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Eureka Springs, Arkansas: Home of Crescent Dragonwagon
"Arkansas?", said my friends as I prepared to spend Thanksgiving in the Ozarks, "Why Arkansas?" I'm the Easterner of Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker Magazine Cover, who stands on a magnified New York City and East Coast gazing towards Los Angeles with little in between. But I have these two cookbooks I received as gifts a long time ago. And they're both written by Crescent Dragonwagon (her real name) which I recognized from books I had read to my children. And the inn she runs in Eureka Springs, Arkansas sounds so wonderful in The Dairy Hollow Cookbook.
I was even more intrigued after I made reservations with Ned Shank, preservationist, inn keeper, fiddler and Crescent's gracious husband. I received the inn's "Moos-Letter," complete with recipes, smiling cows and Crescent's explanation for her name. "If I had any idea how many countless thousands of times I would have to explain this ridiculous name...," she comments, concluding an account of early first marriage and idealism that led to changing her name.
From September to Nov. I continued to receive maps, articles and brochures from Ned and Crescent. They are natural-born marketers who establish a personal connection of anticipation with their guests on which they build during their stay. When I finally arrived at the inn, my personalized breakfast menu suggested an itinerary for the area. And Oh! those breakfasts! As of July 1996 Dairy Hollow serves dinner only six special times a year (more about our Thanksgiving meal later), but the magnificent breakfasts remain. A matte-red, hard-skinned Arkansas Black apple will hold you through dinner after Arkansas Cheese Grits, German Baked Pancake with Cranberry-Burgundy Poached Pears or Pan-sauteed Ozark Style Rainbow Trout accompanied by blue-ribbon winning jams (I favored the huckleberry and butter apple), fruit juice, muffins, scones or quick breads. Of course, if there is a small corner of your appetite that needs filling, there are always giant cookies, a pitcher of warm, spiced cider, tea and coffee fixings laid out by your Dairy Maid. You can keep the milk, whatever you can resist from breakfast and your chardonnay in the small frig in each room. These intimate rooms are decorated in country color schemes, quilts and homey furniture. They are further cozied up with fireplaces or pot-bellied stoves and jacuzzis.
Although she will celebrate 25 years in the South this year, Crescent retains some of her no-nonsense, wily New York-ness. In her handsome Moonshine writing cottage discretely down the road from the inn's other buildings, we talked over tea about her path here from New York, her parallel career as a childrens' book writer and her upcoming comprehensive vegetarian cookbook (Workman). Her life as writer, innkeeper, chef, gardener and community member "has it's own internal logic," she comments. As George West and Starr Mitchell, fiddle and dulcimer players at Thanksgiving dinner said, "To know Crescent is to know focus." She is committed, energetic and gregarious.
Crescent favors earthy cooking, stating "we are sensual cooks...[who] embody the ethos of using what you have." Her Nouveau 'Zarks menus have southern as well as multi-ethnic roots and she cultivates the freshest, local sources for intense, deep flavor. She is particular; hiring an "outside" chef didn't work because she wants to make the stock herself and the centerpiece too. This attention to detail is evident throughout the inn. She wants diners to say "ah!" when they see a dish, but especially "yum!" when they taste it.
Nevertheless, the recipes in her Dairy Hollow House Cookbook and Dairy Hollow House Soup and Bread: A Country Inn Cookbook are not generally difficult for the home cook. Some have become almost famous: guests are disappointed if they can't try the German Pancake or Skillet-Sizzled Cornbread during their stay. Crescent cooked for Clinton's last inaugural festivities and participated on a smaller scale this time. She also recently demonstrated the flavorful apple-beet-blue cheese Salad for Fall included in Thanksgiving dinner on the TV Food Network. She hopes her newest cookbook, four years in the making, will make vegetarian cooking accessible to the masses. So complete that it may become two volumes, she and her editor are still wrestling with the title. At the end of our talk, Crescent brought me full circle by signing my tomato-stained copy of her first cookbook, published 25 years ago by Workman.
On Thanksgiving in the inn's kitchen, all were scurrying to prepare a unique yet respectfully traditional dinner. We enjoyed Curried Pumpkin and Tomato Bisque, sumptuous even without cream, "smashed" potatoes and juicey, organically raised turkey with dressing,Tarte Tatin, Brown-Butter Honeyed Pecan Pie ( or two other dessert choices), inn-made relishes, breads, savories and sorbet. Ned hovered at the door of the stenciled dining room and Crescent circulated, still in her chef's duds, to shmooze with her appreciative and sated guests. Her next special events are two romantic Sweethearts' Dinners for Valentine's Day.
Built into a cliffside, Eureka Springs was a fashionable spa town in the 1880's. Many quirky Victorian houses remain and restored gazebos protect the springs. Visitors can still take the waters at the Palace Bath House and Hotel on Spring Street. Between three and six hours' drive from several major Midwestern cities, Eureka Springs is a get-away spot for many. I was surprised by the wealth of bed-and-breakfasts, shops, artisans and restaurants as well as other tourist attractions. Visitors can swim or canoe in Beaver Lake or the King's River, shop at the Ozark Foothills Craft Cooperative or Honeysuckle Rose Quilts, see a good ol' country music show at the Ozark Mountain Hoedown or the unusual great Passsion Play performed outdoors in the season. I visited the Mud St. Espresso Cafe, a comfortable, saloon-like restaurant where we warmed up with a spicy corn chowder. Center St. Bar and Grill is another relaxed bar with live music above a funky subterranean restaurant where we were amazed to find a Panamanian chef's unsusual Latin specialties. Even vegetarian Crescent recommended Bubba's for barbeque with its perfect luncheonette atmosphere, and lean, dry-rub ribs. The scent of Bubba's smoker outside practically pulls you into the place.