What's better than cornbread? Having this many sorts of cornbread with friends right in the middle of Main Street in Little Rock at the inaugural Arkansas Cornbread Festival. Organized in and around the Bernice Garden, a privately owned public art garden, the event was expected to draw 800 to 1,000 people. Instead, three times that many showed up, ready to eat cornbread.
Twenty-three competitors from across Arkansas came out to share their versions of cornbread. There were savory cornbreads with meat, sweet ones with honey, cheese-filled moist ones, jonnycakes, hot water cornbread, corn muffins and corn cake.
There were non-cornbread foods, too, all widely varied and wonderful: mustard greens with turkey leg, turnip greens with pot likker, black-eyed peas, ham, basil butter. It was all served up with free buttermilk from Coleman Dairy, free iced tea from Ashley Ann's and free muscadine juice from Post Familie Vineyard.
Artisan cheesemaker Kent Walker shared samples and stories about his products. A local Society for Creative Anachronism group served medieval gingerbread balls. Petit Jean Meats gave pit samples of ham and jalapeno cheddar venison sausage. The Arkansas Rice Depot shared, you guessed it, rice and others came with cocoa, homemade caramels and more.
All this while bluegrass, gospel and blues soaked the crowd and kids played on inflatable slides and had their faces painted, and people passed through and marveled at the Bernice Garden.
Cornbread competitors were divided into three categories: traditional (in Arkansas, it's non-sweet cornbread), sweet, and non-traditional (anything goes).
Traditional winner and overall professional winner: Old South Cornbread from El Dorado, which entered "Big Daddy's Hot Water Cornbread." The tasty rounds of golden cornbread were a crowd favorite. Old South Cornbread will go on to represent Arkansas in the 2012 New Orleans Roadfood Festival.
Non-traditional winner: Loblolly Creamery for its densely cake-like caramel polenta corn cake with homemade buttermilk ice cream and a seasonal fruit compote made from berries from local farms.
Of the amateurs, the sweet cornbread winner was Ramona Cash, whose sweet, cake-like Citrusy Corny Cornbread took top honors in the Amateur Sweet category. Johnny Reep's entry showcasing the folks from the Firehouse Hostel in town took the non-traditional prize.
And then there was Terry Wright's Cracklin' Cornbread. Terry was out amongst the crowd from the moment the festival started, passing out stickers and sharing his thick cornbread. He ended up not only taking the top honors for Amateur Traditional; he won overall in the Amateur Traditional and it was chosen as the Best Overall. Terry won $500 for that plus the blue ribbon, an apron and the acclaim that comes with having what's been determined by competition to be the best cornbread in the state of Arkansas.
Will there be another cornbread festival? You bet your bippy. Organizers are already gathering sponsors and participants for next year.