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).
But what really makes cheese dip great, Rogers says, is its simplicity.
"For most of us eating it at home, it's just mixing together some Velveeta and a can of Ro-Tel, so I think there's something very appealing about a dish that is so simple but fills you up and tastes great," he says. "What separates the good from the great? I think you've got to take a recipe and own it. Name it. Show that you put some thought into it. Add some weird ingredient that nobody else has. Prepare it in some different way. I think especially now as Little Rock starts to take more and more ownership of cheese dip as 'our thing' I'd like to see more restaurants put some thought into it."
Rogers hopes the World Cheese Dip Championship will raise the profile of a dish he thinks fits right in the pantheon of Southern comfort food like chicken-fried steak, meat loaf and fried catfish. The event will be held at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, from noon to around 9 p.m. The Razorbacks football game will be playing on the big screen and a whole host of musicians will set up to play including local favorites like Mandy McBryde, 607 and the Good Time Ramblers. Prizes for the best cheese dip recipe around will be awarded in two categories: professional and amateur. All the details can be found at www.cheesedip.net.
To help fund the event, Rogers got some help from a couple of familiar brands: Velveeta and Ro-Tel. The two companies have had a partnership for the last three years, including joint marketing efforts to try to expand cheese dip's popularity to other regions of the country besides the South.
"You can get cheese dip here, but I don't think it's as prominent," says Claudia Lai, senior associate brand manager for Velveeta from her office in Chicago. "This event is really perfect for us and Ro-Tel, to help us bring the love of cheese dip to the masses. Most of our marketing efforts are in the South and Central regions, but we do nationwide marketing as well."
There's a bit of an education process involved in spreading the gospel of cheese dip, Lai says. Velveeta and Ro-Tel offer joint coupons to grocery shoppers and the items are placed side-by-side in stores when possible. Representatives from both companies will be on hand Saturday to talk to customers and hand out samples.
But the real focus of the event, aside from all the bands, the beer and the football, is that goopy yellow stuff. (Participants are not limited to the sponsors' ingredients, of course. All varieties are welcome, from the white sauce-based concoction that resembles the Chiquito formula; to one based on Kraft Deluxe American, a favorite of many home chefs, to the sophisticated three- and four-cheese blends developed by local restaurants.) A panel of judges will determine the winners, but the cheese-dippers in attendance will also get to vote on their favorites. Taste, texture and creativity will be taken into consideration along with other factors. In terms of a favorite, Rogers thinks the playing field is fairly level.
"It's hard to tell because we want to remove the prestige and the name recognition from it so it's going to be blind judging," Rogers says. "Our judges have diverse backgrounds. Some of them are TV newscasters, some of them are celebrity chefs. They'll be judging blindly, each with their own criteria so it's hard to tell who will prevail. I would like to think there's no advantage to being a well-established famous restaurant. I think a lot of people will win. We have 8 awards in each division: healthiest, craziest, best meat cheese dip. There's the judges grand prize award and the audience choice award. So I hope we have lots of different winners that win for lots of different reasons."
One of those judges is Mary Twedt, host of KUAR's "Arkansas Cooks" and a self-admitted cheese dip junkie. Twedt says the real surprises will come from the amateur entries.
"To be honest with you, I'm looking forward to the amateur category, because I want to see what people do at home and serve their own families," Twedt says. "So I'm more intrigued by that than the professional category, because you know what you're going to get from a restaurant, and people's tastes in cheese dip are very different."
Rogers says entries will be capped at 50 in each category and registration will remain open until those thresholds are met.
So where does cheese dip fit when you talk about Arkansas food culture? Is it really that big of a deal? After all, it's only dip, right?
"To me it's like a meal," Twedt says. "It's not just chips and dip. People are excited about putting ground beef in it, or chorizo, so it's almost become like a meal that you can snack on."
Jason Knapp, executive chef at Pulaski Tech's Big Rock Cafe and an adjunct professor at the culinary school, says cheese dip is good because it's comforting.
"Even on a hot summer day, nothing goes down better than a big fat bowl of cheese dip," he says. "The viscosity of it, it coats that chip. It's cheesy, it's good and it's got a little spice to it. In this atmosphere that I'm in that's high-stress, lots of school work and deadlines, people come in and they want that comfort food and it extends out into the real world. You want the comfort food. The cheese dip, the meat loaf."
"It's our thing that we do here in Arkansas," says Twedt. "I've always said that what makes Arkansas food so interesting is that it's so eclectic. There's Tex-Mex and Cajun and people kind of put their spin on it. There's catfish from Mississippi, but we do our own thing. People really aren't afraid of food in Arkansas."
Ultimately, Rogers wants to see the festival continue and grow. Both cities have been enthusiastic about the championship but Rogers dreams of a day when there's a citywide cheese dip day, or when it's named the official snack food of the state of Arkansas.
"I knew we were crazy for cheese dip and if given the opportunity we'd go overboard with it," Rogers says. "And here we are, going overboard."
When and where: October 9, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Dickey-Stephens Park.
A $5 entry fee, which goes to Harmony Health Clinic, will get you through the door and allow you to taste the cheese dip entries from the professional and amateur chefs.
A $10 donation will get you a cheese dip card. The card allows you to taste all entries, gives discounts from all participating restaurants and, more importantly, gives you a vote for the audience favorite.
Cheese dip not your thing? Vendors will set up and offer the normal ball park fare like beer, cokes, hamburgers and hotdogs.
Aside from the Hogs game on the big screen, enjoy music from Rodney Block, The Goodtime Ramblers, Mandy McBryde and the Unholy Ghosts, Will Churchill, Kyle Andrews and Heypenny.