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Arkansas's New State Dish

The inaugural Cheese Dip Competition celebrates a food that Arkansas can call its own.
by Kat Robinson

Arkansas boasts itself as home of the cheese-filled hot dog, rice served with sugar, Grapette and the fried pickle, but so far the state hasn’t found anything that truly unites the masses. That is, until last year, when documentarian Nick Rogers came out with “In Queso Fever: A Movie About Cheese Dip.”

Rogers did extensive research and discovered the origins of cheese dip dated back to the mid-1930s, when a Mexican immigrant by the name of Blackie Donnelly started serving up the dish at a Hot Springs restaurant. His wife apparently came up with the first recipe. Donnelly moved his business to Prothro Junction (northeast of Little Rock) in 1939, and his restaurant Mexico Chiquito, where the original cheese dip is still served, was born.

After the documentary came out, Rogers expected some strong opposition from Texans, who claim just about every Americanized Mexican dish. But there was silence. His discovery that dated cheese dip to a time before nachos (which were created in the 1940s in Mexico) seems definitive and strong.

And that’s where the idea of the World Championship Cheese Dip Competition came from. After all, nearby Memphis had its famed barbecue championship; Terlingua, Texas, has the Chili Appreciation Society International World Chili Championships. Rogers postulated that there might be an interest in having a competition each year to see who does cheese dip right.

His timing was great – Velveeta and Rotel were already planning to team up to do a nationwide push celebrating their own famed cheese dip recipes, and having someone who actually figured out where the dip comes from was perfect.

Rogers and organizer John McClure got together and started planning. They got a site, teams to compete on the amateur and professional level, and a little promotion. What they couldn’t count on was the turnout. How many cheese dip lovers are really out there?

The original competition was scheduled to run from noon until nine Saturday, October 9. Each amateur competitor was asked to bring five gallons of cheese dip for sampling. The professionals brought more, and 250 cases of tortilla chips were donated. That morning, all the booths were set up and waiting.

At noon, a crush of people who paid a $5 or $10 admission fee (the latter received membership into the newly formed Southern Cheese Dip Academy) poured through the gates at Dickey Stephens Ball Park in North Little Rock. In this case, crush equals an overwhelming throng of hungry cheese lovers curious to sample the round of cheesy goodness.

They came in waves, one after another, packing the concourse at the ballpark and standing in line for samples at each stand. Some of the more generous amateurs ran out of cheese dip in the first hour. And by 1:30 p.m., all the donated chips were gone.

But the organizers sent out for 30 more cases, and the tasters kept coming. A couple of the professional contenders also sent out for more dip, so those who came between 2 and 4 p.m. still had a lot of cheese dip to consume, just not in the variety offered earlier.

But where perhaps a thousand people had been expected, three and four times more showed up, and the lines got long. What sort of cheese dips were people waiting for? Of course there were Velveeta varieties, such as Patricia Miles’ “Killer Dip,” which included Philadelphia cream cheese, lots of paprika and beans. The Merry Monks did a vegan version based on tofu that was so good you couldn’t tell there was no dairy involved. Ferneau’s innovative blackened crawfish and green chili version was a revelation of fine flavors, and Jim Roberts’ team came up with a spinach queso that was smooth and well balanced.

There were also more extreme versions. Lindsey’s did a crawfish and andouille dip that was incredibly thick, almost chip-breakingly so. Taqueria Karina’s entry was a two-stepper of white queso topped with a thin pepper sauce that rendered it truly sinus-clearing. And Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro’s two-stepper combined a rich but fluid cheese base topped with a sweet and complimentary salsa.

In the end, the event was called on account of overwhelming attendance. The awards were announced around 6, and the gate stopped charging admission. On the final pass through close to 7, there was still a crowd hanging out listening to music after watching the Razorbacks on the big screen.

Will there be a second event? Indeed. Next year Rogers and company believe they’ll be better prepared. The key will be picking up a chip sponsor, too. Call this a trial run that went wild.

At the end of the day, who made the best cheese dip? Awards went to:

Big Dipper Amateur: Merry Monks Vegan Cheese Dip (recipe to be featured on the menu at Capital Bar and Grill in Little Rock)

Big Dipper Professional: Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro Two-Stepper Cheese Dip (will represent Arkansas at the spring 2011 Road Food Festival in New Orleans)

Little Dipper Award (second place):

Amateur: Mitchell/Williams’ Creamy Queso

Professional: Stoby’s White Cheese Dip

Best Meat Dip:
Amateur: Stacy, Christine and Elizabeth Carter’s Velveeta Dip with Ground Beef
Professional: Ferneau’s Blackened Crawfish and Green Chili Cheese Dip

Most Innovative Dip:
Amateur: Stacy, Christine and Elizabeth Carters Velveeta Dip with Ground Beef
Professional: Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro Two-Stepper Cheese Dip

Best Chip:
Amateur: Jeff Williams
Professional: Palate Catering

People’s Choice:
Amateur: Jim Roberts’ Spinach Queso
Professional: Ferneau’s Blackened Crawfish and Green Chili Cheese Dip

Kat Robinson writes the blog Tie Dye Travels about those unusual things that don’t make the news. Tie Dye Travels chronicles ordinary people and the extraordinary things they do. And it’s about the little wonders you can find in the world around you. Kat loves to listen, and there’s nothing better than sharing a good story. Send suggestions to [email protected].

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