True Taste of Arkansas
An upcoming Bentonville cookoff proves the northwest Arkansas town is much more than just home to Wal-Mart and fancy art.
Most residents would be happy about a world-class art museum and trendy hotel moving into town, but not Joe Wilson. “Me and my friends are trying to keep the natural culture of Arkansas in our community,” the Bentonville resident says.
Wilson is referring to Crystal Bridges and 21c Museum Hotel, which both set up shop in Bentonville a few years ago. Home to Wal-Mart headquarters, the town is now at a strange crossroads, with some visitors coming to see where Sam Walton got his start and others looking for a contemporary art experience.
Wilson is offering another option at the World Championship Squirrel Cook Off scheduled for Saturday, September 13, in downtown Bentonville. “Art museums and fancy hotels stuff — that really isn’t the culture of Arkansas,” he says. “Just to give everybody the flavor they think they’re coming to see, we have the World Championship Cook Off.”
Now in its third year, the cookoff gained notoriety after the first event when Bizarre Foods’ Andrew Zimmern came to check it out. Last year, the cookoff made the front page of The Wall Street Journal and cooking teams represented 13 states. This year, that number rises to 15, and two-time winners the Estes Boys compete for a third title.
“I went squirrel hunting recently with one of them,” says Wilson. “They’re pretty paranoid they’re not going to be triple winners. There’s some stiff competition coming in this year.”
The cookoff only has a few rules: Teams of three must prepare their squirrel dishes on site in 2.5 hours, and 80 percent of their meat must be squirrel. The results are usually a mixed bag of entrees and side dishes, including everything from squirrel lasagna to pizza, stir fry, gumbo and sausage.
Wilson does have a few tips he’s picked up over the years. Grinding the squirrel makes it easier to cook in the time allotted, gray squirrel meat is more tender than red squirrel, and adding a fat like bacon or ham helps offset the leaness of the squirrel. (It just so happens that the Bacon Bowl coincides with the cookoff this year, so tasters can expect plenty of squirrel and bacon combinations.)
Competitors are only required to make enough to feed the 12 judges, but Wilson says there’s usually plenty of squirrel goodness leftover for the public to taste at no charge. “You’ll see some people who carry their nose pretty high in the air, but they actually enjoy it,” he says.
Bentonville’s World Championship Squirrel Cook Off is scheduled for Saturday, September 13. Entry fee for teams of three is $75, and event is free for the public. The Bacon Bowl and National Squirrel Calling Competition will be held in conjunction with the cookoff.