Vivian Howard has worked hard to become an authority on Southern cooking. Her Peabody Award-winning TV series “A Chef’s Life,” which premiered on PBS in 2013, depicted the small-town chef as teacher, introducing viewers to ingredients that inspire her seasonal menus at Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, NC. Her 2016 cookbook “Deep Run Roots,” a New York Times bestseller, furthered this narrative, mixing recipes with personal anecdotes and establishing Howard as something of a Southern Julia Child. Along the way, she opened more beloved restaurants, including Boiler Room Oyster Bar in Kinston, and local favorite Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington.
Howard’s new show, “Somewhere South” (also on PBS), finds her assuming the unfamiliar role of student, as she enters various kitchens around the South to learn more about her culinary heritage. The show takes a non-traditional approach to traditional Southern cuisine. Viewers won’t find typical, diner-style biscuits and gravy; instead, Howard explores the region’s myriad cultures and staple dishes that unify them.
“The South is a diverse place with a lot of communities and cultures that call it home,” Howard says. “It’s not just black and white.”
The six-episode series premiered on March 27 with a pilot exploring the history of hand pies. As Howard journeys to find the most efficient method of making hand pies for her in-the-works online bakery, she uncovers their rich history.
As it turns out, the hand pie began in immigrant communities of strenuous day laborers—coal miners, factory and field workers who needed a filling, mobile food option to get them through a day’s work. Hand pies since have evolved into different forms: the sweet treat of an applejack, an empanada or a savory calzone.
“There are only pieces of our history that we’ve been taught,” Howards says. “[When you explore], you see the South for what it is and what it was and how we got to this place. I learned a lot in that process, and I wanted to be part of sharing a more accurate story about how we got where we are.”
Another episode explores the history of porridge. Every culture or region has some version of the dish, with the Southern staple being grits. To learn more about how this dish came to be, Howard traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, and discovered the surprising origins of this “soul food.”
Like most of us, Howard says she had always associated slavery with labor; however, she learned many African Americans were selected initially and brought to America based on their knowledge and skill of cultivating rice—a grain that was the backbone of the Southern economy for years. “That’s an important point that reframes slavery and, really, African Americans’ contribution to our economy and certainly our cooking traditions,” she tells.
Howard and her crew spent three years traveling all over the South, from tasting dim sum in the Chinese communities of rural Mississippi, to exploring the Japanese barbecue of Southern Texas, to attending a smoked mullet festival in Central Florida. (The latter was the surprising winner for her favorite dish while traveling.) Each location was an unlikely food destination within itself, showing how each community offers its own cuisine and traditions.
Howard believes food evolves from our individual experiences. Cultures inevitably shape the environment around them, which in turn influences food. This creates a story to tell. “We tried to look at places where their stories are not often told,” Howard admits.
“Somewhere South” proved a steep learning curve. Whereas “A Chef’s Life” focused on Howard’s personal story and her own relationship to food, “Somewhere South” forced her to reflect on the difficulties of filming the other side: telling the story in a way that accurately represents the undocumented struggle behind a group of people.
For example, in an upcoming episode, she will travel to North Carolina and visit the Lumbee Tribe to taste a collard sandwich: two slices of thin, fried cornbread, stacked with collards and fatback. She learns about the foundation of the unique handheld and its roots in Robeson County.
“On ‘A Chef’s Life,’ it was really just my story, so I could say whatever I wanted to within that because it was mine,” she says. “But when you’re sharing other people’s stories and wanting it to be their representation of things, it’s just a different way of approaching it. That was something we always had at top of mind.”
Along the way, it’s become the most rewarding part of filming the show for Howard. As she journeyed to unlikely food destinations and dug deep into their cultural paradigm, she found with each experience more similarities than differences. Consequently, this led her to feel more connected to the South and its contributions to the greater global community.
“We all break bread for the same reasons,” Howard says, “and they’re both to fill our bodies and to fill our souls.”
“Somewhere South” airs every Friday night at 9 p.m. on PBS. For more information—and for recipes for pepperoni rolls, applejacks and more—visit somewheresouthtv.com.