September 7, 2020

Kate Bernot

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The Chef Whose Restaurant is a Research Project on Ozark Cuisine

A St. Louis destination that celebrates rural Missouri

Bulrush is as much a research project as it is a restaurant. Opened in spring 2019, the St. Louis restaurant calls itself “rooted in Ozark cuisine,” and its chef, Rob Connoley, takes that descriptor quite seriously.

A Missouri native, Connoley has been focused on Ozark cuisine specifically since moving home from Silver City, New Mexico, where he owned the critically acclaimed restaurant The Curious Kumquat with his husband, Tyler.

His restaurant serves food and drink inspired by first-person accounts of life in the Ozark Plateau—including the bottom half of Missouri, the top half of Arkansas, and the eastern borders of Oklahoma and Kansas—between 1820 and 1870. That’s a semi-arbitrary time frame: The oldest documentation Connoley has found so far dates to 1820, and he sees industrialization changing Ozark cuisine starting around 1870.

The Chef Whose Restaurant is a Research Project on Ozark Cuisine - Quote

“We can trace everything back, but what we serve you wouldn’t be familiar to people of that time. I’m not just going to serve you unseasoned venison in a pot.”

If the team doesn’t find mention of an ingredient or a dish in a letter or journal from that period, they don’t put it on the menu. That’s why, for the first eight months the restaurant was open, Bulrush didn’t serve beef.

“It’s because in the research, we hadn’t seen beef yet,” Connoley explains. He generally conducts his research in-person, visiting archives and working with historic societies who’ve preserved correspondence from the middle part of the nineteenth century.

Last fall, Connoley began to find accounts from the Ozark foothills of northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri that described a different geography and cuisine from that of the more mountainous Ozark regions he’d studied up to that point. In the flatlands, ranching took hold earlier.

“I’d been looking at the super-mountainous interior of the Ozarks in the early nineteenth century, where it was too mountainous to have cattle,” he says. “When in the research I got to farms and ranches with grassland, voila, here’s beef. Now, beef is fair game for the menu.”

Some people mistake Connoley’s vision of Ozark cuisine for Midwestern or Appalachian. While there are similarities—Appalachian food is also a tradition shaped by mountains and scarcity, and the team is working within the borders of the Midwest—Connoley is adamant that mid-1800s Ozark cuisine has an identity all its own.

The interactions between three groups—indigenous people, immigrants, and the enslaved—shaped that identity. The Osage and some Cherokee already lived in the Ozarks when immigrants from Scotland, Germany, and France began to arrive in the early 1800s, eventually displacing them with force. Some of the immigrants who settled in the foothills brought enslaved African people with them as forced labor for their farms and ranches.

Those groups brought their food traditions to the ingredients available in the varied geographies of the Ozarks. It’s because the region is so diverse, Connoley says, that he has to rely on primary documents to write the menu at Bulrush.

“Once we start talking about a nebulous ‘Ozark culture,’ it gets unwieldy,” he says.

While the restaurant is “a living project,” to survive, it has to serve food that pleases modern palates. The team at Bulrush modernizes their findings using contemporary techniques and flavors. Connoley assures diners that they won’t be eating exactly the same meals their great-great-grandparents might have.

“We can trace everything back, but what we serve you wouldn’t be familiar to people of that time. I’m not just going to serve you unseasoned venison in a pot.”

Editor’s note: Bulrush isn’t just serving a creative menu. The team is also finding creative ways to stay in business during the pandemic, including a park-and-dine tasting menu experience. You can order a takeout tasting menu, available via curbside delivery, and a la carte to-go items including take-and-bake biscuits and gravy, pawpaw vinegar, sweet corn huitlacoche ice cream, and, among other drinks, an intriguing cocktail that combines chanterelle mushrooms, whiskey, and chicken stock. If you’re not in St. Louis, you can still support and get a taste of Bulrush by buying a gift card and a copy of Connoley’s 2016 book, “Acorns & Cattails.”

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