Chef Ringgold Cooks Colonial Arkansas

Historic Arkansas Museum - Tuesday, April 10, 2018


On April 5, Executive Chef Mary Beth Ringgold stepped back into Arkansas’s Colonial days to prepare for the second dinner of Historic Arkansas Museum’s History is Served: Arkansas Foodways Dinner Series. Her four-course meal hearkened to days of hunting and trapping wild game on the frontier, and the early Spanish and French settlers’ love affair with bread.

How did you prepare for the Colonial Arkansas dinner?

It was great, there was a lot of research involved, trying to figure out what was available during the period, and honestly—the cooking methods of the time—we didn’t really want to duplicate those. Because we didn’t feel we could duplicate a great product. People deserved the best product we could do for those style items. So we really just picked things that were readily available at the time.

What did you serve?

Working through the menu, the first course was the crawfish bisque, and crawfish was available at the time. I don’t know who the first person was to look at a crawfish and say, ‘I wonder if you can eat this?’ Probably a very hungry person, I suspect. Somebody eventually cooked it or boiled it and decided how to eat it. But we didn’t do it a rustic way. They didn’t run it through a sieve, they didn’t have blenders back then.

The second course was rabbit, and we weren’t really developed as farmlands at that time. We were trappers, we had guns, there were ducks available, pheasants available, rabbit, any kind of wild game. So we chose a rabbit loin, which we pan seared and finished in the oven. We served it with some stone ground grits and a mushroom demi-glace and it was very, very tender, something that people really enjoyed. The [guests], they scraped their plates. We always pay attention to the dishes that come back in.

For the entrée—you know they had hogs, wild hogs back then. But they had no diet, just what they could forage. Our hogs are on grass and grain. Back then they might have killed a hog at 80 or 90 or 100 pounds, but our hogs fill out at almost 300 pounds, or heavier than that. So we did a big thick bone-in pork chop but they would not have had that back in the day, they would have had a baby pork chop.

So with the dessert, it’s called ‘pan perdu,’ and we did it with fresh blueberries. And it’s a course of a bread pudding; there were a lot of French influences and the French loved their breads; that was their staple. They had bread and butter for breakfast. So [bread pudding] is a great thing to do with remaining bread, like wholesale bread or leftover bread. And we finished it with caramel.

How did you translate the old ways into today’s cooking?

We had a vision of what they had, and we put our spin on it. We used things that we knew were available like apples and apricots and fruits and we did a slow roast of those items. There were plums and grapes available so we did that slow roast on the grapes. And the apricots along with the apples and did that with the pork. But that’s a really natural pairing, I don’t care what time frame you’re in, it takes you back to mom and Thanksgiving.

This seems to come naturally to you. Do you have an interest in other foodways or traditions?

I’m just a foodie. I love all types of food, I love thinking about what food was historically. When I watch a movie I think about what they’re eating and how they cooked that. It’s intriguing to think about food historically.