2024 April Fools' Day Entry

“Garbecue” is a catch-all term for a trend in aquatic-themed barbecue that was promoted by Arkansas tourism officials in the late 1990s. At the time, in addition to promoting healthier eating, state boosters were hoping to hype a distinctive Arkansas barbecue culture. Arkansas had long been influenced by the more prominent Texas, Memphis, and Kansas City traditions, and state leaders were at a loss as to how to compete with these regional culinary hubs in terms of meat preparation. State leaders landed on the idea of creating a whole new field of barbecue that centered upon the smoking of fish and other aquatic creatures. The attempt to sell the state’s consumers on barbecued fish failed rather spectacularly, although it did inspire the opening of one later barbecue chain, in addition to leading indirectly to a hit single by Meghan Trainor.

The idea of “garbecue” began to develop shortly after Mike Huckabee was inaugurated as Arkansas’s governor in 1996. Although he would not develop his famous “Healthy Arkansas” initiative until 2004, after he achieved renown for a dramatic weight loss, he was concerned about state health and obesity even early in his tenure as governor and asked leaders within the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) to begin brainstorming ideas to promote healthier eating, eventually settling upon the idea of encouraging greater fish consumption over meat eating. These ideas began to merge with a program being launched by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism (ADPT) to identify and promote aspects of the barbecue tradition that might be unique to the state, with the goal of launching a “barbecue trail” that would highlight state establishments. Eventually, the ADH and ADPT formally united their projects, adopting the neologism “garbecue,” a combination of the words “gar” (a predatory fish native to Arkansas waters) and “barbecue” to describe the venture. The idea was to encourage people to make (non-fried) fish a greater part of their diets, in place of meat.

The Arkansas Garbecue Initiative was formally inaugurated on April 1, 1999, at Shadden’s Bar-B-Q near Marvell (Phillips County), the sign of which had been temporarily altered to read “Shad’s Bar-B-Q” (shad being a type of fish). Gov. Huckabee was present to sample, in front of the cameras, a range of aquatic items that had been prepared especially for the occasion, including smoked buffalo (fish) ribs and frog legs. He said while eating the frog legs, “Being governor is the best gig ever.”

Huckabee did similar promotional appearances at other traditional barbecue restaurants that had been coyly renamed for the events, including Dixie Jig in Blytheville (Mississippi County) and Brim’s Bar-B-Que in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Despite the governor’s enthusiasm, journalists who partook of the various dishes on offer tended to report their less than favorable impressions under headlines rife with fish puns, such as “As Crappie as You’d Think” or “The Bare Minnow-mum of Flavor.” The most positive headline was “Good Enough to Smelt Your Heart,” but it was an exception.

Despite an investment of significant funds to promote such fish-based cuisine being spearheaded by the ADH, ADPT, and the Arkansas Catfish Promotion Board, the idea of “garbecue” quickly became a punchline, with the whole floundering initiative becoming an object of derision, as few restaurants bothered to add any smoked fish offering to their menu. There was only one brief exception. In late 1999, friends Mike “Sarge” Davis, Ron Blasingame, and Steve Lucchi decided to capitalize upon the notoriety that the whole “garbecue” trend had been receiving and opened Whole Frog Cafe in Little Rock. However, after one bad review under the headline of “Whole Frog Leaves One Feeling Eel,” the founders of the business quickly pivoted to traditional barbecue, changing their name in 2000 to Whole Hog Cafe; the company’s establishment the previous year, and its initial focus upon aquatic barbecue, are not mentioned on the restaurant’s website or any other promotional materials. As historian Michael B. Dougan wrote, “The guys at Whole Frog realized rather ironically that their fish weren’t going with the flow. The offerings at Whole Hog may be herring-impaired, but they sell a lot better. Carp diem, as the Romans said.”

By early 2000, the whole garbecue project was effectively dead in the water, and Huckabee would not publicly address healthy eating in a systematic way until a few years later. However, despite its short lifespan, the garbecue initiative did spawn one noteworthy item of pop culture. In order to promote more fish in the diet, the state recorded a short song, performed by young singer Stephanie Smittle (who would later go on to be an editor at the Arkansas Times), titled, “All About That Bass.” The song was also covered by the northwestern Arkansas band Trout Fishing in America. In 2014, singer-songwriter Meghan Trainor released a track with the same name, but with the last word, “bass,” pronounced as “base” rather than the way the fish’s name is pronounced. This song used the same beat and a slightly modified set of lyrics. The first two stanzas of the original are as follows:

Because you know I’m all about that bass
’Bout that bass, so edible
I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, so edible
I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, so edible
I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass (bass, bass, bass, bass)

The water’s pretty clear, this fish ain’t got a clue
But I can catch it, catch it, like I’m supposed to do
’Cause I got that bait bait that all the fishies chase
And all the right hooks in all the right places
I see the amateurs (ah-ha) checkin’ their trotlines (ah-ha)
We know that stuff ain’t fair
Come on now, make it stop
If you got one on the line (ah-ha), just reel it in
See how every inch of it is perfect
From the bottom to the top

In late 2023, investigative journalist Matt Campbell uncovered, through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, memos regarding another potential state barbecue initiative, this time relating to the year’s most popular movie in America. However, nothing ever came of the incipient “Barbiecue” initiative being considered by members of the administration of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of the original promoter of garbecue.

April Fools!

For additional information:
Dougan, Michael. “Unholy Mackerel!: Garbecue and the Evolving Cuisine of the Mid-South at the Turn of the Century.” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 53 (December 2023): 163–180.

Dumas, Ernie. “Let’s Get Reel: Fish Tales of the First Huckabee Administration.” Arkansas Times, January 2024, pp. 7–10.

Nelson, Rex. “A Trout-of-Body Experience.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 2, 1999, p. 6B.

Peacock, Leslie. “Hook, Line, and a Sinking Feeling.” Arkansas Times, April 7, 1999, pp. 16–18.

Steve Moncuse
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission


    OMG! 😂 That’s very scholarly!

    Barney McVittle NY, NY