It’s not shocking that light plays such an important role in the December holidays. It is, after all, the darkest month of the year when days are the shortest. Who wouldn’t want a little extra glow?
It’s also not a big surprise that the inventor of the light bulb introduced the idea of using strings of electric lights to decorate for the holidays. If you were riding the subway past Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park lab in December 1880, you would have undoubtedly seen his Christmas light display. His motive was product promotion, but his legacy is the tradition of adorning our homes in festive lights.
I’m thankful for Mr. Edison’s marketing ploy because I really enjoy seeing my town lit up for the holidays. This year I’m planning to take it on the road to visit some places along the “Arkansas Trail of Lights.” Sixty communities across the state participate with outdoor holiday light displays, parades and festivals. My first stop will be Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs, where they have over 4 million lights. It’s a sight to behold! I also want to make my way to Mountain View to see their historic court square festooned with lights and hopefully get a ticket to “Caroling in the Caverns” at Blanchard Springs Caverns. I imagine the sound of singing in an underground cave is magical. For a pre-Edison experience I hope to go to Historic Washington State Park to see the luminaries and take the candlelight tour.
Each of these destinations is an easy day trip from Little Rock and the state makes planning my trip a breeze with their interactive map of locations and itineraries for the different regions. Who knows? With the price of gas so low right now, I might just try to hit all 60 stops!
If you are looking for something unique to give this holiday season, I suggest a gift from my home state of Arkansas. From tasty treats to sweet smelling soaps there is something for everyone on your list.
Lambrecht Gourmet’s award winning Southern Pecan Toffee is made with roasted pecan halves, covered in rich butter toffee and drenched in imported, single origin milk chocolate. The resulting confection is a perfect balance of crisp, buttery toffee covered pecans and smooth milk chocolate. It’s a gift that will be well-received and quickly devoured!
If you grew up in the South, chances are your family had a cast aluminum grill in the back yard. The “Portable Kitchen” is a classic cooker for a backyard barbeque. Durable and timeless, this grill will become a family heirloom that you pass down to your kids.
Aromatique is a premier potpourri and candle maker in Heber Springs, Arkansas. Founder Patti Upton and I go way back, further than I’d like to admit. I love this orange and evergreen scent for the holidays.
Are you an Arkansas craftsperson, grower or maker? I encourage you to join ARKANSAS GROWN to help get your product out in front of consumers. And if you are a shopper, look for the Arkansas Made logo to identify locally produced goods. Check them out at www.ArkansasGrown.org.
You might not think of Arkansas when you think of wine, but my home state is actually one of the oldest and largest wine producers in the South. The groundwork for this started millions of years ago with the formation of the Ozark Mountains in the upper northwest corner of the state. These ancient mountains help create a beautiful sandy loam that has proven to be an exquisite terroir for growing wine grapes.
Bacchus blessed us again in the 19th century when German-Swiss immigrants began flowing into the area to work in the coal mines. The European transplants found that the conditions were perfect for planting vineyards like those they grew back home. Many of these vineyards are still in production today and touring them is a fun way to take in the beauty of the region.
Visiting the heart of Arkansas wine country is an easy day trip to the town of Altus, where it’s possible to taste over 100 different wines in just a five mile stretch. I recommend making the trip in spring when the dogwoods are in bloom or fall as the leaves turn and the grapes are ready for harvest.
There are about a dozen wineries in Arkansas, but for this post I’m focusing on three – Post Familie Vineyard (www.PostFamilie.com), Wiederkehr Wine Cellars
(www.WiederkehrWines.com) and Chateau aux Arc (www.ChateauAuxArc.com).
Post Familie Vineyard
Open daily for tours and tastings.
1700 St. Mary’s Mountain Rd
Altus, AR 72821
The Post Familie Vineyard specializes in wine made from the muscadine, a native of the southeastern United States. Because they are a native grape they are easy to care for with no spraying necessary. This quality also makes muscadines a great choice for homeowners. And if you select a self-pollinating variety such as ‘Noble’ you don’t have to plant both a male and female vine.
At Post you’ll find 100 acres in cultivation. Northwest Arkansas is the northern boundary of where this grape will grow so Post plants the most cold hardy varieties. The most coveted in the red is ‘Noble’ and in the white, ‘Carlos’. The winery processes in excess of 1,000 tons each year, which makes them the leading grower and buyer in the central U.S.
Wiederkehr Wine Cellars
Open daily except Sunday.
3324 Swiss Family Drive
Wiederkehr Village, AR 72821
If you want to learn more about the German-Swiss immigrants who settled in Altus Wiederkehr Wine Cellars is a must see. Established in 1880 by Johann Andreas Wiederkehr it is the oldest winery in continuous operation in central United States.
The Champagne Cellar is a beautiful example of 19th century stone work. All the stones are dry laid with a mix of lime and sand for mortar. It was the first wine cellar on the property and now houses a restaurant where you can dine on dishes from the French, German and Italian regions of Switzerland. Even the tables and chairs were handmade on the property in the style of the Swiss Alps.
If you are a festival-goer head over to Wiederkehr in October for their annual weinfest. Flowing wine, great food and beautiful scenery; it’s a party you won’t want to miss.
Chateau aux Arc
Tasting Room open Monday – Saturday, Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
8045 Champagne Drive-HWY 186
Altus, Arkansas 72821
If you’re into sustainability practices like I am, then you’ll love the Chateau aux Arc vineyard and winery. The owner, Audrey House, is doing everything she can to produce an extraordinary glass of wine while reducing her carbon footprint on the planet.
Audrey set her sights on viniculture after a 1997 tour of a California winery. It just took ten minutes for her to realize that growing grapes and producing wine was her life’s ambition. Less than a year later she bought ten acres of Chardonnay grapes in Arkansas.
Her philosophy of working with the land is evident from the vineyards to the tasting room. She built a series of ponds that take advantage of a natural spring. Fish in the ponds fertilize the irrigation water so there isn’t any need for chemical fertilizers. Cover crops are planted to attract beneficial insects and return nitrogen to the soil.
It’s a beautiful place with a beautiful tasting room.
I know I know… You’re headed up to Bentonville, Arkansas to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. And you’re going to love it because it’s one of the most amazing places in Arkansas. But did you know the whole northwest portion of the state is filled with exciting things to do as well as some of the best food the region has to offer? In fact four Bentonville restaurant chefs where invited to cook at the James Beard Foundation in New York because, well, they’re just that good!
To help you get the most out of the trip I’ve created a Northwest Arkansas itinerary for you, which includes art, gardens, and of course food!
- Pig Trail Scenic Byway – If it’s on your route be sure to take the short cut between Ozark and Fayetteville lovingly referred to as the Pig Trail. This winding two-lane highway through the Ozark Mountains offers spectacular views, especially in spring and fall. Jump on Highway 23 just past Ozark and enjoy 19 miles of beautiful scenery. To get to Fayetteville take a left on Highway 16 at Brashears.
- Coffee Break – The first stop on your way to Crystal Bridges is Fayetteville. It’s a university town with lots of charm. I always like to take a coffee break on my road trips so I can stretch my legs. At Mama Carmen’s Café I can do some good while I’m at it. Mama Carmen’s was born out of a partnership with the namesake who runs an orphanage in Guatemala City. The café purchases the beans grown on Mama Carmen’s farm as well as donating 10% of the profits to the orphanage. And the coffee is good to boot. www.mamacarmen.com
- Garden Tour – While in Fayetteville be sure to visit the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. There are 12 gardens to discover plus a butterfly house. www.bgozarks.org
- Lunch – The next town you’ll pass through on your way to Bentonville is Rogers. The historic downtown area is delightful with brick roads and classic storefronts. There are a number of wonderful restaurants, but I suggest Heirloom Food + Wine. Everything is made from scratch using only fresh, local ingredients – they even make the bread and condiments! Every day they create a soup, salad and sandwich based on what’s in season. www.heirloomfoodandwine.com
- Garden Tour and Crystal Bridges – From Rogers it’s just a 15 minute drive to Bentonville home of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Either before or after visiting the museum take a stroll along the woodland trail at Compton Gardens. This public park is open from dawn to dusk and is a wonderful place to pick up ideas for using native plants. www.peelcompton.org crystalbridges.org
- Dinner – At this point you’re probably looking to sit back, relax with a good meal. Petit Bistro is a French Mediterranean restaurant that is sure to please. Delicious 5 star recipes that is the perfect way to end a great day in northwest Arkansas. petitbistro.biz
Whew, that’s one very big day. If you decide to make it a weekend trip, I suggest the 21c Museum Hotel. It’s within walking distance of the museum and located right on the town square. Remember, there are so many more things to do here and all over Arkansas. The best way to find them is to visit Arkansas.com.
Many thanks to writer Steve Bender and photographer Roger Foley for the beautiful article in the recent issue of Southern Living magazine. I picked up a copy in the airport and read the article on the plane. You two sure know how to make a guy look good!
As an Arkansas native I’ve always known that we have some stellar places to eat. Everywhere I go in the state there is a fantastic feast waiting at a restaurant, diner or roadside stand. Which is good because I love food.
The state is famous for southern staples such as fried catfish, barbeque and pie but our food is also influenced by our proximity to the southwestern flair of Texas. As we are an agricultural community a traditional Arkansas meal always includes a generous helping of something that was grown nearby. Purple hull peas slow cooked with a ham hock, cornbread, sliced tomatoes and fried okra are all sides you’ll find on the dinner table in Arkansas.
We’ve never strayed far from our culinary roots, but the national trend for locally sourced ingredients has produced a number of sensational restaurants that specialize in home-style cooking with a contemporary twist. How about catfish served over a bed of hoppin’ John and fried okra? Or perhaps a grilled pork chop with creamed corn, peppers and almonds. Are you hungry yet?
Arkansans aren’t the only folks who recognize what our state has to offer. Recently Forbes Travel Guides included our capital city Little Rock as one of five secret foodie spots with shot outs to Ashley’s, Ciao Baci, ZaZa’s Fine Salad + Wood-Oven Pizza Co. and Whole Hog Cafe.
Arkansas Farm to Table Restaurants
In addition to these recommendations I have a few others that I suggest you try for a plate full of local flavor featuring seasonal ingredients.
Brave New Restaurant – Get the mixed grill that includes a variety of grilled meats served with an herbed demi glace.
South on Main – This is where you will find the fried catfish and hoppin’ John. Yum!
Trio’s – In the summer they have a farmers’ market plate with seasonal vegetables that’s wonderful.
Table 28 – The restaurant offers unusual interpretations of southern favorites. Make reservations for a seat at the chef’s table (table 28) for an exclusive 6-course meal prepared and served by Chef Rains.
The Root Café – Great burgers and sweet potato fries. A definite must if you have a hankering for breakfast on a Saturday morning.
Capital Hotel Bar and Grill – The Friday lunch special is red sauce braised brisket with rice bread and chow chow. That’s what I’m talking about!
The Hive – If you love a good pork chop this is the place to go. Chef Matthew McClure sources the pork from a local farmer raising heritage pigs known for their exceptionally tender and flavorful meat. Oh, and be sure to stop in at the nearby Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The current exhibit is a collection of French modern masters including Matisse, Cezanne and Degas. It will be on view until July 7, 2014.
28 Springs – You can’t come south and not eat chicken and dumplings. Savory herb gravy and a flaky biscuit crust make these some of the best chicken and dumplings to be had.
The Farmer’s Table Café – One look at the breakfast menu and you’ll know why this place is the talk of the town. The Hash Skillet is to die for.
HEIRLOOM food + wine – A glass of wine and a platter filled with artisanal cheeses, seasonal fruit, walnuts, honeycomb and fig-rosemary crackers plus an amiable companion? Is there a better way to end the day?
Special thanks to Lyndi over at NWAFoodie.com for recommending some great restaurants in northwest Arkansas!
Fried Dill Pickles
It’s astounding to me but it wasn’t until 1963 that someone thought to fry a dill pickle. I know, right? Bernell “Fatman” Austin was the first to serve these treats at the Duchess Drive In in Atkins, Arkansas and they’ve been a southern staple ever since. If you don’t believe me try them and get back to me. Here’s a recipe that is similar to those served at a local catfish joint.
1 quart jar dill pickle slices
2 teaspoon red pepper
2 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoon black pepper
8 ounces milk
5 – 6 drops hot sauce
2 cups flour
Mix egg, milk, hot sauce, and 1 tablespoon of flour in bowl and set aside.
In a separate bowl combine the red pepper, paprika, black pepper and 2 cups of flour.
In a large, deep skillet or fry cooker heat vegetable oil to 375 degrees.
Dip the pickle slices in the egg and milk mixture, then dredge them through the flour and spices, then the egg and milk again and then the flour once more.
Next drop the battered pickles into the hot oil and fry until they float to the surface and turn a nice golden brown.
I’ve heard that food and music hold the personality of a region most strongly. After a recent road trip I feel safe in taking it one step further and specify that a local favorite dessert really shows off a place’s personality.
Whether they’re fruit, nut, cream, meringue or cheese, baked, fried or frozen — pies come in a dazzling range of combinations. We like our pie in the south. The baker who masters the perfect flour to butter ratio in a crust is spoken about with the utmost reverence, given a place of honor in the community and undoubtedly, asked to bring a pie to every gathering until the end of time. While pies can be graham cracker or cookie crusted, hot or cold, latticed or exposed on top, they must all be delicious to survive in these parts.
Now you’ve probably heard the phrase easy as pie, but I’m not a fan. It strikes me as flippant. The creation of pies shouldn’t be reduced to anything less than an art. Bakers mix a tremendous amount care, thought and tradition into their pies, and most of them have worked on their technique for years. Respect for my favorite dessert led me to travel from Little Rock to Northwest Arkansas along Highway 65 in a quest to experience Arkansas’ pies.
We first stopped at the Wagon Wheel in Greenbrier. Restaurants like these work as anchors and a hub of community life in small towns— a place to connect at lunch or celebrate with the team after a game. Don’t be fooled by this restaurant’s nondescript exterior. It boasts a spectacular spread and is known for its meringue pies. The bakers in this kitchen know how to whip egg whites and sugar into heavenly bliss. I had a banana split pie that had about three inches of meringue on top. So decadent!
Every one of the restaurants we visited has a top pie, a pie that’s flavor is discussed like a legend, and at the Skylark Café in Leslie, that pie is strawberry pie. Cool and refreshing with impeccable balance between sweet and tangy, this dessert is a summer staple not easily forgotten. The filling is just the right consistency, not too thick and packed with juicy strawberry pieces. I dined on the porch and took in the café’s equally charming exterior. Originally a home, they remodeled the building into a restaurant, painted the outside turquoise with red trim and surrounded it with garden art and potted plants. Save me a seat on the porch. I’ll be back.
In addition to the sugary ecstasy, I also experienced a treat for the eyes. Highway 65 winds elaborately, offering dramatic views of the mountains and valleys, and the October leaf display has earned the region the nickname the New England of the Ozarks.
We detoured to Gilbert, an old railroad town with one sign that reads ‘population 33’ and another that reads ‘coolest in the state.’ They’re referring to temperature, but it works on multiple levels. The little town sits right on the edge of the pristine Buffalo National River. We had to pull over, not for pie, but for a view of the water.
The production crew and I stopped for lunch at Big Springs Barbecue in St. Joe after that, and I ate a bacon-filled “sammwhich.” It was nice to taste something fat-laden and savory to break up all the sweet. Plus they roast the meat themselves. I sampled an apple pie, and tried to wheedle the crust recipe out of the baker to no avail.
In Jasper, we stopped at the Arkansas House, a restaurant that uses organic, locally produced ingredients, to learn the subtleties of the nut pie. Janet Morgan, the owner, showed me how to make her signature black walnut pie. Time, she said, makes all the difference between a mediocre dessert and a perfect dessert.
I’ve always known that Arkansas is the place to be and now the secret is getting out. Just this year Little Rock was named a top ten midsized city by Kiplingers and Editor’s Choice by Outside magazine. In this guest post Arkansas Tourism Director Joe David Rice shares six great places to visit in Arkansas during one of the best times to come – fall.
All four of Arkansas’s seasons have their charms, but fall’s my favorite. That first crisp morning after the dog days of summer recharges my flagging batteries and reminds me that cooler days are coming. Shown below, in no particular order, are half a dozen options for entertaining autumn getaways in The Natural State:
1) Driving the length of Crowley’s Ridge Parkway in eastern Arkansas should be on everyone’s bucket list. For nearly 200 miles, this national scenic byway traverses the winding terrain of Crowley’s Ridge, a fascinating geological anomaly extending from Helena-West Helena north to the Arkansas-Missouri state line. Civil War battlefields, historic districts, cemeteries, state parks, antique shops, golf courses and some fine barbecue joints line the route – and the fall foliage can be stunning.
2) Checking out the harvest in southeastern Arkansas is worth a trip, especially when you work in visits to Lakeport Plantation, historic Arkansas City and the Japanese internments sites at McGehee and Rohwer. Bargain shoppers will enjoy a stop at Paul Michael Company in Lake Village.
3) Walking the grounds at Crystal Bridges is a true delight. We’ve all heard about the outstanding collection of masterworks in the Moshe Safdie-designed complex of buildings, but don’t forget the 120-acre site includes 3.5 miles of splendid trails – complete with outdoor sculptures, picturesque bridges and a gurgling stream. Park your car on the square in downtown Bentonville and walk to nearby Compton Gardens where you’ll catch trails winding through the lush landscapes to the museum.
4) Floating the lower end of the Buffalo National River (from Buffalo Point down to Rush – or on to the White River if you have time) can be a wonderful fall experience. With the summer crowds pretty much gone, your chances of seeing wildlife are that much better. The gravel bars and bluffs provide great scenery, particularly if you can time your trip with the peak of fall colors. Bring your camera and poke around a bit in Rush, one of the state’s only surviving ghost towns.
5) Touring Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs is always a special treat, but it’s even better with the enchanting Splash of Glass exhibit featuring 225 pieces of James Hayes’ handcrafted art (through September). This 210-acre peninsula, located on the shores of Lake Hamilton south of Hot Springs, includes 3.8 miles of easy-to-negotiate trails. For those not up for a good walk, tours by golf carts are available.
6) Last but not least on the list is hiking the Cossatot River Corridor Trail. Maybe a bit lengthy for most at 12 miles, this southwestern Arkansas treasure can be broken down into more manageable segments. There’s no better place to grasp an appreciation of the Ouachitas than along this relatively unknown footpath which parallels a beautiful mountain stream.
Between football games, county fairs and festivals, fall in Arkansas can slip away before you know it. So grab your calendar and set aside a couple of days for yourself. If none of the above ideas appeal to you, check out www.Arkansas.com for plenty of others.