The World Cheese Dip Championship

This t-shirt almost always gets a laugh. Followed by some variant on “Where can EYE get one?”

Try Little Rock, Arkansas, home of the World Cheese Dip Championship for the last ten years or so.

In a small way, the Championship is a big deal. Arkansas, “The Natural State,” feels strongly about its cheese dip. Especially in Little Rock, where it’s everywhere.

By “cheese dip,” I mean a hot or warm concoction of a melted cheese-like substance containing anything from chopped peppers to tomatoes to meats and vegetables.

You dip things in it: taco chips, usually, but really any damned thing you want. It’s cooked in many homes and in most Mexican restaurants, where it’s considered the linch-pin of “Ark-Mex” Mexican food.

Arkansas lays claim to cheese dip: “invented here,” they say. Texans dispute this: “chili de queso” (melted cheese with things in it) is part of their Tex-Mex pantheon.

“We don’t care what it’s called,” one Arkansan wrote on social media. “We just love dipping food into cheese.” But the locals also hold that their cheese dip owns a special smoothness and pour-ability that Tex-Mex queso lacks and that Arkansans love.

And love it they do at the Cheese Dip Championship, where the many fine chefs of Little Rock and beyond present their personal takes on this humble and caloric dish.

As for you the public: show up, pay your admission, and play the field. Bring a muffin tin. The tasting booths hand out their samples in small plastic cups; you need a muffin tin to safely carry around the multiple cups of sloppy, cheesy goodness.

Bring tortilla chips, too, though the event provides them. One Little Rock local writes, “There is a very good chance that chips run out before cheese dip, and people are gross and will straight-up drink cheese dip.” Don’t be those people.

So what makes Arkansas cheese dip so special? What secret brings it that special smoothness — drinkability, even — that Texas queso lacks?

In a word — Velveeta.

From its “discovery” by an Arkansan Mexican restaurant owner back in the 1930s, Arkansas cheese dip has been all about the Velveeta. Velveeta: that artificial cheese food that isn’t exactly cheese and may not even be food anymore.

Velveeta doesn’t even need refrigeration. And boy, does it melt. It melts under a hot glare, and stays melted. That’s the secret.

Other cheeses can be added to the Velveeta for flavor and color; some Arkansan chefs manage without Velveeta at all. But that big thick yellow brick of cheese product is usually somewhere in the building.

And after all, who really needs chefs and restaurants? Arkansas cheese dip is dead easy to make at home. People do, all the time. Cheese dip is democratic.

Your typical Arkansan cubes up a pound of Velveeta and throws it in a bowl with a can of Ro-Tel Diced Tomatoes and Green Chilis, a little milk, and a little cumin. Maybe some ground meat, too, if they want to be fancy. Then they nuke it, stir well, and nuke it again. Not rocket science.

Dip anything you want in it: Chips. Crackers. Cheese puffs. Tortillas. Meatballs. French fries. Oreos. Whatever. I say with confidence: In Arkansas, everything that can be dipped in cheese dip, HAS been dipped in cheese dip. And 90 percent of that cheese dip is some marriage of Velveeta and Ro-Tel.

So when you go to the World Cheese Dip Championships — and COVID or not, it’ll be back — bow before the Velveeta and Ro-Tel sponsorship banners, load your muffin tray with cheese dip and enjoy.

And if you run out of chips, forget what I said earlier: chug those puppies!

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