An unassuming letter about fishing modified anything for Rob Connoley.

In 2016, after 20 years away, the self-taught and James Beard Award-nominated chef had shuttered his Silver City, New Mexico, cafe, Curious Kumquat, and returned property to St. Louis, where by he opened Bulrush STL in 2019. On the lookout into dishes for his new cafe prompted him to take a deep dive into Ozark cuisine, which is named for the mountainous area that spans Missouri, Arkansas, and sections of Oklahoma and Kansas.

What Connoley located was much from distinct. Misleading origin tales bundle Ozark cuisine with southern food stuff, Appalachian foods, Mississippi Delta meals, and even Midwestern food items, based on the teller. And its so-named “defining dishes”—think squirrel fritters and possum pies—have led to the delicacies staying labeled backwoods or “redneck” food. But squirrel fritters and possum pie weren’t on the menu when Connoley was growing up he remembered ingesting dishes created with substances that have been grown and raised domestically.

Shortly Connoley was on a mission to revitalize the normally-ignored cuisine.

His analysis commenced with church cookbooks from the 1950s and ’60s. Immediately, nevertheless, he realized that the selection of casseroles and Jell-O molds from that era didn’t seize the regionalism he was trying to find. And although he did place recipes for numerous backwoods’ dishes, they had been obviously intended to attractiveness to travellers, not locals.

He dug deeper, which is how he observed himself in the archives of the Butler Center for Arkansas Reports, in Small Rock, Arkansas, rifling as a result of bankers bins complete of papers. The letter he discovered—one of the oldest documents in the center’s collections—was dated 1820 and published by a Northeastern settler to his mom back again residence in Boston, and it described how he was subsisting in the Ozarks by way of fishing. “He was primarily a no one, and he’s disappeared to time,” Connoley says. But his crafting offered the chef’s initial real perception into Ozark cuisine right before it was diluted.

That letter shifted Connoley’s technique to his exploration, inspiring him to search in a lot more abnormal spots for the facts he sought. Considering the fact that then, the chef’s quest to locate the accurate roots of the regional culinary type often acknowledged as High South has taken him to library archives and deed places of work, led him to consult closely with Indigenous tribes, and to spouse with the background section of a university to exploration cemeteries for the enslaved.


Each individual exploration challenge demands firm parameters, and Connoley selected 1870 as his cutoff. That’s all-around the time the railroad arrived in the location with it arrived mass interaction by means of the telegraph and the homogeneity of meals by shipping and delivery. He set about gathering handwritten letters and journals from ahead of then to illuminate how people today survived.

“Ozark delicacies is the evolution of a point in time when the Indigenous, enslaved, and settlers all appear collectively in the early 19th century,” Connoley tells Mental Floss. “It has attributes of hunted and lasting meals, but hundreds of ingredients are seasonal. It is really substantially a zero-squander mentality. You could not endure in the Ozarks at that time if you weren’t extremely adept at preserving and curing and canning.”

Making use of only first supply product that he found—or that intrigued parties brought to him—Connoley identified that Ozark delicacies has a several exclusive components. They include chinquapin chestnuts, which ended up at the time believed to be extinct Connoley now resources them from an off-the-radar grower who experienced quietly reintroduced an experimental crop.

His exploration into heritage pork breeds proved shocking even to Connoley. He has delighted in exploring Guinea hogs, which went out of favor mainly because they are much scaled-down than conventionally and commercially raised pigs, and crimson wattle hogs, which he says have “the richest, darkest pork you are going to obtain.”

These substances make it on to Bulrush’s menu many thanks to area farmers who share Connoley’s obsession with heritage and obscure breeds. But in Connoley’s arms, a basic dish of pork, greens, and grits ends up as sous vide pork in a straightforward brine, topped with a pork demi-glace, luscious foam, and fried kale, along with creamy grits milled just for Bulrush (which is a further name for a cattail).

A investigate turning level came when a visit to the St. Louis recorder of deeds business uncovered an 1841 seed keep stock. Connoley enlisted a dozen place farmers to grow 23 of the additional unusual heritage crops from the record, such as ice cream watermelon—the sweetest you can find, in accordance to him, but a wide range that fell out of favor because it’s chock-a-block with seeds. The seeds weren’t an situation for Connoley, who would hardly ever just provide a slice of watermelon rather, he ready a fermented ice cream watermelon soda for Bulrush’s bar. He also obtained a bumper crop of salsify, a root vegetable with a taste akin to a mix of parsnips and artichoke.

Connoley is also an adept forager, and he created a identify for himself as a single at Curious Kumquat (for which he gained a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination for Best Chef: Southwest in 2014). He gathers naturally developing elements that his regional ancestors would have experienced entry to, from morel mushrooms to cattails, the latter of which he employs throughout the year as shoots, pollen, and roots. He also picks pawpaw, a substantial, yellowish-green to brown fruit that saved the Lewis and Clark expedition on their return vacation. In April 2021, it appeared on Bulrush’s good-dining menu as a dessert with a pawpaw vinegar pie and pawpaw vinegar cake with mulberry Italian meringue, kinako streusel, and mulberry compote.


Those are the components that make the Bulrush menu, but there are several matters that Connoley leaves out mainly because they’re not historically precise. “Quite often,” he states, “what is actually extra interesting than what I serve is what I do not serve.” He did not make it possible for the cafe to provide beef for the very first eight months due to the fact he could not come across evidence that cattle ended up elevated in the area pre-1870. (An Arkansas letter from 1869 verified they did.) Lemons and limes are forbidden, which still left his bartenders wondering how they’d sour beverages. Connoley supplied an educated guess based on an old bar stock that somebody in the recorder of deeds office pointed out to him: vinegar.

So far, he’s only publicly telling the tale of the area’s Appalachian settlers and German, Scottish, and Swedish immigrants. Nonetheless, he hopes to add far more foraged, hunted, and developed components from the Osage Country, with whom he’s functioning carefully. It’s a partnership he values and has nurtured above time. “It will take regard on my conclude and rely on on their close. [Their knowledge] is a reward to me. It’s not something I can take,” he says. “I’m not utilizing any of this facts yet until eventually [they] explain to me that it feels ideal to share. It is not mine to share.”

To entire the trio of regional influences he’s ongoing his partnership with St. Louis University, which has provided the restaurant interns to obtain and interpret letters and carry out genealogical exploration on enslaved peoples. Beginning with names from a cemetery for the enslaved from the 1800s, they are monitoring down descendants with the hope they’ll discover about familial foodways that have been handed down through the generations. Connoley suggests none of that exploration is all set for the limelight just nevertheless.

Piece by piece, Connoley is clearing the fog that surrounds Ozark delicacies. His travel to convey to his audience an authentic tale propels him through the archives and into interviews with historians. “Why do I do it? Simply because how can I disregard it? I’m curious,” he suggests. “I have zero interest in publishing or dispersing the information. It is about when I’m experience-to-encounter with a customer. … It’s to be equipped to give them the most attention-grabbing story possible to have interaction them in that food.”