An unassuming letter about fishing changed everything 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, restaurant, Curious Kumquat, and returned home to St. Louis, where he opened Bulrush STL in 2019. Looking into dishes for his new restaurant prompted him to take a deep dive into Ozark cuisine, which is named for the mountainous region that spans Missouri, Arkansas, and sections of Oklahoma and Kansas.
What Connoley found was far from clear. Misleading origin stories bundle Ozark cuisine with southern food, Appalachian food, Mississippi Delta food, and even Midwestern food, depending on the teller. And its so-called “defining dishes”—think squirrel fritters and possum pies—have led to the cuisine being labeled backwoods or "redneck" food. But squirrel fritters and possum pie weren’t on the menu when Connoley was growing up; he remembered eating dishes made with ingredients that were grown and raised locally.
Soon Connoley was on a mission to revitalize the often-overlooked cuisine.
His research began with church cookbooks from the 1950s and ’60s. Quickly, though, he realized that the collection of casseroles and Jell-O molds from that era didn’t capture the regionalism he was seeking. And though he did spot recipes for several backwoods’ dishes, they were clearly meant to appeal to tourists, not locals.
He dug deeper, which is how he found himself in the archives of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, in Little Rock, Arkansas, rifling through bankers boxes full of papers. The letter he discovered—one of the oldest documents in the center’s collections—was dated 1820 and written by a Northeastern settler to his mother back home in Boston, and it described how he was subsisting in the Ozarks through fishing. “He was essentially a nobody, and he’s disappeared to time,” Connoley says. Yet his writing provided the chef’s first true insight into Ozark cuisine before it was diluted.
That letter shifted Connoley’s approach to his research, inspiring him to look in more unusual places for the information he sought. Since then, the chef’s quest to find the true roots of the regional culinary style sometimes known as High South has taken him to library archives and deed offices, led him to consult closely with Indigenous tribes, and to partner with the history department of a university to research cemeteries for the enslaved.
Every research project needs firm parameters, and Connoley chose 1870 as his cutoff. That's around the time the railroad arrived in the region; with it came mass communication through the telegraph and the homogeneity of food through shipping. He set about collecting handwritten letters and journals from before then to illuminate how people survived.
“Ozark cuisine is the evolution of a point in time when the Indigenous, enslaved, and settlers all come together in the early 19th century,” Connoley tells Mental Floss. “It has characteristics of hunted and permanent foods, but hundreds of ingredients are seasonal. It’s very much a zero-waste mentality. You couldn’t survive in the Ozarks at that time if you weren’t very adept at preserving and curing and canning.”
Using only original source material that he found—or that interested parties brought to him—Connoley discovered that Ozark cuisine has a few unique ingredients. They include chinquapin chestnuts, which were once thought to be extinct; Connoley now sources them from an off-the-radar grower who had quietly reintroduced an experimental crop.
His research into heritage pork breeds proved surprising even to Connoley. He has delighted in discovering Guinea hogs, which went out of favor because they’re much smaller than conventionally and commercially raised pigs, and red wattle hogs, which he says have “the richest, darkest pork you’ll find.”
These ingredients make it on to Bulrush’s menu thanks to local farmers who share Connoley’s obsession with heritage and obscure breeds. But in Connoley’s hands, a simple dish of pork, greens, and grits ends up as sous vide pork in a simple brine, topped with a pork demi-glace, luscious foam, and fried kale, alongside creamy grits milled just for Bulrush (which is another name for a cattail).
A research turning point came when a visit to the St. Louis recorder of deeds office uncovered an 1841 seed store inventory. Connoley enlisted a dozen area farmers to grow 23 of the more unusual heritage crops from the list, including ice cream watermelon—the sweetest you can find, according to him, but a variety that fell out of favor because it’s chock-a-block with seeds. The seeds weren’t an issue for Connoley, who would never just serve a slice of watermelon; instead, he prepared a fermented ice cream watermelon soda for Bulrush’s bar. He also got a bumper crop of salsify, a root vegetable with a flavor akin to a mix of parsnips and artichoke.
Connoley is also an adept forager, and he made a name for himself as one at Curious Kumquat (for which he received a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination for Best Chef: Southwest in 2014). He gathers naturally growing ingredients that his regional ancestors would have had access to, from morel mushrooms to cattails, the latter of which he uses throughout the year as shoots, pollen, and roots. He also picks pawpaw, a large, yellowish-green to brown fruit that saved the Lewis and Clark expedition on their return trip. In April 2021, it appeared on Bulrush’s fine-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 ingredients that make the Bulrush menu, but there are many things that Connoley leaves out because they're not historically accurate. "Oftentimes," he says, "what's more interesting than what I serve is what I don't serve." He didn’t allow the restaurant to serve beef for the first eight months because he couldn’t find proof that cattle were raised in the region pre-1870. (An Arkansas letter from 1869 confirmed they did.) Lemons and limes are forbidden, which left his bartenders wondering how they’d sour drinks. Connoley offered an educated guess based on an old bar inventory that someone in the recorder of deeds office pointed out to him: vinegar.
So far, he’s only publicly telling the story of the area’s Appalachian settlers and German, Scottish, and Swedish immigrants. However, he hopes to add more foraged, hunted, and grown ingredients from the Osage Nation, with whom he’s working closely. It’s a relationship he values and has nurtured over time. “It takes respect on my end and trust on their end. [Their knowledge] is a gift to me. It’s not something I can take,” he says. “I’m not using any of this information yet until [they] tell me that it feels appropriate to share. It’s not mine to share.”
To complete the trio of regional influences he’s continued his partnership with St. Louis University, which has supplied the restaurant interns to find and interpret letters and conduct genealogical research on enslaved peoples. Beginning with names from a cemetery for the enslaved from the 1800s, they’re tracking down descendants with the hope they’ll learn about familial foodways that have been passed down through the generations. Connoley says none of that research is ready for the limelight just yet.
Piece by piece, Connoley is clearing the fog that surrounds Ozark cuisine. His drive to tell his audience an authentic story propels him through the archives and into interviews with historians. “Why do I do it? Because how can I ignore it? I’m curious,” he says. “I have zero interest in publishing or dispersing the information. It’s about when I’m face-to-face with a customer. … It’s to be able to give them the most interesting story possible to engage them in that meal.”