Chef Revives Ozark Cuisine Seed By Seed

Revitalizing culinary traditions in the Ozarks connects people with their roots.

Dec 1, 2020

(Mary Ann Madsen / Shutterstock.com)

When you think of Ozark cuisine, you might imagine glazed barbecued ribs, coleslaw, and grits. Yet there are rich traditions in this remote area that are being revived by one inquisitive chef. 

Finding heritage crops that have been lost, this chef is reviving culinary traditions and reconnecting people — be it descendants of European settlers, enslaved people, and indigenous Americans — to the lives of their ancestors.

The Ozarks is a mountainous, forested area that comprises Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and the southeastern corner of Kansas.  Chef and avid forager Rob Connoley is a native Ozarkian. He left home, then returned to St. Louis, Missouri, dreaming of infusing meaning into his cuisine. 

Looking for inspiration, he teamed up with a local archivist, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Locating old records from a seed store in Missouri, they saw 95 varieties of seeds listed, yet only 70 of them were known to the area.

On the hand-written ledger were listed Saltenberger tomatoes, prickly seeded spinach, and oxheart cabbage. Connoley wondered what had happened to these heirloom varieties that were once well-known staple crops in the 1800s.

After locating the little-known plants, he contacted local farmers and asked them to plant them. Some 12 farmers are now part of his food revival project. The farmers save the seeds so others can grow these varieties, and Connoley buys the produce to create menu items for Bulrush, his Ozark-cuisine restaurant.

Farmer Xanthia DeBerry told Smithsonian, “This connects us to our past. We’re able to taste what our ancestors tasted and go through the challenges growing these things they might have had. Seeds were one of the things slaves took with them when they escaped. They knew it was important for their survival and I believe the same thing now.”

After Connoley opened his restaurant in 2018, he received a letter from an unnamed patron and native Ozarkian, according to the Riverfront Times. It read, “What you are doing is really special to me, because it's elevating our food in a way that makes it feel important."

Knowing that Connoley was touching people’s hearts gave him a sense of responsibility. Continuing his research into Ozark regional cooking, he discovered that handpies were a popular 19th century delicacy as were cruellers. He revived these dishes and others, his creations actually bringing an 80-year-old Ozarkian man to tears, evoking his youth in a powerful way.

Connoley is also interested in learning about the diets of the indigenous Cherokee and Osage peoples who lived here and who incorporated local plants and animals into their diets, according to Smithsonian.

This inspired chef is actively reviving history, reuniting people with their past. And it all began with heirloom seeds. “If we don’t save seeds, then it’s going to be a history that’s lost to us forever,” Tosha Phonix of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment told Smithsonian.

Connoley may be found foraging for cattails and picking wild purslane, or picking up heritage crops from farmers. Sprig by sprig, dish by dish, he is reviving a farming culture and reconnecting locals with their lost, delectable roots.

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NICOLE NATHAN BEM, CONTRIBUTOR
Nicole is an editor, blogger and author who has recently left her urban life in order to be more connected with nature. In her spare time, she’s outdoors hiking in the forest, mountain biking or tending to her new permaculture garden.