People in Arkansas like to talk watermelon. About how sweet the melons that grow up north by Cave City are, and the sheer size and variety farther south in Hope, whose watermelon festival attracts forty thousand people every August. They argue over sunlight and geology—is it the limestone that makes the melons so good, or does it have something to do with the same volcanic quirks that produce the state’s diamonds?
“There are a lot of weird things here, geologically speaking, so maybe that’s it, but who knows?” says Capi Peck, the executive chef and co-owner of Trio’s in Little Rock, who has been eating Arkansas watermelon practically since she was born. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. They are just damn good.”
Peck opened Trio’s in 1986, after studying art history and Spanish at Louisiana State University. It was, in a way, like coming home. Peck grew up in the hospitality business—her grandparents owned Little Rock’s Sam Peck Hotel (it’s now Hotel Frederica), and she spent countless hours in its kitchen. From the start, watermelon has worked its way onto her menu in many forms. It’s essential, she says, to taste the melon before deciding what to do with it. “I love straight-up, unadulterated watermelon,” she says, “but if it’s not absolutely perfect, I can always make something good out of it.”
For example, in the spring and early summer, she gets melons from Texas that aren’t as sweet as the midsummer beauties from her home state. So she turns them into salads and sangria. She’s particularly fond of watermelon gazpacho, a recipe that works whether the fruit is perfect or subprime. She infuses the cold soup with the flavors of Mexico, a country whose food and culture she has always loved and still studies with the intensity of a graduate student.
The key is to be flexible, Peck says, adjusting the ingredients to match both what you might have on hand and the preference of your guests. The soup balances the sweetness of melon with heat from jalapeños, although serranos work, too. Use more if the people you’re feeding can take the heat. To round the flavor, Peck adds tart cranberry juice and sherry vinegar, though red wine vinegar makes a fine substitution. The soup’s heft comes from a parade of summer vegetables. The more uniform your knife work with them, the more elegant the final product.
Flexibility is a trait Peck has been relying on a lot lately. Although she has long been a fixture in Little Rock’s civic scene, she was elected to Little Rock’s version of the city council in 2016 after a friend talked her into running. “I never imagined myself getting into politics, but I’m an action person and I just thought it was time to try to make some changes happen,” she says. Politics is more frustrating than the restaurant business, but there are similarities. “Taking care of your constituents,” she says, “is like taking care of your customers.”
And that includes making sure their summer is filled with plenty of watermelon.