When I mention this type of restaurant to people who don’t live in Arkansas, I often get a blank stare. In other places, these joints are called milk bars. And – in other places – they aren’t quite as common as they are here in The Natural State. But they’re a marvelous way to feed your nostalgia, even in the risky COVID-19 age.
Back in January, I was looking for my next project. I had spent time during the pandemic writing cookbooks instead of the travel guides for which I am well known. But, like many, I was itching to get out and about again and resume my normal life – normal, for me, being visiting, researching, and sharing the stories of our state’s fine dining establishments.
It was while I was enjoying a caramel shake that the idea popped into my head: dairy bars – by their own natural construction – are likely the best prepared restaurants for pandemic times. Orders are through a window, as are pick-ups. Social distancing can be maintained safely. And there’s a nostalgic kick to be considered.
I awoke the next morning with the idea to create a book on the subject and got busy researching the state’s dairy bars. I was quite surprised to find that the model I had thought about was indeed working well: of the state’s 95 dairy bars around in 2019, some 94 of them were still in operation.
So, I traveled safely, wearing my personal protection, and visited each of these locations. I sampled all sorts of fare – from remarkable butterscotch sundaes at Lion’s Den Drive In in Clarendon and the steak fingers at the Lighthouse Drive-In in Wickes
to dipped cones at Portia’s Dairy King and righteous burgers at Sheridan’s Yellow Jacket Drive-In – and started building a book.
When Arkansas PBS decided it was time to create another Arkansas food program, “Arkansas Dairy Bars” seemed like the perfect entry. Over the course of three weeks in late March and early April, cinematographer Jeff Dailey and I traveled to a host of different locations across this marvelous state, recording the stories of the dairy bars selected and the people who work in them.
Now, we’re bringing the stories to you. On August 19th at 7 p.m., you’ll be able to meet all the folks from these locations, see what we found to eat and learn how these establishments have been able to survive all these years.
Of course, a book is coming along with the project - that will cover all of Arkansas's existing dairy bars and many of the places that share the spirit of these ice cream-loving edifices all over The Natural State.
The book, Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats, will be available as a premium, a gift to subscribers of Arkansas PBS, when the show initially airs. It will be released for worldwide consumption in hardback on October 5th, 2021, with a paperback to follow on November 2nd.
I'm so thrilled to bring you this delightful part of the Arkansas culinary scene!