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CARPE LIBRUM: Consuming every page of Vivian Howard’s ‘Deep Run Roots’

Vivian Howard signs copies of her new book "Deep Run Roots" in the Port City. Photo by Shea Carver.

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Deep Run Roots
Little, Brown, and Co., 2016, pgs 564
By Vivian Howard; photography, Rex Miller

“This is a lot of book.” I hefted “Deep Run Roots,” Vivian Howard’s long-awaited work. “I mean look: full color throughout, lots of text—this is as much story as it is how-to.”  While holding it, I began to understand how it landed so quickly on the New York Times Best Sellers List: It’s not an average cookbook.

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Vivian Howard is the star of “A Chef’s Life” on PBS, which documents her life as a chef and restaurateur in the unlikely locale of Kinston, NC—where she closely works with farmers of the region to produce delightfully refined Southern cuisine. Two weeks ago Howard came to the Chef’s Feast on the River for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina fundraiser in Wilmington. Her book talk and signing was sold out, and the tent hummed with excitement. When the lady of the hour appeared, she began with an apology. She wasn’t dressed up or beautifully coiffed. After 29 days on the road and the flooding in Eastern North Carolina from Hurricane Matthew, she was focused on trying to coordinate a relief fundraiser for her neighbors. Even with no spare time, she was busy reaching out to her chef peers around the country to offer her fish stew recipe. Over four dozen restaurants are doing “Fish Stew Rescue” nationwide through Nov. 5, with all proceeds from the stew’s purchase benefitting flood victims (locally PinPoint, Catch, manna, and Kornerstone Bistro are participating).

“It’s the one we had at church and firemen’s fundraisers when I was a child,” she recalled. “It’s in the book—the one where we crack eggs over the top. If you see it in a restaurant in the next few weeks, please, order it because the money will go to flood relief.”

As Howard talked openly and naturally, I felt the surge of love in the tent rush toward her. This is the secret to her success, I realized. It’s not a manufactured ideal of folksiness, nor is it a heavily made-up pretense of polish. This is a smart, determined woman who can talk with kings and farmers alike, who can inspire retirees to try to skin a rabbit. It’s magic that is hard to define.

Not only does she sparkle in real life, but on the page, too. “This is a storybook as much as it is a cookbook,” Howard stated in her introduction. Anyone familiar with her TV show knows each episode is driven by an ingredient and so is the book. Each section opens with a reflective essay (wonderfully personal reflection, may I add) about a particular food: corn, eggs, rutabagas, okra, blueberries, etc. “Are you running out of ingredients?” an audience member asked Howard.

“Yes!” she answered with a laugh. “I am.”

Howard explained the recipes in each section run the gamut from incredibly simple for the home cook (warm banana pudding) to reflecting her aesthetic as a chef (refried field peas with cheesy grit fritters and celery cilantro salad). But she might as well have said, “This is a picture book!” Every page is full of color and bursting with Rex Miller’s beautiful photographs. It’s almost like having a collection of stills from the show. Not only are there mouthwatering images of food so luscious readers will want to pick it up the page to eat it, but the Howard family augment the food.

Howard gets messy eating her favorite “Elbow-Lick Tomato Sandwich.” She rakes pecans in the driveway with her family. She cans with generations of Kinston women. Miller has a beautiful eye for the action shot. Much of his previous work includes documenting athletes and musicians, and he treats Howard and food with the same interest. It’s not about the pie sitting on the table and everyone looking at it; it’s about the process of the pie becoming a pie and then people sharing it. Food might be art, but it is experiential art.

As the evening at the fundraiser crept forward, the line to get Howard’s autograph and picture got ever longer. Just when I thought an end was in sight, six more people jumped in line to see her. Still, she smiled, joked and had a laugh for everyone. She had been talking with people for six hours, and there were more waiting to have five minutes of her attention. Though I long since wound down and wanted to go home, she had untapped reserves.

When this ends Vivian still has a drive to Kinston in front of her, whereas most of the people here will commute about 10 minutes home, I thought.

The flood waters of Matthew and their devastation awaited her. I listened to her assure multiple people that the restaurant was safe and had reopened (in season one of “A Chef’s Life” the restaurant had a fire which led them to having to rebuild). But the surrounding area and her neighbors worried her most.

It is an odd comparison to make, but James Herriot’s lasting gift to his corner of Yorkshire was not just a lifetime of service as a country veterinarian; it was the ongoing income from the subsequent TV-show filming there and tourism for three generations as a result. Howard has not just given respectability to Southern cuisine, she has made Eastern NC a destination that attracts money from afar—giving a lifeline it needed.

“When I moved home, everyone apologized for being there,” she said. “‘I’m just here until my grandma passes,’ things like that. It’s not good to be ashamed of where you’re from, who you are.” All the warmth and interest in other people that are the hallmark of Howard on TV and in real life also flow through the pages of “Deep Run Roots.” It makes it much more than the sum of its parts.

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