Who is the most famous woman in North Carolina today?
Think Eastern North Carolina. Think restaurants. Think public television’s popular program, “A Chef’s Life.”
Then, on Oct. 4, think books. On that date, the revolutionary new cookbook of our most famous woman, Vivian Howard, hits the bookstore shelves, and her photograph on the lovely book cover will be everywhere.
“Don’t you dare skip this introduction!” she writes. Good advice, because she explains in that introduction how and why her book is no ordinary cookbook.
She writes, “This book is the story of my life so far, told through the ingredients that fill the plates and pantries of my home: Deep Run, North Carolina. A tiny farming community about halfway between Raleigh and the Atlantic Ocean, Deep Run is a nondescript dot on Eastern North Carolina’s flat coastal plain. No stoplights, no strip malls – Deep Run is not a town; it’s a fire district.”
She continues, “Eastern North Carolina is my Tuscany, my Szechuan, my Provence. 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 abundant variations shaped by terrain, climate and people.”
She organizes her book in a radical new way. Not by collections of similar dishes like salads, appetizers, main dishes and desserts, but by foods, the raw ingredients. She has picked a large but limited number of foods that are seasonally available in Deep Run, which is near Kinston, site of Howard’s Chef and the Farmer restaurant.
Here are those foods, each of which is a chapter heading in her 550-page book: Corn, Eggs, Watermelon, Oysters, Pecans, Beans and Peas, Blueberries, Sweet Corn, Cucumbers, Tomatoes, Rice, Summer Squash, Sausage, Peanuts, Okra, Collards, Peaches, Rutabagas, Apples, Beets, Muscadine Grapes.
In each chapter she does two important things. First, she shares recipes and suggestions for several dishes that blend other foods and spices with the featured food. Second, she connects the featured food to a story or two about her family, her growing up and early restaurant years, her neighbors, or the nearby farmers who grow the foods she uses.
The reader who finishes these chapters about foods will also have read Vivian Howard’s memoir. And it is a lovely and important memoir of our most famous woman.
For example, in her chapter on eggs, she takes us back to Bethel Baptist Church, where, as a young girl she would spend her Halloweens “next to a cauldron of fish stew bubbling red with an exciting and scary mix of fish heads, spiny bones, and slimy speckled skin all blanketed by hard-poached eggs.”
We learn that eggs are the key ingredient that sets “Eastern North Carolina fish stew apart.”
Another key is never to stir the fish stew, not even, she writes, “if Jesus himself walks on water over to you and asks nicely.”
Howard shares other recipes, illustrated with beautiful photographs, for egg-based dishes like deviled eggs, stewed tomato shirred eggs, avocado and tomato with broken-egg dressing, warm banana puddings, plus simple directions for a perfect hard boiled egg.
Howard gives similar treatment to the featured food in each of her chapters.
The Chef and the Farmer restaurant and Howard’s growing fame as a television personality have brought attention to Kinston and the surrounding region. Howard reminds the people of Eastern North Carolina that their region, with all of its challenges, has a charm like that of Tuscany, Szechuan, and Provence, an asset that can help bring about the region’s renewal.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs on UNC-TV.