May 26, 2024

Good cooks never divulge their ingredients. Great cooks throw open their pantries and kitchens alike to whoever wants to watch, knowing full well that components themselves don’t keep ’em running back for more, but the executional skill to combine pinch and dash in such measure to create something memorable.

Katharine “Kat” Robinson first learned these time-honored truths at the elbow of her grandparents in the rural reaches of Clark County outside of Gurdon.

“I was surrounded by people who cooked in my life, particularly my grandparents,” she says. “My maternal grandmother, I remember particularly, made the very best mincemeat pie I have ever had in my life. I’ve never had its equal.

“My dad’s side of the family was very poor, but I didn’t realize that until I was an adult because there was always a bounty of things there. My paternal grandmother had a huge produce garden and trees on the property with pecans and hickory nuts and walnuts and apples. It was an Eden, and most of what I remember of my grandmother is cooking or working in the garden or shelling purple hull peas or any of a number of things that had to do with food.”

Robinson, 48, carried these memories from the farm throughout her life, stocking her larder with the lessons they taught and the culture they represented. With time, she’d find new ways to bring such heritage ingredients together, folding in a knack for communication and an understanding of media to become one of the most recognizable and brightly illustrated of Arkansas characters.

Through her multiple books on Arkansas fare, documentaries on the state’s dairy bars and pie, and a prolific online writing catalog on topics from catfish to cheese dip, Robinson is considered a foremost authority on The Natural State’s cuisine and the people and places behind it. And while she didn’t start out to be where she is now — instead diving into her other passions of radio and television — the inexorable pull of food tradition in her native state would eventually win out.

“I decided a decade and a half ago that life’s too short not to tackle the things you want to do, even if those things aren’t the most lucrative things to do,” she says. “I’d probably do exactly what I’m doing right now even if I was independently wealthy. I love all of it.”

BECOMING KAT

Robinson grew up in Little Rock, where her musical ability and general creativity got her into Parkview Magnet High School. It was there her abundant energy was put to good and daily use.

“I’ve always been very artistic,” she says. “I started playing piano when I was in second grade. I started with French horn in seventh grade. The arts have always spoken to me. [At Parkview] I could not get enough of performing.”

Growing up, Robinson also fell in love with radio and the idea of being an on-air personality, despite having zero female role models to let her know such a thing was even possible.

“My idea of becoming a disc jockey was nuts at the time because in the late 1970s, there weren’t women who were disc jockeys,” she says. “But I loved the idea. I was a huge fan of [TV sitcom] “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Howard Hesseman, who played Dr. Johnny Fever, was one of my role models. I loved the idea because it merged the media with music.”

By the time Robinson reported to Arkansas Tech University at age 17, she had been talked into studying music education with the idea of becoming a band director. But all signs on campus pointed to alternate career outcomes, especially when she saw a flier for campus radio station KXRJ looking to fill time slots in the coming school year.

Walking into the radio station for the first time, her future as a band director — to say nothing of her old identity — was about to shift dramatically.

“I was going to go on the air and I wasn’t real sure what I was going on the air as,” she says. “I had gone by Kathy in high school, but a gentleman who was in the studio at the time was like, ‘That’s a terrible name. You need something that’s going to pop. You’re Kat.’ It immediately stuck. Everybody around me starting using this really quickly. And it was something that felt right.”

Robinson still studied music, racking up as many as 21 credit hours a semester and performing in ATU’s marching band, but there was no denying a new academic beau had begun courting her attention.

“I jumped in at KXRJ,” she says. “I did classical musical programming and on-air work early in the afternoon. I would do a newscast at 5, then in the evenings I had an hour and a half or two hours, depending on each semester, for my own radio show. I created a program called ‘The Eccentric Show,’ and I did novelty music. At that point in my life, I thought I was going to be the next Dr. Demento. It didn’t turn out that way, but that’s OK.”

Roberts augmented her college experience with shifts at other established radio stations where she sunk her teeth into news for the first time. The experience ultimately led her to change her major from music education to journalism.

“Bringing stuff back in and pulling reel-to-reels and cutting things down was a very different world as far as the equipment we used,” she says. “But news writing is news writing and I really got very good at it.”

OOPS, NOT A RADIO STATION

After graduation in 1995, Robinson dipped into her assembled book of media contacts and began shopping herself around to begin her full time career in radio. After sending 90 resumes and tapes to stations from Chicago to New Orleans, her first call-back came from Jonesboro.

“I’d seen an ad in the paper looking for a news producer and I didn’t realize until I pulled into the KAIT parking lot that it was a TV station,” she remembers. “I walked in and told the secretary I wasn’t sure I should still do the interview. She was like, ‘Well, you’re on the schedule.’

“Harvey Cox was the news director at the time there, great guy. I sat down and said, ‘I don’t want to waste your time. I don’t have any TV experience.’ He said, ‘Can you tell a good story? I’m looking for good storytellers and if you want the job you’ve got it.'”

Robinson took the job and excelled such that three years later, she returned to Little Rock to join Today’s THV This Morning as senior producer. It began an eight-year period of her life that she points to with fondness and pride.

“Radio and television were a bit different in that radio in 1979, 1980 had very few women who were on-air personalities,” she says. “Television was different, mostly. We had a pretty even ratio at both KAIT and THV of male and female reporters and on-air talent. Plus, most producers tended to be female; at THV in the early 2000s almost every one of our producers was a woman.”

Robinson and team worked through major news stories such as 9/11 and the 2000 presidential election controversy in between routine news that didn’t raise an eyebrow except within the state lines. And Robinson was at the head of the column, helping lead the lowly morning show from dead last to tops in the market.

“Her attention to detail and the ability to find a niche that grabs your attention and pulls you in made her a very talented storyteller and producer,” says Tom Brannon, THV11’s chief meteorologist. “She also was and is a hard worker, creative and very detail-oriented. She was a huge reason why our morning show succeeded and rose to the number-one position in a short amount of time.”

“I loved my time at THV. It was magical,” she says. “We had something that doesn’t exist anymore in this market, and maybe not anywhere anymore, and that is we had a core crew that didn’t change over the course of those eight years. Same graphics guys, same editors, same talent. As a result, what we did with that show was just extraordinary.”

GOING BACK TO THE MIDDLE AGES

Throughout this period, Robinson found another unique tribe that augmented the food and cooking expertise and knowledge she’d gained years before from her grandmothers.

“I am a 30-year participant in an international group known as the Society for Creative Anachronism. We re-create the Middle Ages as they would have been,” she says. “It’s an educational group but it’s a social group. The guys that you see fighting in Kanis Park or War Memorial Park with sticks, they belong to us. But it’s so much more than that. So much of it is research and the part of it that I really cinched onto from the beginning was the food because we would have these huge, sumptuous feasts.

“It was more than just ‘Let’s put on a play,’ sort of atmosphere. It was what would they really have eaten in the Middle Ages? I started with learning about European cookery, English and French, and moved on to Italian and Greek, the usual suspects. The more research I did, the hungrier I got for things.”

This educational experience she took with her like a heaping to-go plate and it provided professional sustenance when her time at THV came to a close. She chose to forge her next venture around food, launching her Tye Dye Travels blog and hitting the road. It was a hand-to-mouth existence early on, in every sense of the phrase.

“I had savings that were pushing me through,” she says of the early days. “Plus, I was picking up some little assignments here and there that friends were throwing to me. I managed to kind of hang on there.”

As any professional writer will tell you, every article that sees daylight is like kindling, sparking larger things. A piece on Ms. Mena’s Pie Shop in DeValls Bluff titled “Pie Worth Giving up Saturday Morning Cartoons” took off, aided by an endorsement by Max Brantley, Arkansas Times senior editor, who urged readers in a column to check out her site. It was as much food for her confidence as it was a call for readership.

“That’s the moment my food writing career really kind of started because I had all these people who were paying attention,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can sell articles. I can do something with this. And if I write about food, I’m never going to starve.'”

By 2012, Robinson had achieved a list of local, regional and national magazine and newspaper credits a mile long. Her website was thriving, and she was the go-to regional resource for The Food Network and other broadcast outlets. She’d also landed full time with the state’s Tourism Department, which provided more predictable income and the chance to travel the state, augmenting her already encyclopedic knowledge of Arkansas.

22 RESTAURANTS IN ONE WEEKEND

One day, she got an email that would open a whole new chapter of her life as a writer and food storyteller when a book publishing house asked her to submit some proposals, of which she sent four.

“A month and a half later, I get a phone call and they’re like, ‘We love all the proposals. Which one of these can you write in 30 days?’ I’m like, ‘I guess it will have to be on pie.’ I had the month of August 2012. During the day, I worked my state job. I would go home every night and I would compile and write. And as soon as I got off work on Friday afternoons, I would head out and drive and hit restaurants.

“We hit 22 restaurants one weekend, ordered the pie, took pictures of the pie. I managed to get 30,000 words on pie in Arkansas with all these photos and sent it off before Labor Day weekend. That was ‘Arkansas Pie, A Delicious Slice of the Natural State.'”

Today, Robinson has penned nearly a dozen books, not to mention writing, directing, producing and hosting two documentaries — the Emmy-nominated “Make Room for Pie; A Delicious Slice of The Natural State,” released in 2018 and her latest, 2021’s “Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats.”

To those who know her well, the prolific nature of her work comes as no surprise.

“The one thing that’s always impressed me about Kat is that she has a work ethic that just burns everybody out around her,” says Marvin Bonney, a research assistant at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who has known her for three decades. “I told her once during a project we were working on that she was beginning to embarrass me, because I just couldn’t keep up. I thought I had a heck of a work ethic, but it was nothing like hers.

“But she’s not just a hard worker, she tends to pull it out of everybody around her. She’s got this incredibly high energy that makes everybody around her better at what they do because she’s such a great example of somebody who will burrow into something and keep going forever.”

Robinson’s credibility — hard-won in cafes and diners across the state and chronicled in her various media — have solidified her as a preeminent authority on all things edible in Arkansas. With that status, she has entered prestigious territory as Arkansas fellow and curator to the National Food and Beverage Foundation, guest editor for the University of Arkansas publication “Arkansauce: The Journal of Arkansas Foodways,” member of the selection committee for the Department of Arkansas Heritage’s Arkansas Food Hall of Fame and a perennial food judge at the Arkansas State Fair. In 2011, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism presented her The Henry Award for Media Support of the state and its attractions.

Newer projects include launching Tonti Press, a publishing house featuring the works of Arkansas authors, and a podcast, “Kat Robinson’s Arkansas,” to add to her usual retinue. And while the nature of her business ensures there’s always a juicier burger, a sweeter cobbler or a flakier biscuit around each bend, the self-described “girl in the hat” allows herself the occasional backward glance, with pride.

“I’ve always wanted to do a little bit of everything, but once I decided to start writing, I just started writing and stuck with it in one form or another the rest of my life,” she says. “A writer is a person who builds the world and puts the words in people’s mouths. I love conversation. I love hearing the way that people speak. And there’s just something about the idea of, if I can write, I can get myself to a better place in this world.

“I had all these different dreams of things I wanted to do and it’s amazing; almost everything that I’ve wanted to do in my life, I’ve now realized in some way or another.”

https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/apr/17/katharine-kat-bear-diemer-robinson/