You Probably Don’t Know About Ozark Cuisine Because of the KKK

Hidden deep within the mountains, Ozark cuisine is remarkably preserved from the outside world. The reasons are varied: an isolated geography, plentiful natural resources, and an instinctive distrust for outsiders that has been honed in by the KKK.

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Apr 10 2014, 2:00pm

Foto: Zach Bell

Nothing can ruin a pound of chocolate fudge faster than a swastika. But if you have stronger nerves than me and enjoy stuffing your face with homemade confections while shopping for a bayonet or hand grenade, you should take your next vacation in the Ozark mountains. I learned not to mix candy and Nazi paraphernalia at age ten, when I caught a glimpse of an SS medal on a full stomach of sweets at an antique mall there.

Even though meth and the KKK have kept the Ozarks from joining hot spots on the Southern food map like Charleston and Nashville as foodie-approved getaways, there's a bountiful regional cuisine to explore: wild deer, turkey, trout, walleye, nuts, greens and berries, barbecues and country-cooking, all set as a foil against the backdrop of invading big box retailers, convenience stores, and chain restaurants. The earliest settlers in the Ozarks were from the Appalachians and originally of German, English, Irish, and Scottish descent. When they arrived in the 19th century, they learned to survive on what they could forage from the dense woodlands, streams, and mountains, adapting their family recipes to available ingredients—substituting deer for veal in schnitzel or baking fluffy biscuits instead of scones. Because European culinary traditions have survived in a rough and rural context, Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas are home to some of America's strangest meals.

Photo by Zach Bell

A deer in the Ozarks. All photos by Zach Bell.

But outside of the popular (and trashy) destination city, Branson—home to Silver Dollar City, the poor man's Disneyland of the Midwest—the Ozarks boast rural communities scattered with crumbling mobile homes and rusting tractors. In Greene County, more than a third of families with children under 18 live in poverty. As the movie Winter's Bone—which is lauded for its gritty treatment of Ozark life—suggests, one cause and consequence of Ozark poverty is methamphetamine abuse. Breaking Bad has done more for the Ozarks than years of PR campaigns in deflecting popular opinion on which state is the historic center of America's meth epidemic. It's still Missouri, by far. Yet the war against meth has inflicted its own variety of psychosocial damage, encouraging already isolated communities to become even more suspicious of outsiders.

The long-enduring presence of white supremacist groups throughout the Ozarks—especially in Branson and Harrison, Arkansas—has only intensified the region's insularity; limestone bluffs, logging roads, and dense woodlands make the Ozarks an excellent hiding place for wild game and the Klu Klux Klan. In June 2013, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the KKK had founded an Ozark "Soldiers of the Cross Training Institute" to educate anyone willing to pay $500 to learn about the "HOLY mission of the White Christian Revival." Recently, a group of "racial patriots" protested a Black History Month event in Harrison attended by exactly zero African-Americans. This combination of extreme right politics and poverty discourages strangers from offering help, developing the area, or even beginning to explore its unique and wonderful culture, which has kept Ozark foodways hidden from the outside world. There are no Ozark kitchens in Williamsburg or Portland, no high-profile Ozark bloggers with coffee table cookbooks, and no Husk about to open in Branson. The combined effect of rural poverty, epidemic drug abuse, and bad politics has been preservation without gentrification, or worse, hipsterfication.

One of these Ozark culinary traditions can be found in a town called Eureka Springs, which is as bougie as it gets ten miles south of the Missouri border: chocolate martinis, B&Bs, and—most importantly—great barbecue. Ozark barbecue is idiosyncratic: pecan and hickory smoke, sweet and sour sauce with influences from Kansas City and Memphis, and a focus on pork. Because real Ozark barbecue requires fresh hogs from the area and the touch of a pitmaster who has lived there long enough to know what type of person likes creamy or vinegar slaw, it is unlikely to be available ex situ. In Eureka Springs, there's Bubba's Barbecue, whose giant pig-shaped sign reads, "It may not look famous but it is." Dinner at Bubba's might be a half-rack of ribs glazed red with sauce, sweet beans, slaw, and bread, or a pulled pork sandwich with pickles. The pork will be softer than Kansas City style, very smoky, and dripping with fat. Although it might not be up to competition standard, Bubba's ribs are luxurious in an area where the per capita income is $18,475.

Photo by Zach Bell

Towns like Eureka Springs have had better luck supporting BBQ restaurants and country kitchens than those deeper in the mountains, because a proximity to trucking routes and larger cities brings in a trickle of outside cash. Lillee's Sunrise Grill & Catering is a short drive away from Branson in a hill town called Reeds Spring, population 913. It's a country kitchen like they don't make 'em anymore, with antlers and hooves mounted on the walls, green vinyl stools, and enough calendars tacked to the walls to cover its entire history. The grill serves both farmers and tourists alike, who wander into town in search of antiques. There are omelets with chili, tuna melts, and fried pies. Here, mom and pops reign supreme; a mega-chain like Cracker Barrel can't serve regional specialties like breaded chicken cordon bleu croissant or giant buttermilk baking soda biscuits smothered with sausage gravy. Reeds Springs depends on its local businesses like Lillee's; without that extra capital and the community those businesses cultivate, the town might be swallowed up into the forest like so many others.

Because in those hardest-to-reach corners of Ozark forest, people live deer to deer. A deer can feed a local family here for weeks, either by grinding into a chili with beans, shaping into burger patties, piping into synthetic sausage casing, smoking into jerky, cutting into steaks, or grilling and brushing it with barbecue sauce on a Sunday night. With the occasional trout—grilled in foil or smoked—bushels of walnuts and pecans, and a bounty of mushrooms, an Ozark family can survive, if not comfortably, in the forest.

But no matter how many journalists poke around the hills, it seems unlikely that this species of Southern cuisine will be the next big thing to hit the New York restaurant scene. The Ozarks are too isolated, too difficult to penetrate from the outside—even as a frequent visitor, I've found it challenging to escape the well-trodden tourist path. And without an economic miracle, this area will continue to slide out of focus, becoming more hostile to outsiders and more difficult to explore.