Friday, June 20, 2014

A Sea of Lights - Fireworks Over Beaver Lake.

Throughout Arkansas, dozens of fireworks show dot the Independence Day schedule. Most are held in city parks or over ball fields – but one, out at Marker 8 on Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas, captivates not only for the light show in the air but the one on the water’s surface. Kat Robinson shares the experience of this pageant put on annually by Ventris Trail’s End Resort.

The boats wet on as far as the eye could see -- hundreds of them -- as the sun set. When the sun escaped the sky, a thousand tiny bulbs illuminated on the surface of the water, front and back markers for every watercraft. They multiplied as more came into the bay, as individuals turned on strings of tiny lights or big blue LED bars, even a black light or two. Green on the back, incandescent white on the front, out and on and on, six hundred boats or more becoming a sea of sequins in the night on Beaver Lake.

It was a Friday night, July 5th of 2013, the day after Independence Day. The drive took hours. We rode up from Fort Smith through northwest Arkansas and then down from Garfield on the long peninsula into Beaver Lake. The road dwindled from a two-lane to a two-lane without shoulders to one without a stripe to a dirt road curling back and forth between trees, narrowing further.

The lodge sat into the side of the hill, two stories of log-clad majesty at the top of a story-tall concrete staircase. Inside the office, large fish on the wall and a big dining room off to the right that smelled of 1985 and cedar and such.

But on the other end, there was a splendid, surprising diner that served up burgers and steaks and daily late lunch specials with wine or when it was open. It was not when we arrived, but big eyes and big cameras brought out a couple of slices from the case, a blood-red strawberry and rhubarb filled slice and one of pink-tinted peach slices under a hand-rolled, hand poked lattice top crust, perfection. This place should have been in my pie book.

But we hadn't come for pie; fireworks were what we sought, great blossoms and flashes of fire in the nighttime sky. And though we wouldn't know it for a short while, we had arrived in the right place.

The Simrell family has owned the property since the 1970s, but Ventris Trail’s End Resort was just built in 1997 – a lodge and a collection of cabins nestled into the woods on one of the lake’s many peninsulas. The show we had come to see had first been presented in 2002. It wasn't just folks on the shoreline shooting off what they’d found at a roadside stand.. no, it was quite different. Jody Simrell met us at the lodge and started telling us about the inspiration -- seeing a grand fireworks show at Epcot Center one year and thinking about how grand it would be to have that sort of display over the big lake at home. The original idea was to bring a little attention to the resort and let people know it was there; it had turned into something much bigger.

The lodge is at the top of the ridge that runs the length of the peninsula, while the action to create the show are on the lake's banks. Jody took us in a golf cart down to the shore and marina to show us the speakers. I was surprised they weren't larger -- but he assured me they'd be able to be heard across the water. "They can also tune to 100.9fm," he reassured me.

We got back into the cart and headed further out along the peninsula. When the road got too rough and steep, we walked, careful not to let the flint chips roll under our feet.

The row of fireworks didn't seem all that spectacular on approach, but the control board did -- a mass of hundreds of tiny buttons attached to wires like the craziest DJ system imaginable -- but past that were boxes, and wires, and tubes and more wires. These were the works.

Those wires were connected to mortars and other pyrotechnic missiles on the beach a short distance away. Close to 10,000 shells are involved in the show, each holding up to 120 shots. Each shot becomes one of those pinpoints or flares of light in the sky. That's a lot of light, right?

Jody was careful not to step on the wires near the mortars. Grav talked him into picking up one from its tube, and he did, carefully, like an ancient tribesman picking up a severed head by its hair. The resemblance was uncanny thanks to the size of the mortar, bigger than my head and about as oblong and round. Grav asked him to smile, and the effect was similar.

We went back to the lodge one more time to make sure we had all we needed (and for me to take an important break) and headed back to the marina, where we met up with Larry, Jody's brother. He had us sit up front on the pontoon boat and the family that had boarded moved to the back, a young couple with a redheaded girl that looked to be about six and a pudgy toddler of maybe three. There was also a guy in a red Hawaiian shirt by the name of Jeff who was gray and balding on the top but generally good natured -- and a couple of younger guys.

We headed out on the water, where boats were already gathering, maybe 50 between the marina and the island. I was surprised we were heading as far out as we were before I realized the island was our destination. The young man wanted to see the fireworks from that island with his family, and they'd packed a backpack and cooler to go with. The toddler did not like being on the water at all. She fussed and hollered and squirmed in her mother's arms.

We had to search out a spot in the brush to pull in. Water was high for the season - had been since May, when wave after wave of thunderstorms had more than made up for the previous year's deficit and filled the lake.

The young man jumped out and pulled the pontoon in to shore. His wife brought forward the toddler, who was really wrestling to get out of her arms by this point. She handed the little girl over, then climbed over herself. The redheaded girl did not want to go, and was given the option to go back to shore. She climbed out, and I heard her ask her dad where they were going, and I knew tales of adventures were being spun.

Back across the water, Larry took a phone call, and off we went to ferry one more group out to the island. This set was a trio, two young men and a young tanned woman with chairs.

Cruising back into the island, we saw the family again, sitting together tightly on a blue quilt, the man perched on the cooler. The talk of adventured had ceased and you could sense a dreary exhaustion, perhaps from the fight. The toddler was quiet now, rocked back on her diapered bottom with her back to the cooler, finally at peace with the decision to go there.

Grav took the opposite side on the front and Jeff sat beside me, balancing the pontoon as flat as possible. Larry went to set anchor and couldn't find it. Since the boat was one of the resort’s rentals, it was back one more time to the marina to grab another. The anchor fetched, we eased out into the bay one more time.

We nestled through the boats and swimmers to an optimal site about the time the sun crept down the other side of the peninsula, leaving the twilight blues to claim water and sky. Anchor pitched, one of the two young men on the back of the boat jumped into the water and shored us up so the front end faced the site of the fireworks.

But the wind kept sliding us around, and finally Larry untied the anchor and maneuvered it to the back of the boat. We were finally set even for the show.

Motor off, idling done, we sat and watched the night claim the lake. Boat after boat came into view, and as the glow faded from the sky each would turn on its lights. There was a sparkle about it, an undulating wave.

I've heard of an oriental experience where keel boats slowly float through a conglomeration of phosphorescent luminaries on lily pads -- and this was similar, the sensation of floating and quiet and fellowship. Though most boats were packed with people waiting for fireworks, with anything from two to ten on each, there was a silence, a bare murmur as folks waited.

A boom ad a flash of light came from the shore, a single mortar fired into the air. Over the loudspeaker there was a sudden crackle, and then an announcement for people to come out to the bay in their boats, that the fireworks were about to begin. I heard the echo from the radio on a nearby craft.

Darkness had taken the guy, with the barest sparkle of stars overhead, the play was now in the water, as gleams and splinters and rays from each floating craft reflected onto the surface of the lake.

Impatient, some took to lighting their own fireworks on far beaches, exploding quickly and brightly far away ,briefly disturbing the hush – but near silence would fall again just as rapidly. Chinese lanterns were released here and there -- a blue one, a red one, a white one. One of the blue ones came down directly by the boat closest to us, almost unnoticed by the people within resting before the show, lulled into a watery lullaby by the rocking and the sloshing.

One more single mortar exploded above our heard, and then, suddenly, a call was made for the pledge of allegiance, and after the first two words a thousand voices joined in, echoing over the water. The cadence of human voice was more powerful than a sea of tympanis, stronger than a military drum core. This was an impromptu community more than a thousand individuals strong, maybe two thousand, bigger than many of the burgs that lined the lake, and they were united in this rite of ceremony.

At the end of the pledge, God Bless America blasted out from the speakers, accompanied by the first choreographed round of pyrotechnics. The noise around us became palpable as all those voices hushed by the majesty of the incoming night suddenly came alive again, enthralled by the pageantry above. Grav took up his camera, and I did too, and we aimed our lenses skyward.

Without a break, the music segued into Wayland Holyfield’s “Arkansas You Run Deep In Me.” This classic from the 80s might have seemed out of date elsewhere, but here it gave me goosebumps. Here I was on an Arkansas lake, surrounded by others who had come out for the show… the beauty of it all was remarkable.

One song after another drove the display, which continued through each piece. You could hear the music echoing from the shore and from radios on many of the bobbing points, Santana’s “Monster” and Celine Dion and even a piece Jody Simrell had written and performed. Though we had started seated in the boat we’d all risen to our feet, even Larry and Jeff, as the concert had progressed. It grew in intensity and never slacked.

The momentum came to a head as the opening to a Mumford and Sons song began. As the boys started to harmonize about how they would wait for you, I stood by Grav shooting and them put my hand on his back. The darkness hid most of our features, but I could see him smiling, too.

One last amazing, considerable volley of fireworks, a loud blast, and then silence. The show had ended just as quickly as it had begun. Hoots and hollers started to come from the crowd, followed by thunderous applause. And then some bugger turned on his headlights and blinded half of us.

As Larry aimed us at the shore, we saw those bobbing lanterns on the water start to recede. Everyone we passed and talked with agreed it was a far bigger and better show than the year before. We made it in, and while guys held the boat tight I was aided off the craft by an elderly gentleman with the pomp of a footman to the queen. I prayed my water legs wouldn't send me and the camera equipment into the drink.

We foraged on ahead in the semi dark up the hill, me following Grav -- who lead us not up the driveway but over the children’s playground instead. We both forced ourselves onward, knowing we had a two hour drive ahead of us. We saw Jody and overheard he need to go down to get us. He asked us how we liked the show and we just grinned at each other, speechless for just a moment. There were dozens of adjectives in my head, but none seemed adequate for what we had seen.

Last year’s celebration fell on July 5th, which allowed us to see other shows the nights before and after. The coordination and effort the Simrells put into their show place it in a category all its own. You should go. It’s… beyond words.

Click here to head to the Ventris Trail’s End Resort website. And if you’re out on the water, head to Marker 8 on Independence night. You won’t be disappointed.

To get there by land from Garfield, take Hwy 127 toward Lost Bridge. Just past Across the Creek Restaurant, turn right on Ventris Road, which you'll follow 6.3 miles to Trail's End Road. Turn left and look for Simrell Drive. Follow Simrell Drive through the gate. Signs will get you the rest of the way there.

To get there by water, head southwest of Ford's Creek or northwest from Cedar Bluff -- it's across the river from Martin Cemetery. Or, just use your handy GPS to find the Point 8 Marker.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Emerson PurpleHull Pea Festival and Rotary Tiller Races Celebrate 25 Years.

There are festivals for large things in Arkansas, like watermelons. There are festivals for medium-sized things like peaches and apples and even cornbread. But, the one festival held the furthest south in our state happens to celebrate the smallest Arkansas food product -- the tiny PurpleHull pea.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

My Arkansas Summer Food Favorites, A to Z.

Kat Robinson shares 26 things she loves about Arkansas and its cuisine during the summer months.

Arkansas summers are long, hot and humid -- but they're also the only time of year where you're all but guaranteed an unimpeded drive to wherever you want to go.  It's also a fantastic season for fresh fruits and vegetables, outdoor sports and that true favorite of mine -- summer food festivals.

Now that my daughter's of reading age, we try to find something to represent every letter of the alphabet on our trips.  When it comes to summer and food -- here's an alphabet I would suggest.

A is for Asparagus.  Crops are late this year, but that's just good news for folks who love asparagus like I do.  I don't even need salt or butter or cheese... I just want to pick it up at market and take it home and steam it just a little.

B is for Butter Beans.  Now, when I was a little girl, we harvested butter beans out of the garden and lima beans were those nasty hard green legumes you got with school lunches.  Turns out, they're the same thing -- they're green when they're young and beige when they're older -- and to me, the mature bean is what's worth waiting for.  Soft, slightly mushy and flavored with just a little salt, it's a perfect summertime starch.

C is for Crappie.  Lots of folks like catfish, others like trout, I'm a crappie girl.  Pronounced "CROP-ee" (for you Yankees out there), crappie is a fine sporting fish you can catch in many of Arkansas's famed clear waters.  I like mine dipped in a little lemon juice then dusted with rice flour and a shot of Cavender's.  Oh yeah.

D is for Dill Pickles.  I miss Atkin's, but have found some great alternatives.  Some folks drink Gatorade, but the flavor does little for me.  Dill pickles in the summertime provide that sodium I'm looking for.  And if you're in Hope for the Watermelon Festival, there's a booth that's been known to sell pickle juice.

E is for Excaliburger.  Summer is the perfect time to make the Scenic Highway Seven run up from Russellville to Jasper, a beautiful little burg tucked into the Ozarks that always seems to be about ten degrees cooler than the rest of the world.  At the Ozark Cafe on the square, you can have a great lunch, and if you have a friend to share it with, you really should try the Excaliburger -- a burger served with grilled cheese sandwiches as buns.  Excellent.

F is for Fried Bologna Sandwiches.  There are really only three things that say early morning fishing trip to me for breakfast:  fried egg sandwiches with Miracle Whip, Dale's Donuts or fried bologna sandwiches.  I recall big inch-thick slices cut from one of those gigantic tubes at Breitweiser's.

G is for Green Tomato Relish.  Some folks call this catfish-friendly condiment pickled tomatoes, but to me it's a relish and it always will be.  I like it enough I will and have eaten it by myself.  It's also good on Captain's Wafers, though most of the time there's not enough left over to enjoy it in this fashion.  If someone could figure out a way to stuff hush puppies with it without getting soggy hush puppies, I'd be all over that.

H is for Hard Boiled Eggs.  Specifically, for their application in deviled eggs.  The marvelous creations, in my opinion, are best served like wearing white -- between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  Some folks will stuff them with anything from roe to salmon to crabmeat, but I best like them traditional with a light dusting of paprika.  I used to think that they could never go bad, since people eat them really quickly, but then I discovered them remaindered at Kroger.  Do NOT get remaindered deviled eggs at Kroger.

I is for Ice.  In this case, I'm talking about what Southerners call Sonic Ice -- that nice, light, crunchy ice that can actually be chewed.  I shouldn't, but I do.  Best use?  That has to be in some fabulous Dog N' Suds root beer... get yours up in Paragould at the state's last location.

J is for Jerky.  Dried spiced beef is the perfect camping food -- doesn't need refrigeration, travels well, and comes in so many varieties.  I like places that make their own, such as Burl's Country Smokehouse down in Royal.  Of course, Ratchford Farms makes excellent version, including Elk and Buffalo varieties.  I like the sticks, too.

K is for Keo Classic.  There's something about summer that just makes me crave a trip down to Charlotte's Eats and Sweets.  Of course, the pie is marvelous, but you cannot pass up the Keo Classic, perhaps the best griddle-cooked sandwich in the state.  The combination of turkey and cheese, tomato, avocado and onion sandwiched between two parmesan cheese-dusted slices of bread griddle-caramelized and sliced in two makes it one of my sandwich favorites.

L is for Lemonade.  Oh, there's nothing quite like fresh squeezed lemonade -- and though Arkansas is not a lemon-bearing state, it's one of those hot states where lemonade is a requirement for summer beverage guzzling.

M is for Muscadines.  More than just the great native grape used for winemaking, muscadines are thick-skinned globules of sweetness best harvested from roadsides and hidden trails.  I like them best almost frozen -- and yes, I eat the skins.

N is for Noodles... like the spaghetti noodles crafted by Tontitown cooks for the annual Tontitown Grape Festival.  The birthplace of our fried chicken and spaghetti combination is also host to a great used book sale, swap meet and amusement rides and all sorts of other fun stuff celebrating the 100+ year old town.

O is for Okra.  Some folks can't stand okra, say it's slimy, but I like it -- pickled, baked or fried.  I like the sensation of the tiny seeds inside.

P is for PurpleHull Peas.  The annual festival at Emerson is always great fun, with the peas and cornbread cookoff and the Million Tiller Parade and the World Championship Rotary Tiller Races.  But what I really love is the whole community sitting down to a noontime pea feast of peas, stewed tomatoes, onions, peppers cornbread and peach cobbler as the most talented pea shellers around compete.  In my prime (when I was a little girl) I could compete with the best of them, with purple thumb and forefingers to boot.

Q is for Queso, or cheese dip, if you will.  Everyone has their favorite, and I am hard pressed to point out just one or two (which is why I have a cheese dip primer on Tie Dye Travels) but I do find myself looking for more great cheesy emulsions wherever I go.  French fries are my preferred dipping choice, by the way.

R is for Raccoon Bearclaw WaWa, the outrageous proprietary ice cream creation at Wood's Old Time Soda Fountain up in Mountain View.  Conjured in a dream, made with bitters and caramel and chocolate and served best to couples, this monumental dessert deserves its own praise and high standing -- though just about any of the housemade creations within the restaurant are worthy of celebration.

S is for Strawberry Cobbler.  Even when The Bulldog in Bald Knob runs out of fresh strawberries, you'll find recently put-up berries here and there, including at the Rock Cafe in Waldron.  The combination of sugared dough crust and tart berries is marvelous.  Ask for yours with cream.

T is for Tomatoes, especially those famed Bradley County pink tomatoes that will be celebrated this weekend in Warren.  This year there'll be a BLT competition to see who can create the perfect sandwich, hosted by Petit Jean Meats.  Of course, there's also the All-Tomato Luncheon... and all sorts of other tomato-y goodness at a festival that's been going since 1956.

U is for the Uncle Roman, one of my favorite pizzas.  The double-crusted pie served up at Steffey's in Lavaca is enough to feed my family for three or four meals, but it's always nicely done and I end up craving it for months afterward.

V is for Vanilla Ice Cream, specifically Yarnell's Homemade Vanilla.  I cannot tell you how happy I am that Yarnell's has returned, and that the flavors taste identical to what I had before.  Some say it's a little too rich, too creamy, but I think it's perfect, especially with fresh-picked blackberries.

W is for Watermelon... both the Hope variety (large) and the Cave City variety (sweet) and those long melons the guy who pulls up his truck on the side of Highway 5 comes up with.  To me, there's nothing like a cold watermelon consumed on a hot day while wearing a swimsuit, preferably close to a creek or lake to dive into later to wash off all the stickiness.

X is for Extra Veggies - as in the ones I'm often blessed with by friends and neighbors who garden.  I wish my schedule would allow me the time to grow my own garden, but at least I have acquaintances in my life who don't mind sharing the bounty.  This time of year, save the meats -- I want every bean, pea, tomato and potato I can get right out of the garden.

Y is for Yellow Squash, that popular crook-necked vegetable sometimes misaligned... I like it just about any way, and have recently even eaten it in a squash-and-cheese pie.  Best of all, I like it just steamed or sauteed, and I'll eat more than my share.

Z is for Zucchini, which I never can understand goes overgrown places.  That wouldn't happen here.  I like it as pakora (Indian fried), sauteed, grilled, baked, in place of pasta in marinara dishes, stuffed with cheese, on paninis and even as fried sticks to dunk in plain yogurt or sour cream.  Have extra?  I'll take them off your hands.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Diamond Chef, A Gathering of Old Friends.

A number of things happened last night that were quite remarkable.  Nearly 600 people gathered to fete and celebrate at a celebration benefiting Pulaski Technical College's Arkansas Culinary School.  Two chefs faced off for the Diamond Chef title.  Dozens of students and culinarians let down their hair and put on the dog for the evening.  And a select group of bloggers got together and did what they do... what we do.

The 7th Annual Diamond Chef Finals are more than just two chefs and their sous chefs competing before a panel of judges.  It's a chance to honor cooking here in Arkansas and to party just a bit.

That celebration began early in the evening with a reception and silent auction -- featuring a craft brew bar and lots of neat and interesting items... which is all well and good, but it's also a chance to socialize with a huge group of foodways supporters.  The crowd was thick.

Once the doors were opened, tables were filled and the first of three courses were served.  The first, a refreshing fruit salad, featured heirloom tomatoes and compressed watermelon with mozzarella and a balsamic reduction... and mint.  And here's a picture of it.

What you don't see here but will find on the blogs of my dining companions are the photographs -- of Southern Ash's Joel DiPippa and his lovely wife Amanda, Dining With Debbie's Debbie Arnold and her husband Gary, Rock City Times satirist Greg Henderson, Red Kitchen Recipes writer Thanh Rasico, the original Fancy Pants Foodie herself Christie Morgan Ison and Monika Rued of the Arkansas Times -- who, dear readers, used to co-produce Today's THV This Morning with me a (cough) decade ago.  Frankly, I'm not much of a people-photo taker.  I have to work up my gumption to appear in photos sometimes myself -- food is so much easier to shoot (my regular traveling companion, Grav Weldon, was already on the way to Wakarusa).

We were all afforded the privilege of attending this august event pro bono... and what a gift that was.  Over wine and iced tea we chatted before the festivities got underway, catching up here and there and hearing about the efforts of our peers.  It was great to be in such company.

The reason we were there, of course, was on the stage, and soon we had announcements.  First came Chef Dan Capello of Chenal Country Club, who strode into the hall with his sous chefs with an air of pride.  It's deserved; Chef Capello won both the 2010 and the 2013 Diamond Chef titles.

He was followed a few minutes later by Chef Marc Guizol, who flipped tradition by entering on a bicycle!  Chef Guizol is right-hand to The Capital Hotel's Chef Joel Antunes and a pretty great cook in his own right.  He happened to win the Arkansas Hospitality Association's Iron Chef competition last September.

The two teams took their spots on the stage, and after introductions were made, Chef Todd Gold took the stage.  Chef Gold is dean of Pulaski Tech's Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management program.  He announced the chefs and called them forward, asking them to choose their best sous.  Then he announced the twist for this year -- those two sous chefs were going to flip teams!

That's a pretty cool idea.

A few minutes later, Chef Gold pulled away the black cloth to reveal the evening's secret ingredient.  This item in the past has been rattlesnake, octopus and live catfish, and for 2014 it was...


The two chefs immediately got to pulling the crustaceans out of the big tank, took them to their respective stations and began dispatching and preparing them for what was to come.  They had 15 minutes for the task.

The evening's two commentators, famed local dining star Pam Smith and local radio personality Kevin Clay, introduced the panel of esteemed judges -- Chef Kyle Richardson, vice president of the American Culinary Federation Central Region; Chef Jeff Bacon, vice president of the American Culinary Federation Southwest Region; Chef Andre Poirot of the Little Rock Crown Plaza; and Chef Paul Bash, first president and member of the Arkansas Chefs' Federation Hall of Fame... and of course, the executive chef of the beloved Jacques and Suzanne's.

Soon time was out, and the 20 minute countdown began for the chefs to create an appetizer from lobster. While they worked, we dined on Creekstone beef and green beans, something called crispy potato gratin and a demiglaze... and rolls, yeasty ones and potato ones too.  Our conversations were interrupted by our Twittering; at one point I counted six phones out at the table as we each tried to share out what was going on to our respective fans.

On the stage, hubbub was happening, and those 20 minutes passed quickly.  Dishes went quickly to the judges.

Chef Dan Capello's creations, which appeared to originally be ravioli or tortellini from our seats towards the back of the house, turned out to be lobster spring rolls, delicately fried and served with a dollop of lemon-tinged sour cream.

Chef Marc Guizol's submission was a lobster tartar bedecked with microgreens and cream, served with a peanut sauce drizzle.

The clock was restarted again, another 20 minutes for the chefs to come up with a main entree featuring lobster.  By the way, each chef was allowed to bring 10 ingredients of their choice and 15 kitchen implements to assist them in their efforts -- along with their sous chefs, of course.

Kevin and Pam cut it up on the stage with their enthusiasm.  However, we were duly entertained at our own Alton Brown-esque commentator with Joel's witty reparte about the actions of the chefs, and his insight into different ways lobster might be prepared.  We discovered we had a mutual affection for the old Japanese version of Iron Chef.  Greg Tweeted out again over a "second fight between the chefs," and Monika was all into grabbing a selfie with me.  Though it was loud in there, we managed to converse quite a bit.

There were other things going on... including the draw for a raffle in which the winner got their choice of silent auction items (no matter the winning bidder!).  The wine pull was also mentioned, and several folks from our table went to check on bids and to engage in raffle ticket-purchasing and wine... pulling?  I guess that'd be the verb I'm looking for.

The twenty minutes up, the chefs presented their second course to the judges:

Chef Guizol offered a coconut soup with lobster tail and lobster cream, garnished with lobster roe and served with a roe-studded crackerish breadstick.

Chef Capello countered with lobster tail over guacamole slaw, served with a goat cheese-stuffed zucchini flower.

Those of us who rushed the stage to get shots of the activities were amused by the judges themselves, who also pulled out their phones to photograph their food!

As the entree was presented, dessert came to our table -- a light and elegant champagne sabayon with fresh berries served in martini glasses.  The champagne was strong with this item, but it was light and barely cloying.  Still, there were calls for more wine from my dining companions, who like other diners went to scavenge bottles from other tables.  Coffee was discovered and a waitperson accosted for the java accoutrements.

Well into the last 20 minutes. we chattered on, lubricated by liquor and excitement and caffeine.  I felt at home here.  I also relished my boots, which allowed me a quick arrival to the stage at each development.  Yes, I was underdressed, but I was ready to tackle the world.

The final course complete, desserts were presented to the judges.

Chef Capello delivered... well, it was... colorful.  I could see a lobster claw and a whitish cream and corn and flowers.  I could not hear the description of the dish, the crowd having grown louder as time had progressed and the cash bar at the back of the room gradually depleted.  Christie heard it, though, and related on her blog:  "crab claw and knuckle ragu with mushroom, tomato and bacon; a corn and lobster flan; and a celeriac, French truffle and quail egg yolk ravioli with a celeriac truffle crumble, garnished with thyme, celery and borage flowers."

Yeah, I would never have managed all that.

Chef Guizol's delicacy?  Smoked lobster claw with caviar-styled lobster roe, an Australian truffle ravioli and porcini mushrooms.

I would have given all the money in my wallet to eat that.

The dishes all presented, the judges retired to discuss the decision and the auctioneer took the stage, offering for bid one grand vacation and fantastic dinner after another for bid.  Us bloggers huddled in the back.  The auction and judging seemed to take quite a while and the crowd began to get restless.

But the chefs were called back to the stage, and with the announcement of scores, the title of Diamond Chef was announced -- and this year, it was an upset, as Chef Marc Guizol defeated Chef Dan Capello.

A celebratory round of photographs were taken... and as I looked by my side to the other bloggers, writers and photographers who were covering the event, I felt a camaraderie I had long missed.  This was worth staying up past my bedtime on a school night.

I haven't seen the final numbers yet, but I know thousands of dollars were raised for the school.  That money will go to deferring the costs of attending such an amazing facility and program, and help make it easier for aspiring young chefs to learn and develop their skills in a prime environment.

There will come another competition next spring, and the cycle of determining the next Diamond Chef will begin.  As for our blogging community, I think this was an important step -- a necessary one.  As Jake Blues frequently said, it's time to get the band back together.  The umbrella of sharing and promoting Arkansas's foodways is opening, and it's time to step out into the rain of change and innovation that's pouring around the state right now.