Tag Archives: Vivian Howard

Two Southern Cookbooks


dscn0552 Back when I first got interested in learning about food and foodways, I discovered the pleasure of reading well-written cookbooks by chefs with a point of view. I read them cover to cover like a novel – focusing on the commentary and comments. I generally skim over the individual recipes, making note of particular dishes I might like to come back to and tackle at some point.

In the last year I haven’t had a lot of time to check out cookbooks. However in the past month I made the time to read two great ones by two Southern chefs whose food I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying at those wonderful Alabama Chanin dinners at the company’s Florence factory.

Vivian Howard was the chef for my first Friends of the Café dinner. At the time the PBS show A Chef’s Life was already chronicling her restaurant Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina. That award-winning program has familiarized audiences with Howard’s point of view and with her husband and partner, Ben Knight, her parents and family, and staff. Many people first learned about Glenn Roberts and his preservation of endangered grains at his South Carolina Anson Mills operation through an episode of A Chef’s Life. Farmer Warren Brothers and his staffer Lillie Hardy are popular semi-regulars on the series. I was able to access a bushel of my mother’s childhood favorite apples, Hackworths, based on an apple episode of A Chef’s Life.

In each episode of her show, Vivian Howard explores a local ingredient by going to the source. She then features a traditional preparation of the ingredient and goes back to her restaurant and “exalts” the ingredient with her restaurant’s culinary take on the basics.

Vivian Howard’s long-anticipated Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South (Little, Brown and Company; 2016), with photographs by Rex Miller, hit the shelves in October. I bought it on the day of its release. Actually, I showed up at my local bookseller a day early and had to come back the next day to get a copy.

Anyone who is familiar with the television show will be immediately at home with the packed cookbook. Each section focuses on an ingredient and features Howard’s essay (she’s an excellent writer, by the way) and a blend of recipes suited to every kitchen and skill level.

When people who are familiar with Chef Howard find out that I attended Howard’s Friends of the Café dinner at the Factory, the first question is “Did she serve Tom Thumb?” I regret that she did not (although she did serve a version of her famed Cherokee purple tomato sandwich, so there!) but Howard aficionados know that Tom Thumb is a sausage mix stuffed into the cleaned and rinsed cavity of a pig’s appendix. It is unique, apparently, to eastern North Carolina where she grew up. Her Tom Thumb recipe comes from her father’s mother’s family. You can find the details in the book but I will never tackle that one. I’ll wait until I can taste Vivian Howard’s preparation of it one day.

Howard’s book also includes her mother’s recipe for chicken and rice that she and her mother, Scarlett Howard, made famous on the show. I can vouch for that one.

Vivian Howard is endearing and prickly and I suspect that her show’s award-winning success is due in part to the way those qualities are balanced. Her show is addictive and her book is compulsory for any cook who wants to explore authentic Southern cuisine off the beaten path. She writes:

This is a Southern cookbook, but not one that treats the South like one big region where everybody eats the same fried chicken, ribs, shrimp and grits, collard greens, and gumbo. Instead, I interpret Southern cooking the way we understand French, Italian, and Chinese food: as a complex cuisine with variations shaped by terrain, climate, and people.

Vivian Howard is what my Grandmother Harbison would have called a “pistol ball.”


So is Chef Sean Brock. His cookbook, Heritage, with photographs by Peter Frank Edwards (Artisan; 2014), synthesizes his Virginia heritage with his culinary training and his adult experience as the acclaimed chef of Charleston’s McCrady’s and of Husk, with locations in Charleston and Nashville.

Sean Brock was the chef of my most recent meal at Friends of the Café in Florence.  Now, after eating his meal and reading his cookbook, I feel like he might have been my best buddy in another life.

Heritage is as compulsively readable as Deep Run Roots and each treads some of the same territory, albeit with somewhat different perspectives. Brock’s passion for farm to table seems even more compulsive than Vivian Howard’s and his gorgeous book is an educational text as much as it is an autobiographical and culinary one.

Brock plays loose and free with his opinions on every page of Heritage. While Vivian Howard focuses each chapter of her book on a specific ingredient, Brock  titles his chapters with subjects like “The Garden,” “The Yard,” “The Creek and the Sea,” “The Public House,” and “The Sweet Kitchen,” etc. and includes a plethora of applications for each category. I love anything pickled but have had a fear of the pickling process; Sean Brock and Vivian Howard have given me the courage to pickle, maybe.

Sean Brock’s respect for his heritage, his ingredients, his colleagues, and his methods are contagious. I was already inquisitive about food and foodways and now I want to find out even more. I realize that questioning the growers, chefs, home cooks, and purveyors is not invasive but a way of preserving and “exalting” a culture and its ingredients. I already knew that but Heritage reinforced it.

A few years ago Alabama native chef Scott Peacock moved to Marion, Alabama, and was interviewing older home cooks throughout the state in an effort to archive and preserve their methods and techniques. This is a mission that Brock and Howard exemplify and carry forward in their debut cookbooks.

If you are a cook, or if you just appreciate thoughtful and well-prepared food with a human touch, these are texts you will cherish.

“The Professional Southerner” — and why

IMG_3349I think I was living in Indiana the first time I was referred to as a “professional southerner.” As I recall, it was around 1994 and I was frustrated because I had been unable to find okra in the produce sections of the local grocers. Someone innocently asked why I ate okra and my shock made me launch into a monologue of the virtues of okra and all the ways in which it could be consumed. But my favorite way was breaded and fried in the particular way my Grandmother Harbison had always made it and I had been craving fried okra around that time of that Indiana summer.

This led to questions about other ways in which okra could be consumed (I told them pickled okra was my favorite Bloody Mary garnish), other foods I like, and other queries about Southern foodways. Someone in the group mumbled, “I never realized you were such a professional Southerner,” and we all laughed but over the years, as I lived and traveled in other parts of the country, I became aware that I was often the go-to guy for issues dealing with the South and what it means to be Southern.

Having said that, I am a proud Southerner but very few people would classify me as a “typical” Southern male with all of the misconceptions and stereotypes that label evokes. But I realized, after traveling and working in different places – and to my surprise, really – that not only was the South my home, but that it was the place I best understood and the place where I felt most comfortable. It was the place I wanted to come back to. My politics, for one thing, are not typical of the South, but they are also not as atypical as some might suppose and I resent the whole “Blue State / Red State” way of thinking because it gives such a divisive idea of what is really happening in our country.

Not long ago, my friend Cindy and I attended a “Piggy Bank” dinner at the Factory of Alabama-based fashion designer Natalie Chanin in Florence, Alabama. The event was to honor Southern food and to benefit Southern Foodways Alliance. The chef for the evening was Vivian Howard who owns and runs Chef and the Farmer, a farm to table fine dining restaurant in Kinston, North Carolina, with her husband Ben Knight. Between the entrée and the dessert, Shonna Tucker, an Alabama-born musician who has recently moved to Florence after many years on the road, sang her striking and original songs. The dinner guests were a wide range of people who shared an amazing communal meal and one of the most convivial and relaxed evenings I have enjoyed in a long time. At the end of the evening, all of the diners stood and sang “You Are My Sunshine” to Vivian Howard, led by Natalie Chanin, one of the most innovative and conscious fashion designers working today.

That night, walking from the Factory to the car, I commented to my friend that “This is one of those nights when I can’t imagine living anyplace else but Alabama.” And I decided that I – who have always detested the idea of blogs and the label of “blogger” – would make an effort to record and share some of the things that make my South so special to me. Plus, I have been told that I “think loudly.” Maybe, by writing this online journal, my loud thoughts will become more specific and defined.