted by the rise of big agribusiness, by consolidation, by automation. Machines do the jobs that people used to do; there is no economic lifeline for those whose livelihoods had been, for generations, in the land. Here, two of the drivers of this changing economy—Walmart and Tyson—have laid their roots.
"Without people on the land, what happens to culture?" Spears-Jones asked the SFA group during a morning poetry reading. She was referring to the exodus of people from the Delta, driven out as the industry that once required their labor casts them to the wayside. There's a corollary question there, too, for Northwest Arkansas where the population is booming. With more people on the land, how does culture change?
Northwest Arkansas was once replete with orchards, livestock farms, and the railroad. Unlike many rural communities across the country and the South, where dwindling agricultural economies have left a void, Northwest Arkansas has transformed into a corporate-driven, art-centric monolith. Walmart, Tyson, and J.B. Hunt, all Fortune 500 companies with headquarters within 20 miles of each other, have drawn people, business, and a metropolitan mindset to the region. As the business economy grows and apartment complexes spring up, the pastures and silos are disappearing. And new communities are moving in—a new generation of immigrants from Latin America, and Southeast Asia, along with transplants from New York, California, and everywhere in between.
Much of the food we ate that weekend was grown locally, but likely just as much or maybe more was imported from Latin America, China, Japan, and India. From the steamed buns served by Tang's Asian Market to the massive buffet at Flavors Indian Cuisine, the foodscape of Northwest Arkansas has been changed by the people who have immigrated here to work for those big companies and the economy they've created. In 1990, the region was 95 percent white. By 2022, according to a report from the Northwest Arkansas Council, it's expected to be nearly 18 percent Hispanic/Latinx and nearly 4 percent Asian.
Tom, Anna, and Shu Lan Tang received the Southern Foodways Alliance's Keeper of the Flame Award on the field trip, in recognition of the work that their family has done as "foodways tradition bearers." The Tangs came to Northwest Arkansas about three decades ago, and opened one of Siloam Springs' first Chinese restaurants. Later, they opened Tang's Asian Market, also one of the first in the region. They're intimately connected to the region's dominant industries: many of their customers come on their lunch breaks from the nearby poultry processing plant.
They've introduced the region to the food of their home, Shu Lan said in a documentary Southern Foodways Alliance produced. "We are bringing in these ingredients for everyone and people in this area are really embracing it," she said. "It makes our area that much more diverse. That's special to us. That's special to our town and to Northwest Arkansas."
As the region changes quickly and dramatically, the engineers of this makeover are still figuring out how to brand Northwest Arkansas. In Bentonville, their branding effort has been especially conscious, and it isn't subtle. Daniel Hintz, who was the executive director of Downtown Bentonville Inc for nearly six years, and was instrumental to the transformation of downtown Fayetteville before that, took a group of us on a walking tour of the downtown square and its surrounding areas to show what they've done—and what they still hope to do.
"When we first started, we didn't have a story," he said. His development model relies on an underlying sense of place—or at least the appearance of one. His consulting company, Velocity Inc, which works with cities across Northwest Arkansas and the rest of the South, vaunts its DNA of Place™ model. What, exactly, does this mean? Well, under Hintz's leadership, downtown Bentonville has undergone a transformation from a standard, if somewhat neglected, small-town square, whose most popular restaurant was the greasy-spoon Station Café (serving Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast), to a bustling, carefully manufactured, and brightly packaged moneymaker with art, boutiques, restaurants, and a teeming farmer's market every Saturday. The development it produces often feels as conscientiously manufactured as the ™ at the end of its name would imply: brightly-painted buildings, coffee shops so aesthetically engineered that you feel like you're walking into an Instagram shot, the murals that have come to signpost any "revitalized" downtown area. Its overall effect is kitsch, and a little inauthentic, some of the people with me on the walking tour remarked.
As the business economy grows and apartment complexes spring up, the pastures and silos are disappearing.
Yet the revitalization has been successful in economic terms: downtown is a much more profitable and populated center for business, tourism, and the arts—including Crystal Bridges, a world-class, Walton-funded American art museum, and a new Walton-funded modern art museum, Momentary, which will be built in a reclaimed factory. It's attracted the development of new homes, new schools, and, soon, a 350-acre complex that will serve as Walmart's new corporate headquarters.
As downtown Bentonville has been developed, many of the residents who used to live there have been priced out. Hintz alluded to this in passing as we walked through the square, noting that the average resident of downtown, before it was redeveloped, lived under the poverty line. But residential prices in downtown Bentonville shot up by 207.5 percent from 2012 to 2017. And there's not many places for the people who used to live there to go.
It's a noticeable absence. "Where are the poor people?" one attendee asked Angie Maxwell, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, whose SFA presentation touched on the complexities of progressivism and power in the region, some of which I have written about in the pages of Scalawag.
"What I've realized is how much more complicated the story is here," Maxwell said. "It feels like there's possibility." Arkansans like Maxwell who are looking for a way out of the red-blooded conservatism of the state's current politics see a potential new progressive bloc in Northwest Arkansas, due in large part to the high (and rising) levels of immigration and education. The 2020 challenger to Republican Senator Tom Cotton, Josh Mahony, is from the northwestern part of the state—his wife is a vice president at Walmart.
The Mahonys are, in a sense, the poster children of the new Northwest Arkansas, the sort who are likely to enjoy and support the "most woke art museum in America," as the Washington Post branded Crystal Bridges.
But the region's burgeoning progressivism is built upon the same foundations that have upheld conservative power structures. The cultural diversity, the new foodscape, the educational opportunities, and the booming economy, would not be possible without Walmart and Tyson which, like the old plantation economy, rely on workers who often earn less-than-poverty wages. The immigrants who came to work for these companies and their offshoots have shaped the region's culture as much as families like my own, whose roots here stretch back centuries. Now, they're being priced out of the towns they helped build, and family farms like ours are being pushed out of the city centers to the outskirts of the regions.
As I took off from the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, leaving the SFA weekend behind, I caught a glimpse of Rogers from the sky. There were the two water towers that marked my parents' boundaries for my childhood play, the mall where I wandered through my teenage years. These landmarks drew my eyes across the street to the enclave that used to shelter one of the last undeveloped parts of Rogers, where my family lived until a few months ago on a farm on the hill, with well water and a gravel road. I hadn't been home since the farm was sold, and had successfully avoided driving down the dead-end road it was on.
But from this high vantage point, with an uncharacteristically clear sky giving me a view across the mountains, I could see what I'd hoped not to—the empty mountaintop, stripped of the old house, of the yellow barn, of the basketball court my dad hand-poured for us and the rail fence we'd fixed over and over to keep the cattle in. It'll be replaced by a new nursing home development, or maybe a new apartment complex; a whole set of memories willingly sacrificed for now welcome, if complicated, forces of population growth and corporation-driven development.