We have a full slate of stories coming, including behind-the-scenes video interviews with the culinarians and chefs at the festival, and stories of our experiences, as well our time at Brightwater, a Center for the Study Food, part of Northwest Arkansas Community College. We spent two days there, talking to the culinarians using the school to prep for festival events, all the while teaching students from the culinary school, as well as local high schools. The energy was palpable and the space was filled with the sights, sounds and aromas that surround the world of food.
Christmas In August
An unexpected gift from this festival was the opportunity to meet a culinary and storytelling mentor, whom I’ve watched for more than 20 years. Crescent Dragonwagon. When I first heard her name, it was filled with mystique, intrigue and a sense of the exotic, and I knew I had to learn more. My first job at The Food Channel was executive assistant to the publisher at the time, Art Siemering. He was an interesting man who loved interesting people. He was formerly the food editor for The Kansas City Star, and I learned as much from him as humanly possible before he moved to another job. Art met Crescent when she was living in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where she ran the critically acclaimed Dairy Hollow House Inn, a country inn and restaurant, with her late husband, Ned Shank.
“You need to watch this woman,” Siemering told me. And I listened. He knew Julia Child for heaven’s sake so of course I paid attention. At that time, I was new to food writing and felt a sense of discouragement, being from southwest Missouri. “How many successful writers do you know from this area?” I’d ask myself. Some romance novelists. Laura Ingalls Wilder. I felt I was destined to wither unless I moved to a larger city. And then I read about Crescent. In southern Missouri terms, Eureka Springs is right down the road. I didn’t have the courage to go meet her in person. So, I read about her and watched the story of her life unfold.
The Early Chapters
While she was born in New York, Crescent is a southerner a heart. We recognize our own. And we always welcome people to the fold, because it’s not about where you’re from, it’s a way of living, with a certain emphasis on family and hospitality. To me, life is like a novel—one in which we’re in the starring role. Sometimes short stories, sometimes sweeping epics and, for Crescent, it’s the latter.
She grew up in a literary family, with both parents having their own acclaim. She never wanted to rest on those laurels and I watched her build her own story, chapter-by-chapter. She’s written eight culinary memoirs, 55 cookbooks, operated her own inn and restaurant, has prepared dinner for a U.S. President, as well as royalty, not to mention luminaries in the field of women’s rights. Crescent loves children and children love the more than 25 books she’s written for them.
Storytelling is an art, and it’s led to a life filled with media interviews and appearances, of course, but she was destined for much more. Part of the National Endowment for the Arts Artists-in-Schools Program initially, she led workshops at schools and universities across the nation. Crescent has written poetry, novels, biographies and most recently, a play. If she sounds superhuman, in person, you get the same feeling.
A Life Enriched By Food
I have to admit, I was apprehensive about starting our day of interviews before the festival with, yes of course, Crescent Dragonwagon. With movie stars, sports figures and other celebrities, I’m fairly unflappable. But the moment we hugged before our talk, that melted away. She has charisma, that unique gift of presence. Not a word has to be spoken, yet you immediately want to be her friend and hear her story.
Before the day was through, we’d spent more than an hour talking about her life and the ways in which it was enriched by food. A common thread among the chefs I met during this festival, is a story of shared hospitality, with food as the tie that binds. When we enjoy a meal, it creates an environment in which we share our hopes, dreams and fears with food at the center. It’s a catalyst for so many experiences and intersects some of the most important: weddings, graduations, anniversaries, birthdays, and yes, when we come together to celebrate the lives of those who’ve passed.
When I look at Crescent, I see a lifetime of stories. She gave me a signed copy of one of her earliest cookbooks, The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook, which is still available on Amazon. It contains a beautiful note that acknowledged that, as a storyteller, my life, too, has been shaped by Art Siemering, my first Food Channel boss, as well as art, with food at the center. Our time together was magical, like spending a day on vacation. Transported from the cares of life to focus on a love for food and the ways in which it connects the dots of life. I left feeling energized, as I’m sure all of her students and readers do. She’s your favorite aunt, the most impactful teacher, and a best friend with some mystery and intrigue added for spice.
From The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook
Since it’s sitting by my computer, I wanted to share some thoughts from The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook, as well as one of my favorite recipes. Crescent is a food historian and this book explores to origins of Ozarks food. And yes, we do have our own cuisine with origins in wood-based cooking, root vegetables, fruits and nuts, and yes, farm animals. It was simple, season-dependent and often burnt, because wood stoves are very unpredictable. These simple origins are explored in the cookbook, along with its evolution as the Ozarks because a central part of the journey back-and-forth between east and west.
Fresh, seasonal and incidentally healthy describe the recipes in The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook. When you use fresh ingredients and thoughtful preparation, it creates a more nutritious diet inherently—and it’s delicious. I love the care and respect with which this classic book brings to life some Ozarks favorites. It’s like sitting down at Grandma’s for Sunday dinner.
It’s bountiful breakfasts; bottomless breadbaskets; soups and salads; fish and chicken; vegetarian dishes and, of course the fabulous desserts for which the Ozarks is known—with a lot of Crescent Dragonwagon magic thrown in. You’ll also find her glossary of weird and unusual foods, and yes, we have our share.
So, you see, as with the person, in her books you get the unexpected. An immersive experience that’s fascinating, as well as delectable. It’s hard to choose just one recipe to share, but breakfast was always my favorite as a kid, so it has to be—
Quick Buttermilk Biscuits
Recipe credit: The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook
Yield: one dozen good-size biscuits
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
- 2 cups unbleached white flour (you may use whole wheat pastry flour here, if you’d like, instead)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
Cut in, preferably with a pastry blender
- 1/3 cup shortening (can be white shortening or butter or half of each)
- Add, with a few deft strokes, just enough buttermilk to make a soft dough—about 1 cup
Turn out on floured bowl, knead with a couple of strokes till dough just comes together, pat or roll it out, cut the biscuits, and bake them on an ungreased cookie sheet for 15 to 20 minutes, or till golden.
Brush tops with melted butter when you first take them out.
Just A Taste
This is just the beginning of our stories from The Roots Festival. Stay tuned for more to come. We want you to share the experience we did, and I hope this first taste will leave you wanting more.