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Cheese Dip

Cheese dip is considered to be an important part of Arkansas’s food culture. Not only is cheese dip more popular in the Arkansas area than in other parts of the country, but some claim that the original cheese dip was invented either in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) or Hot Springs (Garland County).

According to Nick Rogers, who has researched the history of cheese dip, the dish was invented by Blackie Donnely, the original owner of Mexico Chiquito restaurants. The Mexico Chiquito chain, which now has multiple locations in central Arkansas, was opened by Donnely and his wife in North Little Rock in 1935. Whether or not Donnely’s cheese dip was the first is hard to say, but his restaurant is indeed famous for its secret recipe.

Others claim that cheese dip was actually invented either at a Mexican restaurant in Hot Springs or in Texas. Other experts, such as Mark Abernathy, a Texas native who has established various Mexican restaurants in the Little Rock (Pulaski County) area, say that it should instead be considered an authentic Mexican food. Mexicans have many cheese-based dishes in which cheese acts as a filling or topping for tortillas, such as Queso Chihuahua. However, some food experts claim that these dishes do not count as cheese dips because they do not include meats or vegetables as ingredients.

However, a cheese dip, according to the rules of the World Cheese Dip Championships, is defined as “a dip made of primarily cheese(s) or processed cheese product, with or without additional ingredients, not limited to meats, vegetables, or dairy additives, served warm or hot and eaten primarily by dipping a hard tortilla or chip into said product.” The most popular variation involves processed cheese, such as Velveeta or Kraft, mixed with chili sauce, but there are thousands of recipes that use various types of cheese, such as a sweeter version made with cream cheese, and there are even vegan alternatives with no cheese at all.

In 2009, Rogers released a twenty-minute documentary titled In Queso Fever: A Movie about Cheese Dip. The film became popular on the video-sharing site Vimeo. Through interviews with tourists, Arkansas natives, historians, and restaurant owners, Rogers explores how important cheese dip is to Arkansas as a part of southern food culture, comparing it to the barbeque of Memphis, Tennessee, and Philly cheesesteaks of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

After the success of the documentary, Rogers—along with event planner John McLure—began the World Cheese Dip Championships. The event is sponsored by Velveeta and Ro-Tel, products that are often key ingredients in cheese dip.

The first World Cheese Dip Championship was held at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock in 2010. It was held again in 2011 and 2012 but went on hiatus for 2013, with a scheduled return in 2014. Proceeds from the competition go to Harmony Health Clinic, an organization that provides medical and dental care to under-insured Arkansans. The competition has professional and amateur categories and has separate awards given by a panel of judges and from spectators who have tasted and voted on their favorite cheese dip. The event also includes vendors selling other food items such as hamburgers and hot dogs, as well as musical performances.

On November 2, 2016, the Wall Street Journal ran a story on Arkansas’s claim to cheese dip. In response, many Texas news outlets ran stories insisting that chile con queso (called “queso” for short), a melted cheese appetizer typically served in Mexican restaurants, is of Texan origin. Defenders of Arkansas’s centrality in the world of cheese dip pointed to the difference of consistency between cheese dip and traditional queso, as well as the larger role that cheese dip plays in Arkansas culture when compared with queso in Texas. Arkansas’s U.S. senators, John Boozman and Tom Cotton, challenged their Texas counterparts, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, to a blind taste test in which Arkansas cheese dip, represented by Heights Taco & Tamale in Little Rock, won.

For additional information:
“About Mexico Chiquito.” Mexico Chiquito. http://www.mexicochiquito.net/About.aspx (accessed April 29, 2014).

Burks, Justin Fox. “Cheese Dip Road Trip: A Brief History of Cheese Dip in the Modern South.” Edible Memphis (Winter 2012): 16–21.

Matthews, Gerard. “Queso Addiction.” Arkansas Times, October 7, 2010. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/queso-addiction/Content?oid=1325204&showFullText=true (accessed April 30, 2014).

McCausland, Phil. “The Sound of One Chip Dipping.” Southern Foodways Alliance. http://www.southernfoodways.org/the-sound-of-one-chip-dipping/ (accessed May 6, 2016).

Nuss, Jeaninie. “Go For the Food: Arkansas Serves up Cheese Dip.” The Big Story. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/go-food-arkansas-serves-cheese-dip (accessed April 30, 2014).

Rogers, Nick, director. In Queso Fever: A Movie about Cheese Dip. Vimeo. http://vimeo.com/6608438 (accessed April 30, 2014).

Sider, Alison. “Arkansas-Texas Melted-Cheese War Boils Over.” Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2016. Online at http://www.wsj.com/articles/arkansas-texas-melted-cheese-war-boils-over-1478271189 (accessed November 7, 2016).

———. “Don’t Tell Texas, But Arkansas Is Laying Claim to Queso.” Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2016. Online at http://www.wsj.com/articles/dont-tell-texas-but-arkansas-is-laying-claim-to-queso-1478095308 (accessed November 7, 2016).

World Cheese Dip Championship. http://cheesedip.net/ (accessed April 29, 2014).

Anastasia Teske
North Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated 12/9/2016

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