During a recent dinner at Bulrush in St. Louis, Missouri, diners looked on as a circle of chefs carefully plated vibrant dish after vibrant dish.
Bison and venison meatballs with mushroom marinara. An acorn-shaped bowl filled with grilled kohlrabi and hen of the wood mushrooms. Roasted sunchoke goat cheese cheesecake with pickled vegetables.
This is not the food most people would imagine when they think about the Ozarks — and for chef Rob Connoley, that’s the point.
“I’m always serving customers things that people don’t realize are out there,” Connoley says.
Connoley opened Bulrush in 2019 as a restaurant firmly, and proudly, rooted in “Ozark cuisine.” It made him a recent James Beard Award finalist for best chef in the Midwest.
But even Connoley has a hard time distilling exactly what “Ozark cuisine” even is.
“Ozark food is tapping into and manifesting the culture of the Ozarks — OK, that’s pretty loosey goosey,” says Connoley. “I’ll say, for me, that means living off the land, hunting, subsistence farming, using everything of the plant and of the animal, curing, pickling, you know storing through the winter, keeping your pickle cellar up — this is Ozark food.”
Going deeper than stereotypes
The Ozarks — also referred to as the Ozark Mountains and Ozark Plateau — are a physiographic, geologic and cultural highland area of the United States covering the southern half of Missouri, northern Arkansas, northeast Oklahoma and the extreme southeast of Kansas.
It’s known for natural attractions like sparkling springs, lush forests, waterfalls and caves, while lots of tourists flock to the man-made Lake of the Ozarks and Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri.
Nobody knows for certain where the name “Ozarks” comes from. But one theory is that the word is derived from the French “aux arcs,” describing either the bowed geography of the mountainous region, or the hunting bows of the Quapaw tribe, an indigenous nation that lived in the area now known as Arkansas.
In addition to the Quapaw, many other indigenous tribes are connected to the area: the Osage, Caddo, Delaware, Cherokee and Kickapoo, just to name a few.
Eventually, all the Native tribes were displaced and pushed out of the area by European settlers, a process that sped up after the Louisiana purchase. Many of these newcomers were of Scotch-Irish descent who came out west from Appalachia. The area also attracted families with German and French roots.
Connoley finds that despite the region’s rich history, the mainstream is still quick to unfairly judge Ozark food and culture.
There are few positive depictions of the region in pop culture, between media like “Winter’s Bone,” the Netflix show “Ozarks,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” that sensationalize the “backwoods” nature of the area.
Connoley says that negative stereotyping of Ozark culture has roots in a book called “The Shepherd of the Hills,” written in the early 1900s and adapted into a 1941 film starring John Wayne.
“The author did not intend it to be a negative book,” Connoley says. “He was just telling his experiences of the people who were living off the land and doing these ‘weird customs,’ weird by his standards, and over time that’s never stopped.”
Cookbooks made for tourists would display images of a grandma in a rocking chair smoking a pipe, and include recipes for baked possum and raccoon.
Connoley wants people to know that the Ozarks goes much deeper. The cuisine at Bulrush incorporates influences from Ozark’s Native tribes, free and enslaved African Americans, early settlers, and the land that connected them all.
“At the restaurant, I’m retelling stories of people from the past,” Connoley says.
Connoley says Ozark cuisine shares similarities to the food from Appalachia and other regions — but this land is unique in its isolation.
To develop his dishes, Connoley spends a lot of time in archives, looking at cookbooks and letters from Ozarkers from the late 18th to early 19th centuries.
“And then, based on what they’re saying in those letters and journals, I tell their story through a plate of food.” says Connoley.
While Connoley grew up in St. Louis, he’s the first to say that he is neither indigenous nor from the Ozarks. But Bulrush makes a point of making a space for chefs who are.
“It’s not my story to tell,” Connoley says. “The way we tell the story here at the restaurant is we bring in guest chefs who are indigenous.”
Connoley takes this work — his mission to explore the region through its history and the food growing here, and educate diners about the Ozarks — seriously, and with a lot of care.
“You’ve gotta represent the place and the people and the time,” Connoley says. “And you’ve gotta do it right.”
Making food accessible
Michelle Bowden, food sovereignty director for the Quapaw Nation, is both indigenous and an Ozark resident. Like Connoley, her work is about breaking down barriers and educating her community — but her eyes are looking toward the future, not just the past.
“It’s one of those things that when you’re secure in food, everything else will kind of fall into place,” Bowden says.
Quapaw, Oklahoma, is a lower-income community in the northeastern corner of the state, where the tribe was forcibly removed to in the early 1800s.
A few years ago, Bowden worked with her tribe to do a food sovereignty assessment, which found a lack of access to healthy, fresh foods — a problem made even more clear during the pandemic, which highlighted the fragility of the global supply chain.
“I think people didn’t realize the fact that we are in such a fragile state of food security,” Bowden says.
Bowden says “food sovereignty” means taking control of food systems so the community can live independently — feeding and taking care of itself, without relying on outside help or supplies, which were never dependable in the first place.
So they got to work,opening a farmers market, creating a year-round grocery hub, and building a large garden. The market teaches classes on seed saving, canning and dehydrating, and offers supplies for people to grow and preserve their own food.
The Quapaw Nation operates their own cattle company, raising hormone free beef and bison, which was once a staple of American Indian life and a huge part of their culture.
Recently, Bowden acquired seeds from another tribe’s seedbank, allowing them to grow traditional Quapaw red corn once again.
In the works are efforts to expand their bee raising operation, plant orchards and berry bushes, and build more high tunnels to grow produce year-round.
“I’m kind of looking at the sky as the limit, personally,” Bowden says.
Reviving the Ozark Chinquapin
It’s this perseverance of spirit, and determination to not just survive but thrive, that defines Ozark cuisine as much as anything.
And few foods are as determined to persevere as the Ozark Chinquapin.
A cousin to the iconic American Chestnut tree, the Ozark Chinquapin (castanea ozarkensis) once covered the Ozark region — stretching to the east coast, south into Mississippi and Alabama, and west into Texas and Oklahoma.
It was once a staple for the region, a prized treat and resource for both humans and wildlife. The chinquapin nut is easy to crack open, packed with protein, delicious when eaten raw, and even tastier when roasted — sweet, with notes of almond and peanut.
“We would fill our pockets full of them on weekends and then go to school on Mondays and eat them all day long and pass some of them to friends to eat,” recalled Jerry M. from Missouri. “They was so thick on the ground they would just cover it.”
A Missouri outdoorsman named Harold remembered them from his own childhood: “Up on the hilltop, the nuts were so plentiful that we scooped them up with flat blade shovels and loaded them into wagons to be used as livestock feed, to eat for ourselves and to sell. Deer bears, turkeys, squirrels and a variety of other wildlife fattened up on the sweet crop of nuts that fell every year.”
But around the 1930s, the Ozark Chinquapin started to disappear — killed off by chestnut blight, a disease caused by a fungus introduced accidentally into the United States.
Over the decades, an estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees and millions of Ozark Chinquapins had died, and by 1970, most people thought the Ozark Chinquapins were extinct.
So Steve Bost, an avid wilderness man who was raised in the Missouri Bootheel, was surprised one camping trip when an old Ozark friend started telling him about “the sweetest nut you could ever imagine.”
Bost had never even heard of the Ozark Chinquapin. He became convinced that some of these trees had to be out there still, and started learning everything he could.
“I was a man on a mission to find this tree,” Bost says. “The tree experts told me, they said, ‘You are wasting your time and are on a ghost hunt. The tree you’re looking for no longer exists. All you’re going to find is a blighted stump sprout.’”
By the 1990s, Bost was working as a naturalist for Missouri State Parks. He spent years researching the Ozark Chinquapin in libraries and online, asking his wildlife connections, and searching the woods — to no avail.
“I burned up a lot of shoe leather and driven thousands of miles looking for these trees,” Bost says.
Until the winter of 2006, when Bost finally found a lead: a hunter who said he knew about some Ozark Chinquapin trees near the Arkansas-Missouri border.
They set out one cold, rainy day to hike into the mountains, and right before dark, they found it — an Ozark Chinquapin tree that had survived the blight.
“Sunlight was coming in, so some of them were blooming,” Bost recalls. “And he had found a tree that was about 8 inches diameter.”
At last, a specimen that had survived the blight. Bost says it was a beautiful moment, seeing this tree for the first time in real life.
Then he set out to find even more.
“Well, the next thing you know, Steve is aware of it, and he becomes Johnny Appleseed for the Ozark Chinquapin,” says AJ Hendershott.
Hendershott is the vice president of the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation, an organization Steve Bost created. They’re dedicated to restoring this species through a comprehensive breeding program, working with various scientists, conservation groups, and citizen scientists.
“I like to look at ecology as a symphony,” Hendershott says. “The more instruments you have in the symphony, the sweeter the music. If you remove a particular instrument group, the music goes on. But that doesn’t mean it’s as sweet. So if we lose any particular species, whatever they contribute to the ecology of your system, whether you understand it or it’s so subtle that we don’t understand it, you’re still losing parts.
“When I look at any species, whether it’s Ozark Chinquapin, or some fish or a butterfly or, you know, a flower, it’s important.”
Thanks to those breeding efforts, the foundation now has about 100 large Ozark Chinquapin trees that are resistant to blight. They even send chinquapin seeds to members, so that more trees will be planted around the region.
There is still a long way to go before the Ozark Chinquapin returns its former glory. But Bost says each time a new person learns about this almost forgotten tree and how important it is to the Ozarks, it’s a step in the right direction.
“Trees can’t talk, so it’s up to us — you know people like me and AJ and the other people I work with — to keep attention on this,” Bost says.
One of the people who’s helping with the cause of the Ozark Chinquapin is Rob Connoley at Bulrush.
Connoley is an avid forager, and wild ingredients are a central part of Bulrush’s menu: acorns, mushrooms, ramps, elderberries, spicebush and mint bergamot.
“I can tell you there’s no restaurant who is as hardcore as us for not using purchased spices,” says Connoley.
Bulrush is also a zero-waste restaurant. Connoley challenges his staff to be creative with the elements they have — another principle of Ozark cuisine — like using boiled sweet potato water for cocktails.
To make vinegar pies, a classic Ozark dessert “born out of poverty,” Bulrush creates its own vinegars infused with pawpaw, black walnut or sorghum.
A few weeks out of the year, when they’re in season, chinquapin nuts make their own appearance on the Bulrush menu — a chance to educate diners about this treat, the tree it comes from, and its importance to the region.
“Right now, on the menu I have a chinquapin chestnut moose. It’s served with acorn shortbread and sorghum cake along with candied sunflower seeds,” Connoley says. “And that’s the dessert that we end our meal with.”
By harvesting responsibly and sharing with intention, Bulrush is playing an important role in reviving the chinquapin nut.
“You gotta create a market for it,” Connoley says. “When people show interest, that’s when innovation happens and effort gets put into them to make them actually grow and be more in our kitchens.”
Sustainability in fine dining comes at a cost, of course: a seven-course meal at Bulrush costs $115 per person.
But that price tag, too, has a kind of purpose — demanding respect for Ozark cuisine.
Connoley recalls an email he received, soon after Bulrush opened, from an Ozark man who attended a dinner there. The man wrote that he grew up going to school with packed lunches of canned and pickled goods prepared by his mom, while other kids ate pizza and hamburgers.
“To see you take those same ingredients that we were so embarrassed by and lift them up, not just to a meal, but to a tasting menu of a fine dining restaurant, he said, ‘I don’t know that you can fully appreciate what that means to someone like me and my family,’” Connoley recalls.
That’s what continues to motivate Connoley: seeing how Ozark food, even modernized in this way, can connect with people across generations.
Connoley shared another story of an elderly man who came into Bulrush for a meal with his grandson.
“He said, ‘I spent my entire life in the Ozarks,’” Connoley recalls. And he said, ‘I didn’t recognize a single thing you just served me. But every course reminded me of childhood.’”
“It didn’t matter that we made it like his wife made it or his grandmother made it. We gave him that sense of smell or that texture or that flavor that took him back 85 years,” Connoley continues. “These are the things that feed us.”
Hungry For MO is a production of KCUR Studios, with support from the Missouri Humanities Council. It’s hosted by Natasha Bailey and Jenny Vergara. This episode was written and produced by Suzanne Hogan with editing from Gabe Rosenberg and Mackenzie Martin. Sound design and mix by Suzanne Hogan and Paris Norvell. Music this episode from Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks this episode to Brian Munoz of St. Louis Public Radio for reporting and photos from Bulrush, and to the Quapaw Nation and Ozark Chinquapin Foundation for use of their photos.