One of my favorite recipes in Vivian Howard’s new cookbook, “Deep Run Roots” (Little Brown), is one I will probably never make. The list of ingredients for Hoarded Corn includes: an afternoon, trash bags, the biggest pot you have and at least 200 ears of sweet corn. “This is a process,” Howard writes, “so make sure you hoard enough corn for it to matter. . . . With several sets of hands and lots of life to discuss, the work goes fast.”
The result is some 20 quarts of frozen corn kernels that you can use all winter. But it’s more than that. It’s a tradition in recipe form. Howard is striving to deliver a cookbook version of what she has done so improbably and successfully before: Open a restaurant that showcases the food of eastern North Carolina. Then turn that story into an award-winning PBS reality TV show, “A Chef’s Life.” For Howard, the 200-plus recipes in “Deep Run Roots” are one more way to introduce people to what she calls her “corner of the South.”
It’s a compelling proposition, if the fans lining up are anything to judge by. Howard hit the road Oct. 4 in a food truck for book sales and signings and plans to make 41 stops for events across the eastern United States before Thanksgiving. (She will be in Arlington and Bethesda on Nov. 13 and 14, respectively.) The events, which include a book and a meal made up of such Howard specialties as pimento-cheese grits, Eastern North Carolina fish stew and banana pudding, were limited to 200 people and have sold out in many cities.
Howard is indisputably charismatic. She’s beautiful, talented, hard-working and, contrary to most reality-TV stars, utterly real. She stresses about which dishes go on the menu, about her staff, about her twins, Theo and Flo. Viewers of Season 3 of “A Chef’s Life” even watched Howard beat herself up for missing her deadline for this book.
The delay was surely attributable in part to the fact that books always take longer than writers imagine — especially if you are a chef running two restaurants and filming a TV show, and the final product clocks in at 576 pages. But it was also because Howard was determined to write the book herself rather than delegate to a ghost- or co-writer, as so many TV chefs do.
Good decision. A chef by training, Howard is first and foremost a storyteller. Her essays contain both deep thoughts and passages that make you chuckle. Consider the first line of an essay on okra: “If the South had a mascot, it would be okra. Loved, hated, misunderstood, defended, and worn like a badge that defines you, both okra and my region’s people go out into the world pridefully carrying the same baggage.”
Howard’s personality is also visible in the recipe headnotes, which, sadly, are becoming a lost art. In so many books, these short introductions are obligatory, offering only make-ahead tips or a syrupy story. But Howard makes every one count. Take this summary of her Blueberry-Rosemary Breakfast Pudding: “Dear Blueberry Muffins and Pancakes, I’m sorry,” she writes. “This bread pudding brings everything you do to the breakfast table and it can be assembled the night before.” In 26 words, Howard tells you how the dish tastes and reassures you that you don’t have to whip up a batch of muffins on a Sunday morning.
Sandwiched amid the fine culinary writing are many delicious recipes. Like the TV show, each of the book’s 24 chapters focuses on a different ingredient (peaches, pecans, collards, etc.). That makes sense for storytelling, but, as Howard acknowledges, it is tricky for cooks looking for inspiration for soup or dessert. And so she has added a front-of-the-book index that makes it easy to find recipes you need.
That bread pudding, with its crunchy sugary topping, was a hit with tasters. A ceviche made with oysters, diced apple and charred scallions was a reminder that oysters can, and should, be eaten other ways besides simply freshly shucked. Howard is also happily unafraid to offer her readers shortcuts, such as already-shelled raw peanuts or Uncle Ben’s rice.
Of all the dishes I made, my favorite was Scarlett’s Chicken and Rice, named for Howard’s mother. Also called a “bog” in parts of the South, it involves simmering a whole chicken — preferably an older stewing hen — until it’s falling to pieces, then adding rice to make a rich and starchy stew that could be bottled and sold as a cure for winter colds. It was, in my mind, perfect in its simplicity. But my husband used it as a blank canvas, adding peas, mushrooms and a dash of hot sauce. (That, too, was delicious. Just don’t tell Scarlett.)
The problem is, it could have been a disaster. The recipe encourages cooks to find a stewing hen but neglects to instruct us to skim off the fat before adding the rice. I took nearly 10 ounces of fat out of the pot; leaving it in would have resulted in a greasy mess.
According to the publisher, Howard tested the recipes by watching as a home cook made them. Apparently, that led to some oversights. For example, for a surprisingly lovely sliced-turnip and orange salad, Howard assumes you are getting big bunches of greens atop the roots, which is not the case at most farmers markets and certainly not true at the grocery store. An indication of just how many turnip greens you need — and what to substitute if you don’t have them — would have been welcome.
Still, anyone with a little experience in the kitchen can work through those issues. That leaves me with one major complaint: the photos. Rex Miller, the director of photography for “A Chef’s Life,” shot the pictures. The ones of Howard and the scenery of eastern North Carolina are, like the show, charming or downright stunning. But food photos — a foundation of any cookbook — look amateurish. That delicious chicken and rice looks gray and unappetizing. In too many cases, you have to trust that the food will taste better than it looks.
The good news is that you can trust Howard. For 10 years, her honesty and authenticity have been on display at her restaurants and on TV. Her new book shows them off, too.