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[Photographs, clockwise from top: Elizabeth James, Grav Weldon, and Kat Robinson]

Every state has its claim to culinary fame—Mississippi to catfish, Florida to Key Lime Pie, Texas to barbecued beef brisket. But for years Arkansas has been without something that could definitively be traced back to the state.

That was until last year, when documentarian Nick Rogers traced the roots of cheese dip back to Hot Springs, Arkansas (view his documentary In Queso Fever on Vimeo). In the mid-1930s a Mexican immigrant by the name of Blackie Donnelly started selling the concoction whipped up by his wife. The cheese dip became eponymous not only with the restaurant he brought to Central Arkansas—Mexico Chiquita—but with people all across Arkansas.

Rogers and event organizer John McClure got together with an idea to put Arkansas on the culinary map: a festival celebrating cheese dip. And with luck, they approached Velveeta and Rotel just as the two companies were planning to get together on a nationwide cheese dip push. An event was born.

That event is the World Championship Cheese Dip Competition, the first of which came together last weekend at javascript:void(0);Dickey Stephens Ball Park in North Little Rock. Thirty one competitors—both amateurs and professionals—agreed to compete in the inaugural event. Attendees paid $5 or $10 each (the $10 admission included membership in the Southern Cheese Dip Academy) and came in to sample and judge on all the different sorts of dips out there.

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Cheese dip chefs at work. [Photographs: Grav Weldon]

The variety was surprising. While many chose to go the Velveeta and Rotel route, others varied way off the beaten path. Of the crowd favorites: Jim Roberts' spinach queso; Taqueria Karena's two-step too-hot-to-absorb white queso with pepper sauce; Patricia Miles' "Killer" dip with Velveeta, Rotel, Philadelphia cream cheese and plenty of cumin; and Lindsey's BBQ's crawfish and andouille-based heavy-thick yellow dip.

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[Photograph: Kat Robinson]

But far more attendees came to Dickey Stephens than anyone had estimated. By 1:30 the 250 cases of donated tortilla chips were gone (more arrived shortly) and several of the amateurs had already gone through the five gallons of dip they'd brought for the event. An hour later and the first of the professionals were scraping the bottom of their supplies. A few, like Mexico Chiquito, sent back to the store for more. Some, like Stoby's and Dizzy's Gypsy Bistro, didn't run out for hours.

Eventually folks threw in the towel, and admission was no longer charged as the supply had dried up. For a first time event, there were easily four times more attendees as expected, perhaps more.

And the Winner Is...

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[Photograph: Elizabeth James]

The winners were announced shortly after the halftime of the Razorback game shown on the big screen. The big winners were amateur team Merry Monks, whose vegan version (the only vegan version offered) will be featured on the menu at Capital Bar and Grill for the next few months, and professional winners Dizzy's Gypsy Bistro, who will compete at the Road Food Convention next year in New Orleans, representing the state of Arkansas.

The people's choices were far different. Attendees chose Jim Roberts' spinach queso as their favorite amateur entry, and went crazy over professional team Ferneau's blackened crawfish and green chili option. Having tried almost every one of those entries myself, I'm apt to go with those crowd favorites.

Rogers and McClure say the World Championship Cheese Dip Competition will certainly return next year, and they'll be tweaking the operation so things run more smoothly.

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