Joe Wilson: ‘The Chubby, Redneck Oprah Winfrey’
By Greg McCain
Food – podcaster, outdoorsman, chef, and amateur psychologist Joe Wilson has learned – serves as an immediate link to the hearts and minds of people.
Joe, co-host of the Cookin Up a Story with Aaron and Joe podcast, cultivated the connection between his culinary skills and the eclectic mix of people he has encountered through the years, the last 20 or so in Northwest Arkansas. A main understanding of how people work came through his organization of the World Champion Squirrel Cookoff (World Champion Squirrel Cook Off), an event that attracts thousands each year.
Now Arkansas might not be the place most would imagine, the state conjuring images of the TV series Ozark and idyllic backwoods settings. For those not familiar with the state and particularly the northwest corner of Arkansas, an upscale culture exists that does not always mesh with the stereotypical rustic background.
“As years went by, this little part of Northwest Arkansas started developing into kind of a metro type area,” Joe recalled in a phone conversation earlier this week. “I had to do my part to keep us grounded. So I decided it was going to be a decent idea to cook a mess of squirrels out on the town square right amongst all the art, culture, and changing ways.”
Thus, the Squirrel Cookoff was born, and Joe hosted the event in Bentonville, yes, home to Walmart. (This year’s version was held in Springdale at the Arkansas Game and Fish facility with plans to be there next year as well.) Other Fortune 500 companies Tyson and J.B. Hunt are located nearby. Joe works a day job with Crossland Construction with a primary role as superintendent of Walmart’s home office projects.
“My current project is the original Walton 5 and Dime building,” he said. “It’s the Walmart museum.”
Joe, however, still reserves plenty of time for his side gigs, including the World Champion Squirrel Cookoff and a non-profit designed to support law enforcement. Why create such an off-the-wall event as the Squirrel Cookout?
“The reason was because I thought people were coming to this area thinking they were going to see a bunch of people like me,” Joe said. “The truth was they were more likely to see a person they might see in inner city Chicago or New York or Los Angeles because of the influence of all three of the Fortune 500 companies that make Northwest Arkansas what it is – hell, I wouldn’t even have a job if it weren’t for Walmart, Tyson, and J.B. Hunt – none of us would. We’d be all chasing chickens around somewhere. You’ve got to keep them grounded.”
Joe got his start in a family “where hunting and fishing were part of what made a man,” he said. “We fished in everything from mountain lakes to streams to the ocean, all three of them actually, the Gulf, the Pacific, the Atlantic.”
He brought that outdoors background with him to Arkansas. He organized the first World Champion Squirrel Cookoff in 2011, which earned a segment on Bizarre Eats on the Travel Channel. The next year landed the Cookoff on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
“We had 40 teams that year from 14 states and Canada,” Joe said. “It kept on growning. It got to the point that we had a judge from Australia and a team from the Netherlands. Teams from Alaska and everywhere.
“What we found out was that there were a whole bunch of people from this country who liked eating squirrel, but there was also a whole bunch of people who liked the fact that we were doing something that used to be traditional and now was looked at as more of a comedy act or something.
“Now I’m not opposed to a good comedy act – I think that’s important – but the more I talked to people, I told them that if we were ever going to pass on the traditions and skills of hunting and fishing, we’re probably going to do it through their stomachs.
“We have anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000, and we feed all those people. We give them a taste of squirrel. We feed them fish that people have caught. All kinds of wild game and fish. For a lot of them, it’s the first time that they’ve ever had it and the first time they’ve ever had a chance to interact with our kind of people. Our kind of people doesn’t necessarily mean redneck. It’s just people who enjoy the outdoors, who enjoy the ‘wild’ side of life.”
The annual September ritual attracted the attention of ACC Crappie Stix owner Andy Lehman, a regular consumer of podcasts. Watching an episode of the Bear Grease podcast, Andy learned of the Cookoff when Joe appeared on one of his semi-regular spots as a guest alongside host Clay Newcomb.
“I’m listening to the (Bear Grease) podcast and came across this guy who cooked and fed squirrels to thousands of people,” Andy said. “He was an incredibly likeable guy, and I knew I wanted to meet him.”
Andy traveled to Arkansas on a recent business trip, their schedules aligned, and Joe immediately pulled Andy into one of his podcasts. That episode releases Thanksgiving Day.
“It wasn’t really anything that we planned,” Andy said. “Joe said, ‘Come on in here and let’s talk. Tell us your story.’ The next thing I knew, I was on the podcast.”
The Cookin Up a Story with Aaron and Joe podcast (available on most podcast platforms) is a relatively recent happening. Joe was approached about creating a podcast on a fishing outing by his co-host, Aaron Cook. Joe finally relented as long as his name “didn’t have to come first.” The podcast was complete with the addition of Joe Martinez (“the most redneck Mexican we’ve got in the whole state of Arkansas”) and Bill “Red Words” Walker (“A real ‘70s hippie but much, much more,” Joe said).
The early shows were a comical mix of random topics. An encounter and subsequent episode with a local doughnut maker “changed the trajectory of the show,” Joe said. On a whim, Joe invited Lang Tang to tell his story, and “surprisingly he showed up.”
What they heard was a success and survival story that included Lang Tang emerging from the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the Vietnam War among many other obstacles in his life. He has since written a book about his experiences.
“He caught malaria and survived it by himself,” Joe said. “Bit by a viper. Enslaved twice in his life. A Buddhist monk, he knew nothing about the word freedom.
“One day, he prayed to a god that he didn’t believe in named Jesus. He prayed that he could come to America. About 10 days later, he was in New York City.”
A few years later, Lang Tang discovered northwest Arkansas through a late-night infomercial.
“He came here and looked around for a place to open a doughnut shop,” Joe said. “That was 16 years ago. He never experienced anyone being racist toward him. He’s learned what liberty and freedom are. He’s a liked man, and he’s helped several other Cambodian families open up doughnut shops in other places.
“Once we got Lang Tang’s story, it was hard for me to go back to talking about farting and if I had ever seen my own butthole. We had found a new spot with the show.”
Among the guests since have been award-winning cinematographer Mark Emery (Joe met him on a flight to Alaska for a fishing trip) and a regular stream of others with a story to tell.
“We started bringing on guests, and we brought on some really, really cool guests,” Joe said. “They may not be millionaires, but they have a story. Our goal is to promote people like Andy – Andy Lehman has a helluva story to tell. It’s a story of a man who had the small business and went through COVID and the sacrifices he had to make to keep that company going.
“He had the passion to keep moving forward. The majority of our population would crumble in situations like that. Andy and whoever is his supporting cast kept that going through difficult times. That ensures that whenever I need a fishing rod, it’s probably going to be green in color.
“When the show comes out on Thursday, I made a point to showcase that. It’s a great story. It’s a story that works better than a Nike swoosh or a domino on a pizza box. It should be a goal for all of us. Without sacrifice, you’re probably not going to be much of a winner.”
On that philosophical note, Joe said he has a natural gift for getting people to open up and talk to him. He claims that he is the “redneck, chubby version of Oprah Winfrey.”
Not everything turns into a joke to Joe, however. Another of his passions in life is a non-profit called Steaks 4 Sheepdogs. Watching the news one night, Joe saw the story of a mass shooting of Dallas police officers.
“I got mad,” Joe said. “Typically when I get mad, I try to fix the problem. My wife said, “I know you’re going to try to do something about it. What are you going to do?’
“The next day I went down to the police station and told them I was going to need to do a protest, and I wasn’t good at lying in the road and I wasn’t good at holding up a sign, but I could cook a damn good steak. That Friday afternoon, I went down to the police station and cooked 130 steak dinners.
“The next week I went to another town and cooked 300. At current, we’ve cooked over 40,000 ribeye steak dinners all over this country, serving police, firefighters, first responders.
“Every time someone gets murdered – a policeman or firefighter gets murdered – we try to go there and provide some healing through their stomachs, let them know that people who don’t even know them are there for them. I take a lot of pride in that.”
Regardless of the medium or the venue, whether counseling a late construction worker, interviewing a guest on the podcast, or cooking steaks for suffering people he does not know, Joe brings more than a hint of pride to his work. And be sure that he will include the medicinal qualities of food in the mix.