Fried catfish meal
Fried catfish meal

I've never been asked one of those High Profile-style questions along the lines of "what would you have for your last meal?" But I've given the subject serious thought and determined that my last meal would need to occur in the summer since Arkansas streams and gardens figure into the equation.

My last meal would consist of freshly caught pan fish (bream, crappie or a combination of both), fried potatoes with a bit of onion, slices of cornbread slathered in butter and the following items straight from an Arkansas garden: sliced tomatoes, green onions, bell peppers and cucumbers.

Rex Nelson

The fish must be pan fried, not deep fried, and should be consumed if possible on the day it's caught. It's also best if the vegetables are gathered from the garden on the same day. Wash it down with lots of iced tea. You really shouldn't have room for dessert, but if you insist, make it a wild berry cobbler using either blackberries or dewberries. You should have the chigger bites to prove you actually picked those berries.

My fondest childhood memories are of days spent at the small cabin that was owned by my grandparents on Lake Norrell, a Benton city water supply lake that covers 280 acres in northern Saline County. It's the lake where I learned to fish, frog gig, swim and water ski. Mornings were spent 'perch jerking' on the dock out front with my grandmother, using cane poles from cane my grandfather had cut.

The bait consisted of either the red wigglers my grandfather raised in his worm bed (I had the job of pouring the kitchen scraps and coffee grounds in that bed) or the catalpa worms gathered from the giant catalpa tree out back. Mam-Maw, as I called her, cleaned whatever we caught. She would say: "If it's big enough to bite, it's big enough to eat." She would pan fry the fish for lunch. I've never had better meals.

My father also loved to fry the fish he caught. When he died, we decided to hold a fish fry at the church following the memorial service. There was no way to catch the number of bream and crappie needed to feed that throng, so we catered the catfish from Dorey's in Leola. I still believe he would have been pleased.

In thinking about what I would rate second on my list of Arkansas summer meals, I came up with a bacon and tomato sandwich (no lettuce for me) using Arkansas tomatoes and high-quality bacon. Wash it down with a cold glass of milk and have half an Arkansas cantaloupe for dessert. And, yes, I put salt on my cantaloupe. The same goes for watermelons, regardless of whether they come from Hope or Cave City.

If it's winter, it has to be Arkansas wild game as the meat. Fried squirrel, rabbit or quail will do. Don't forget the cornbread (no sugar; it's not dessert) and cream gravy. You might also serve duck and dressing, just as long as the dressing is made from cornbread. My dad always said he could tell he had gone too far north if they were using white bread in the dressing.

Arkansas is a fringe state, not solely a part of any one region. It's a state that's mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. Northwest Arkansas is far different from southeast Arkansas. Northeast Arkansas doesn't have much in common with southwest Arkansas. We're a state of contradictions that regularly confounds outsiders.

We don't get the publicity of nearby places such as New Orleans, Kansas City or Memphis. And we don't put up with those Texans bragging about their barbecue. Arkansas food, you see, can hold its own with any of these places. It's vegetables from the garden. It's fish from the lake or wild game from the state's fields and forests.

I think back to those summer days when my father would come home from work at 1 p.m. for the day's biggest meal. He would then take a short nap before returning to his store in downtown Arkadelphia. My grandparents in Benton and Des Arc also had their big meals of the day at about 1 p.m. We ate breakfast, dinner and supper in that order. Those days are gone, but they still shape my definition of Arkansas food.

We don't have time to argue with those Texans, by the way. I can picture my grandmother in the cabin at Lake Norrell, frying the bream and telling a visiting Texan: "Just shut up and eat."