You’ve drunk mineral water. You’ve probably soaked in it too. But have you ever eaten it?
Culinary artisans in a small town in Arkansas have discovered that the geothermal waters for
which the town is famous are the secret to the deliciousness of their special food and drink. Hot Springs, Arkansas is both a town and a national park. About 90 minutes southwest of Little Rock, its most famous former resident is Bill Clinton. Since before recorded history, people have been coming to the area to “take the waters.”
As the springs became popular, they were covered over with shacks and then, in the mid 1800s, by beautiful Victorian-style bathhouses. In its heyday, the town and its hot springs were popular with mob gangsters Al Scarface Capone and Lucky Luciano, with athletes like Babe Ruth and Joe Louis, and with entertainers like Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis and Mae West.
Physicians would recommend their patients soak in and drink the water from specific springs in the national park. Of the area’s 47 different springs, some were said to cure rheumatism and asthma, others to soothe syphilis. Regardless of ailment, there was a doctor or a charlatan to sell patients a prescriptive cure.
Though medical science has since disproved these claims, many people still believe that the
water’s minerals, whether absorbed via the skin or taken by mouth, are beneficial. There is no debate that the water is delicious.
Most geothermal waters are not potable. They are contaminated with sulphur, algae or bacteria, and have too strong an iron or sulfuric taste. Not so for Hot Springs’ hot springs.
Rain that fell thousands of years ago slowly dripped down through layers of the earth. Around
8,000 feet below the surface, the water is superheated and then rushes up through a fault on the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain. Coming out of the ground at 143 degrees Fahrenheit, the spring water has a perfectly neutral pH of seven, and a perfectly neutral color, taste and smell.
“The water we have here in Hot Springs is literally perfect,” says Anthony Valinoti, owner and
chef at DeLuca’s Pizzeria. He uses the spring water to make some of the best pizza I’ve ever
eaten. Valinoti came to Hot Springs from Brooklyn, New York. As he describes, “There has always been this myth that you could only get great pizza in New York because of the water”. Many chefs from all over the United States agree, and have New York water shipped to them to use in their bread and pizza recipes.
When Valinoti moved to Hot Springs, he discovered the unique quality of the water when baking bread at home. “I noticed right from the start that the dough was so much more flavorful than when I had done this in Miami, California or Las Vegas. I thought to myself, well I haven’t changed the recipe, so what was it? Oh, the water!”
Valinoti makes DeLuca’s pizza dough, by hand, every day using hot springs water. Pop into the kitchen after you order your dinner, and you might be able to watch him stretch the pale dough and form it into the foundation of his classic and imaginative pies. Cooked in a brick oven, the crust bakes into the perfect crispy chewiness that shows off the finest of topping ingredients, no doubt because of the perfection of the water. Don’t arrive too late, though. DeLuca’s has a limited supply of this geothermal dough, and Valinoti sells out most nights.
Hot Springs’ perfect water is the main ingredient in another local product, one that matches
perfectly with pizza — beer from Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery. The brewery is housed in a Classical Revival historic bathhouse along Bathhouse Row, inside the national park. Water from a hot spring right underneath the building comes out of the pipes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and only needs to be heated a further 36 degrees to start the process of transforming into craft beer.
Superior’s first beer, Hitchcock Spring Kölsch, was designed as a showcase for Hot Springs’ spring water. You can compare it to a selection of their other spring water beers by ordering a
flight from their draught list. If you prefer your geothermal beer of the nonalcoholic variety, Superior Bathhouse also turns the hot springs water into root beer, sweetened with local honey.
You can eat the water at Superior Bathhouse Brewery too. Superior uses Hot Springs’ special water, in beer form, as an ingredient in several menu items in their restaurant. Order beer cheese dip, roasted tomato soup, beer stout chili or one of their ever-changing creative specials — as with DeLuca’s pizza, the water makes these great dishes even better.
“Quaffing the elixir” is very popular in Hot Springs. Residents and visitors alike fill jugs, for free, with thermal waters from taps along the edge of the national park. While many people consume it the usual way, others are transforming the perfect water into delicious foods and drinks. As chef Valinoti notes, soon people everywhere are “going to want to ship our water to where they are, and this would put a smile on my face.“ Until then, you’ll need to get to the town of Hot Springs yourself in order to taste the spring water, whether it be in a glass or on your plate.