Story by Sandra Davidson
Chef, author, and television personality Vivian Howard believes the arts matter, especially in rural North Carolina. In a special multimedia interview for the North Carolina Arts Council's 50th Anniversary, she reflects on her creative voice, why the award-winning docu-series "A Chef's Life," is "television that improves people's lives," and why access to the arts can transform communities.
Do you remember the first story you wrote about North Carolina?
The first story I ever wrote about North Carolina was a blog post about making collard kraut with my neighbors in Jones County. I had grown up always wanting to be a writer, but [I] kind of lost my way, and found my way in the kitchen. This blog post about making collard kraut was the first time that I ever blended my love of cooking with my love of storytelling.
Why did you want to be a writer?
I wrote at home and I wrote at school. I was known for being a good writer, and I was known as being a good storyteller. I think you want to do things that you’re good at, so I think that’s why I wanted to be a writer. As a kid it was the way that I expressed myself and often times how I would get out of trouble or how I would get attention. If I wasn’t getting attention at home or if I was in trouble, I would go to my room and write an account of what had happened but embellished quite a bit, and then I’d go out in the kitchen and throw my story on the table and stomp off. Inevitably my parents or my sisters would read it and giggle, and everything would just kind of be smoothed over.
Tell me about how your first book came to be?
After the first little bit of our show aired, agents and publishers started contacting me about doing a cookbook. At the time I was being called a cross between Paula Deen and Julia Child, so when I set out to write a cookbook I thought I should write a cookbook that represented what those two people might do if they had a baby. I wrote this proposal that reflected that…and sent it to my agent. I was not thrilled about it, but I was just doing what I thought everybody thought I should do. I couldn’t sleep that night, and the next morning I emailed my agent and said, "Don’t send that proposal to anybody. It’s not the book that I want to write." So I went about writing another proposal that was really lead by the stories of my childhood shaped by food.
I made a list of all the ingredients that I thought represented the food and the larder of Eastern North Carolina, and I chose ingredients based on whether or not I had a story that related to them. I set about writing all those stories first, and then I treated the rest of the chapter like its own book. Every chapter would have a story that represented my connection to that ingredient or Eastern North Carolina's history of that ingredient and a slew of recipes that represent every kind of skill level in the kitchen.
What was your creative process like for the cookbook, and does it differ from your approach to creating new dishes in your restaurants?
I did not have any experience as a professional writer, and with that lack of experience comes a lack of confidence. A lot of publishers loved and went to the mat for the proposal I had written, and that gave me some confidence, but I didn’t have enough confidence to share what I was doing until it was done. I didn’t share it with my editor until I had 10 chapters because I didn’t want them to squash my dreams. I just wrote the stories. In many cases the stories are just in my voice...not my writing voice but my voice. I think it sounds like you’re having a conversation with me.
Cooking and developing dishes at Chef and The Farmer is kind of the same process as writing these stories. I think a dish is so much more successful when there’s a story behind it. When I am playing with new ideas for a dish, I always try to root it in something that I know. I try to make sure there’s a reason for everything on the plate and that reason is generally rooted in some story.
You've cultivated a creative voice through your food, through your television show and through your book. How has your voice evolved over time?
When we first opened Chef and The Farmer, I was still very shameful of this place and where I came from and very keen on the idea of educating the people of Eastern North Carolina on the finer points of service and on sophisticated food. That’s what I set out to do. I was not succeeding at that.
About a year-and-a-half in my dad brought me 500 pounds of blueberries, and I did not have time to do anything meaningful with them over the weekend, and so they sat and started to rot. The only thing I could do to save them was make vinegar, so I made a blueberry vinegar and turned that blueberry vinegar into a barbecue sauce that represented Eastern North Carolina vinegar based barbecue sauce. Then I made BBQ chicken with it which was actually the thing that I grew up eating far more often than whole hog barbecue which Eastern North Carolina is known for. That night we sold more barbecue times ten than anything else, and I felt like for the first time I had made something that was in my own voice. I'd taken my chef sensibilities of knowing how to make vinegar with fruit, and applied it to a dish that Eastern North Carolina is known for and made it personal with the twist of using chicken.
I may be slow but I’m not dense, so I realized that I was on to something and I started paying attention to the people and the food around me. I went to buffets which I would never have dreamt of studying before. I paid attention to the covered dish lunches at my mom’s church. I read every spiral bound church cookbook from Eastern North Carolina I could get my hands on, and I tried to incorporate what I had learned into my cooking at the restaurant and it really transformed our business. People from other parts of the state started traveling here far before the show because we were doing something rooted in something real and rooted in this place that is very rarely celebrated. The people of Eastern North Carolina responded to it because it was familiar but different. It didn’t compete with their grandmother’s banana pudding, but it was approachable and exciting. People from elsewhere responded to it for the same reason. I really credit the steam tables of Eastern North Carolina with unveilng what my professional and artistic voice is.