Regional cuisine has a way of defining a local culture. In the Bretagne region of northwest France, buckwheat crops provide the locals with everything they need to make galettes, crepes filled with everything from the savory, ham and cheese, to the sweet, Nutella and jam. In Spain, Valencians on the Mediterranean coast used shrimp and fish, instead of the traditional meat and beans, to make their signature paella. Japan has sushi. The Scottish, haggis.
In Arkansas, you'll find our favorite food somewhere between the Mexican cuisine and canned-vegetable aisles of the grocery store. It's a staple defined by its simplicity. One can of chopped tomatoes and green peppers and one block of yellow, processed cheese product. Put them together and you get a bowlful of a smooth and somewhat spicy ambrosia around which people huddle at family gatherings, Super Bowl parties and even weddings. Of course, we're talking about cheese dip, a dish with humble beginnings right here in Arkansas.
Nick Rogers is a local attorney with a penchant for filmmaking and a particular passion for cheese dip. His short film, "In Queso Fever: A Movie About Cheese Dip," debuted on the Arkansas Times website about one year ago and has racked up over 3,360 views on its Vimeo page (vimeo.com/6608438). It also turned up on a couple of national food blogs and played at the Little Rock Film Festival this year. Spurred on by the success of the film, Rogers organized the first ever World Cheese Dip Championship, which will be held Saturday, Oct. 9, at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. All proceeds will go to Harmony Health Clinic, a free medical and dental clinic in Little Rock.
"In Queso Fever" chronicles the birth of an Arkansas food staple and attempts to get to the heart of what makes it so good.
"I think it's kind of like politics or religion," Rogers says. "People tend to stick with what they were raised with. People that grew up in Little Rock tend to be passionate about Browning's, whereas people that aren't from Little Rock tend to think Browning's is awful. People in Conway almost always say Stoby's is the best. People get passionate about whatever they were raised on, and for me that was Mexico Chiquito."
While doing research for the film, Rogers was able to trace the origins of cheese dip to that very place, a little restaurant that started in Prothro Junction in North Little Rock back in 1935. The restaurant has grown and spread to four locations throughout Central Arkansas. Mexico Chiquito was run by a Mexican expat named Blackey Donnelly with the help of his wife. Back then, the restaurant only sold two plates, but you could get a bowl of cheese dip on the side.
"Once a year they would go to Mexico and they would get the spices," says Mexico Chiquito owner Dan Jayroe. "Back in those days you didn't have a Kroger that would carry all of that. So they would go down there and have a little stay-cation."
Donnelly and his wife were able to create a concoction that has had local families hooked for generations. So what makes it so good? Jayroe says it's the cumin.
"This cheese dip has eight different spices," he says. "I can't tell you everything in it, but it's heavily cumin. There's some chili powder, and it's made with real chili broth. We take the broth off the chili and make dip out of it. You can't make it at home. It's like the seven herbs and spices of Colonel Sanders. Unless you know the exact recipe, you can't duplicate it." (Columnist John Brummett and a variety of long-time Arkansans who stirred up quite a conversation on the Times' Eat Arkansas blog on their efforts to match the concoction would dare to differ, but Donnelly's recipe keeps the customers coming back, says Jayroe).
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