Nothing like cheese dip for stirring up an Arkansas conversation.
After Stephens Media columnist John Brummett learned about Nick Rogers' queso obsession last summer, he wrote a column about his own dip obsession.
Brummett wrote that he'd spent four decades trying to duplicate the Mexico Chiquito-like dip recipe his first wife had brought to their marriage (and left with). He thinks he's come pretty close with a roux base, Kraft Deluxe American, Ro-Tel tomatoes, cumin, garlic powder, chili powder, ketchup and other stuff. It is no small matter. Wrote Brummett:
"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."
Brummett's column stirred enthusiastic responses on our Eat Arkansas food blog, including from restaurateur Mark Abernathy. An edited version of what he wrote:
"It is truly an interesting phenomenon that cheese dip is so popular in Little Rock. Growing up here I, and my buddies, lived on Browning's cheese dip. There were actually two main camps. Some folks swore by Browning's and others preferred Mexico Chiquito's. Later Casa Bonita weighed in. Having no other frame of reference I thought the local Little Rock Mexican food was what real Mexican food tasted like. It mirrored the bland Sonoran style Mexican food available in frozen dinners. It was not until I moved to San Antonio that the heavens parted.
"Cheese dip has actually been around for a very long time. It was, and is still, called chili con queso. Of course it was not invented in North Little Rock, but the unusual level of popularity is certainly unique to our area.
"When I moved from Little Rock in 1972 to open the first big TGI Friday's in Dallas, I was surprised that cheese dip was just another appetizer and not a 'must have' item. In fact, most Mexican restaurants did not sell it. I quickly realized that cheese dip mania was an Arkansas thing.
"When I returned to Little Rock in 1985 I was on a mission to create the authentic Tex-Mex food I had become addicted to in San Antonio. I opened Juanita's in spring 1986. I knew I needed a really good and special cheese dip. One of my partners in Juanita's was Frank McGehee (His son is Boulevard Bread founder Scott McGehee.). Frank was a real foodie and a talented cook. We worked for months on developing Juanita's recipes. Frank had a friend named Clyde Baker who had developed a good recipe for salsa and cheese dip that he had served in a recently closed restaurant called John Barleycorn's. We made Clyde's recipe and loved it. After a little tweaking we had our cheese dip recipe.
"Our Juanita's version was a big departure from the standard Mexico Chiquito-Browning's version. It was loaded with various peppers, fresh herbs and four different cheeses. We sold hundreds of gallons a week.
"I even have a small claim to fame inspired in part by the cheese dip craze. We got our corn tortilla triangle chips fresh from Rudy's in Ft. Worth. I had the idea of making the tortillas in halves instead of quarters so when they would break you would still have a decent sized chip to dip with. I asked Rudy to make a new die to cut the chips. Now the size has grown in popularity and can be found in many operations.
"In 1989 we started work on Blue Mesa Grill, featuring Southwest Cuisine. We were the first restaurant in Arkansas to use chipotle chilis, pozole, black beans, blue corn tortillas and goat cheese. It was ahead of its time and wonderful. We wanted a different twist to our cheese dip so we decided to use white cheese instead of yellow (all cheese is basically white, the color is added). We used roasted green chilis and spinach. It was also a huge hit. To my knowledge we were the first to make white cheese dip. Certainly the first to make it in Arkansas. Although others might have been using it, I cannot remember seeing it anywhere else for several years. Now it's everywhere around here."
Nick Rogers responded that he was a huge fan of Abernathy's dips — he was among the first invitees for the coming festival — but took small exception to Abernathy's culinary history.
"I'm aware of the longstanding chili con queso dish, but I think cheese dip as we know it is so different from chili con queso that it suggests an entirely different dish with its own origins. Chili con queso is MEAT based, with cheese mixed in. In contrast, cheese dip is CHEESE-based, and usually doesn't contain meat at all."
Ah, but here's where we say:
Have you heard about the one where you take one pound of Velveeta, one can of Ro-Tel, one can of Wolf Brand Chili and one can of hot tamales and then ... .