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Chef Rob Connoley is Searching for America in the Ozarks

10 August, 2021

“I was saying the right things to her and her doctorate as a paleoethnobotanist was in the historic foods of the Osage people, her people. So she shared her dissertation with me. I would bounce ideas off her. I really stress that this is not my story to tell. I would never say that I serve the food of the Osage people at the restaurant, I could never do that. For me, the way to do it is to invite an expert from the Osage people, someone in the community who is known for cooking and food and allow them to use our space. It’s the same with the story of the enslaved people, we want the descendants to tell their story, but to use our space. Trust is so important for these projects."

The Ozark region presents a new frontier of forgotten food traditions. There is a rich and fascinating history to uncover – a constantly changing landscape and culture. Digging into the past offers a fresh perspective of our modern world, how the land around us is in constant flux, and how our lives and relationships travel with the ebb and flow of a living landscape through time.

Natalie Mueller, paleoethnobotanist, she does lost crops, so 3000 to 5000 years ago... I almost immediately adopted her story into mine because I serve lost crops. She studies fossilised bison dung where she’s able to see that these crops were manipulated by human hands, we know this because they’d been winnowed, and she’s extracting the DNA and trying to regrow these ancient plants. What a story, it’s like the Jurassic Park of food. I was telling this story one night to this woman and she said, 'That’s really interesting, I’m Dr Mueller and it’s not true. There’s some truth in it but I’m not doing Jurassic Park'. But since then we’ve had this amazing relationship."

"People say to me ‘oh Ozark cuisine, I love southern cooking'. Southern cooking is part of it, but not all of it. We have a town called Swedeborg named by Swedish immigrants, that’s a part of the region. The Scottish are a huge part of the region. That’s not southern food. This is why I’m doing the genealogic research, ‘what is southern food?’ Well, it’s directly connected to the enslaved. If we neglect that part of our history we can’t fully understand it. If you say southern food is the food of my people, well what if you are white? It’s not the food of your people. Your people stole or adopted that food from other people. There’s just so much history and context that gets us to where we are today, it’s a lot of work, and most people don’t want to do it.”

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