Monday, November 30, 2020

A Bite of Arkansas: A Cookbook of Natural State Delights - A New Book.

When the pandemic response took me off the road and off the job of covering Arkansas's highways, byways and pieways in March, I was lost. Every assignment, speaking engagement and appearance evaporated in the course of a week. In my worry, I turned to cooking. The memories evoked in a white tile kitchen in Little Rock brought me back around to another facet of my life I could share - dishes I grew up on and discovered throughout my life, right here in The Natural State.

Here's the foreword for my new book, A Bite of Arkansas: A Cookbook of Natural State Delights, plus ordering information.

If you'd like to order A Bite of Arkansas: A Cookbook of Natural State Delights, click here to advance to the end of the foreword. Or, enjoy this passage, first.

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Early evening, washing dishes, looking out the window over the blue glass bottles to my CR-V, which had for the most part just sat in that space for the past several weeks. The light was starting to stay later into dinnertimes, and outside I could hear something that had evaporated months ago - the sound of young folks in the street, talking, riding bikes,

and... just being..

As I ran the washcloth inside a glass jar, I took a breath, and just concentrated on that sound. I couldn’t make out the words, but I could feel the emotion behind them, the relief at seeing other people, even from across a street or several bike-lengths away. Maybe things would be okay.

The oven creaked behind me as it cooled. The remainder of a casserole sat on a burner, awaiting the black and clear takeout box I’d slide it into, to take its place on a shelf in the fridge. My shirt was wet, my feet were bare, the hum of the television two rooms away a bare static on the night.

My daughter sat at the dining room table, conversing with her fellow Girl Scouts on yet another Zoom, attempting some sort of normality.

But this wasn't normal.

Three months earlier, we'd have been in our own house, if I was even home. If it was a home day, we'd be coming in the door from the long drive home from school, the one that could take an hour depending on traffic but, if I were to have gone this particular day, might have been ten minutes, tops. Grav would have been coming in from the Innovation Hub, and would be asking what we wanted for dinner as Hunter would take her bag to her room, then bring in her lunchbox and fill it with convenient foods for the next day, tucking it into the bottom of the refrigerator.

I'd be picking up the computer again after sitting down in my recliner, ready to dive back into the story or the podcast or the video I was producing at the time. Later dinner would appear at my elbow, and then Hunter would be singing me our good night song, and eventually

I'd wake at 2 a.m. when the computer clicked off, wander back to my room and sleep a few more hours before getting up the next day.

Or, often as not, I'd be wherever I had landed, done with my shooting at the end of the day, just checked into a hotel or an AirBNB, just done photographing it for later, snacking on leftovers from whatever food shoot I had while editing together a story or setting up a book order or corresponding with someone about a public appearance. Sometimes I'd go out once more to capture another restaurant or an evening event, only to return and prep for the next day and sit at my computer until I fell asleep.

But that was weeks, or years, ago, back when life kept coming every single day, when the hustle never stopped. I was lucky. I could travel and write and shoot and diversify and put 300 miles on my tires every day, as long as I had the stamina.

That wasn't now. It was late May, and I hadn't put gas in my CRV since March 11th.

There was a dishwasher right next to me, but the hot water felt real, and the surfaces of every dish smoothed under my hands as particulates came off. This little kitchen I could keep clean, washing dishes every evening and wandering in each morning to make chai and wiping down all the tile with a cleaner that smelled like grapefruit.

I had lights to haul into the kitchen later in the evening, the big desk and floor lamps I was re-purposing from the den to illuminate the white kitchen enough to shoot my video segments for the upcoming special. They were heavy, their light melting me within minutes each time I set the shot. It hurt, all the stretching to get the lights and cameras in place, clamping an old cell phone up as a makeshift monitor, reaching for heavypots and skillets and organizing my mise en place for each dish. It was important to get everything shot for the video segments that would air both on TV and on YouTube, a valiant weird no-contact effort at a cooking show by a woman who had spent way too much time in other kitchens and dining rooms these past 13 years.

For now, though, there were just the memories, decades flowing back into my head, alongside the pain of grease pops while frying and the steam from boiling water and the tiny abrasions on my thumbs from remembering how to slice again, and the dishwater.

This was my life the first few months of the pandemic. They were to have been the beginning of my new normal, putting together a travel podcast in-between public appearances, publishing books and occasionally updating my website with another longform story. I'd been doing a lot of food photographer gigs in the winter ahead of the keynotes that would come in April, May and June. I had two books in the collection stage - one on cheese dip, one on catfish - that would be my paired books for the year. My schedule was airtight. I knew where I was going, what I was going to do. I had a thickly packed shoot schedule ready to go to share our great state agritourism sites. My career was thriving.

And then it was gone. Over one week, I lost all but one of 22 set appearances, which meant honorariums that would not be paid and book sales that wouldn't be made. That last one held out until May before being canceled. The Arkansas Pie Festival, which was partly inspired by my books and show, was quietly put away for another year.

I scrambled to get Grav set up with enough equipment to keep his business going. And then at some point I retreated across Markham to another house, my mom's roost - going over one day for a Zoom, a second day for Easter dinner and then not going home. My daughter took over the dining room table with her makeshift school and all her art supplies.

Grav brought my spice bag and my camera bag and more than 400 of my collected church cookbooks, and left me alone, only to apparate at dinner each night.

My mom brought food. While we were hunkering down, she was still out working as a hospice nurse, out overnight. She's how I found out the 24 hour grocery stores were a thing of the past, and who hauled in random supplies I'd use to conjure edible memories and experiments.

Grav would deliver the pick-up orders from Kroger, the crapshoots in the beginning that would determine what I'd make each day. We'd stock the pantry at both houses, not knowing how long we'd be holding out.

And every day, I'd head to the kitchen when I first woke up, making my chai and filling the numbness of the situation with what I could bring to the table. My daughter, never before experiencing the wonder of sausage balls, hammered breakfast steak, sugared rice or beer muffins, would silently brag to other students on the Zooms by showing off her plate and her cup of well creamed coffee, never progressing much beyond a selection of onesies between showers, while her teachers tried hard to compensate for the evaporation of an in-person sixth grade year.

After a breakfast made, I'd pick up seven or eight cookbooks, using my mom's pen cups contents to mark spaces, recording on my phone ingredients to acquire. After a lunch usually comprised of leftovers from the previous night, I'd start prepping ingredients. After Hunter's schooling had ended for the day, the kitchen would come alive with the clatter and sound of whisks making roux and timers going off, notes hurriedly spoken into my phone while I'd dart back and forth between two or three recipes. The pile of cookbooks would become unmanageable, spilling onto the lower section of the bar, displacing the dry goods I wanted close at hand.

When, an hour or two or three had passed and the meal had come together, I'd pull out a light ring and plug it in to compensate for the darkness that consumed most of the house. I'd take photos on my phone, lacking the will to go to the next room and get my Canon Rebel with the good lens, just documenting what little I had done. And when everyone was fed, I'd pack the leftovers - a plate for Mom, a plastic container for Grav to take back across Markham with him for snacking later, the rest for Hunter and I to dig through for lunch the next day. I'd retreat back to the computer to enter my notes, and then I would make myself get out of the chair at 11 p.m. and go back to the guest bedroom and sleep as best I could on the single bed, to awaken at six in the morning and start again.


“As best I could” was the most succinct definition of what I was doing. The world was closing down, and then it was quiet, shocked into a new format of existence. I'd sometimes lay in that corner room, wondering why I couldn't hear the city. The wind would sometimes sweep up, or a cat would be heard long in the distance. The houses all around us were occupied but we all seemed to keep to our stunned silence.

Ghosts would come. No, not the essence of spirits hovering over my bed, but of awakened memories from decades ago, memories of high school and before, and after, and of dishes that I had failed to fully

appreciate when I was younger. I would dream of how the light filtered down in a space, and wake tasting those dreams. In-between, I dreamed of driving, the miles clacking away under my tires, vistas of the Ozarks spread out in the distance or of Delta sunrises, or of winding Timberland roads through canyons of pines. I grieved.

My sense of purpose was diluted. I recorded segments of the TV show, talking to myself through the camera, feeling like a dolt. I typed my redactions and corrections off every recipe I tried. I sometimes doomscrolled Facebook and Twitter and felt so guilty, seeing my restaurant friends doing everything they could to keep going and not knowing how I could help. I also saw a thousand new bakers created, as people learned sourdough and coveted yeast. Scenes were crafted in the narratives of so many I knew and loved, recipes shared, tables filled with food worthy of a Thanksgiving banquet, shared between two or three, the rest packed up for meals that would sustain for weeks, sometimes even traded for the culinary creations of others. I asked for many of those recipes, and months later I'd publish a collection, 43 Tables: An Internet Community Cooks During Quarantine. It wasn't about earnings I might generate, but the idea of doing something, anything, that might have meaning through this. Also, for smiles. We all needed smiles.

May passed into June, and with new guidelines released I'd don my mask, hood, hat and gloves and head to a few farmers markets and farms for the fresh produce I craved. The TV show,  Home Cooking with Kat and Friends, debuted. The ache in my shoulder that nagged at me every time I cooked blossomed to a point where those nights laying in the single bed became excruciating sojourns that ate at me. I’d find out in July it was bad, and I packed up my spices and went home and cleaned house as best I could until I had surgery to correct my shoulder and lost the next three months.

It's now October. There's an agitation in the air with the election, less than two weeks away at this point. I've stopped washing the dishes by hand, now that I'm back in my home and the dishwasher works, though its installation sadly lead to a leak that destroyed much of my kitchen floor. I don't know where the funds will come from to put something down over the new subfloor that Grav and Leif installed, but I do know how the patio rug I found feels on my feet and where my spices have migrated to around the galley. There's a bite of cold in the air that comes from nights without the central heat and air, usually mitigated by my cat sleeping on my knees on the other side of the computer, which sits on my lapdesk at my waist while I snooze, propped up since I can't roll over until my shoulder heals a bit more.

I haven't slept outside of Little Rock since early March, but when I do sleep, I feel a peace. Memories that came to crest in my imagination while I was standing at the sink have now come to the table, been shot and shared and now memorialized in the pages of a book I never thought I'd be writing, a combination of those unearthed flavors and a memoir that may only matter to me.

Because, you see, I was brought up Arkansas. I had the chances to leave - for college, for work, for love - and I stayed. I am planted in this soil. These flavors I share are just as much about what shaped me as what I eat, and what others eat. When it was conceived, it was supposed to just be a cookbook. It's something... different? More? I can't quite say.

It is personal. And I think , after all this time in my own head, unable to escape on the road to new destinations and the stories of others, I can properly share it.

Eat well.

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To order a limited advance softcover of A Bite of Arkansas: A Cookbook of Natural State Delights, visit the Tonti Press store.

You can also order one of these limited advance softcovers via PayPal.

To set up an advance order of A Bite of Arkansas: A Cookbook of Natural State Delights in its premiere hardback edition, please order from Little Rock bookseller WordsWorth Books

If you're not local to Little Rock, please consider ordering through Bookshop - which helps local bookstores stay afloat.

Other places to get the book: 

Amazon didn't order enough for Christmas, LOL

Barnes and Noble

BetterRead (Australia)

Take a look inside:

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