Columns » John Brummett

Little Rock's essence? It's cheese dip

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My first wife, and this was long ago because we married much too young and split predictably and quickly, brought to our otherwise ill-advised union a recipe for cheese dip.

It tasted much like the classic signature dish of Little Rock's Mexico Chiquito restaurant, which, I am now told, may well qualify as the world's original cheese dip.

Little Rock's culinary culture may be defined not by catfish or barbecue or the plate lunch, but by cheese melted with peppers and spices.

Anyway, my childhood sweetheart departed for unknown points west and I lost the recipe.

I've spent four decades, nearly, trying to duplicate it. I know all the ingredients. I know the process. I just don't know the amounts — of cumin, chili powder, paprika, dry mustard, garlic powder, ketchup and ... well,

I'm telling too much.

I can get mighty close. It's tasty nearly every time, unless I get it a tad floury.

You need a double-boiler. You make kind of a roux. You top it off with jalapeno peppers.

One trick is getting the heat just right for the next application.

And it is a common misconception that you must use Velveeta. A block of Kraft Deluxe American Cheese, shredded, does the melting and absorption trick better than Velveeta.

You can't really shred Velveeta, its being such a processed glob. The best thing to do with Velveeta is to compress it into a little ball and throw it at somebody.

You wondering where I'm going with this. So I'll tell you.

I'm going on October 9 to Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock to the first annual world championship cheese dip contest, underwritten by Kraft Velveeta and Ro*Tel, the classic combination for quick-and-easy cheese dip.

I don't so much care for it, having been exposed to the greater virtue of Mexico Chiquito's and a home-cooked imitation.

I don't intend to enter. I simply want to revel in this historic celebration.

What happened was that I ventured out the other evening to the 4th annual Little Rock Film Festival for a showing of short Arkansas-made documentary films, one of which — titled "In Queso Fever: A Movie about Cheese Dip," was young lawyer Nick Rogers' 31-minute exploration.

He'd grown up in Little Rock absorbed in cheese dip, then ventured elsewhere in the country to learn, as many of us have learned, that this culinary icon was much harder to find the further you got from his hometown.

His research led him to assert, until someone proves otherwise, that the first commercial cheese dip ever concocted and served took place in the early 1930s at a dirt-floored Mexican establishment in Prothro Junction called Mexico Chiquito.

What apparently happened after that was that Little Rockians, addicted to this stuff, came to believe that cheese dip was a Mexican staple, and newcomers to the Little Rock Mexican restaurant scene were obliged to offer the dish.

But it's not really Mexican. It's not actually Tex-Mex. It's Ark-Mex. To be more precise: It's more a Little Rock thing than an Arkansas thing.

Nachos, chips slathered in cheese sauce, came along much later, in the 1940s.

So Rogers' movie research led him to the headquarters of Kraft and Ro*Tel, which, prompted by his queries, decided to promote the joint use of their products by favoring him with seed money to throw this first world cheese dip contest right here on the Arkansas River.

There'll be cheese dip judging, salsa tasting, chip-making, live music, festival-styled exhibits and the Arkansas-Texas A&M football game blazed on the ballpark's big screen.

It could become — and should become — the quintessential Arkansas event.

By the way: Rogers' movie is very nearly stolen by editor Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times. He has a certain exuberant eloquence when it comes to food and he applies it here in a near-poetic description of the act of plunging the sturdy scoop-shaped Frito chip into a dense cheesy substance.

For more about the movie and the festival, just go, of course, to cheesedip.net.

I should mention that any cheese dip contest proceeds will go to an organization sponsoring free health services for poor people.

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