When chef and cookbook author Vivian Howard moved home to Deep Run, North Carolina, she felt like she had given up on the opportunity to be successful. That was until she reconnected with the food and community she grew up with. She’s gone on to open three restaurants (Chef & the Farmer and Boiler Room Oyster Bar in Kinston, and Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington) and to write an award-winning cookbook. It’s not an unfamiliar story, but when Howard tells it, it’s something altogether different.
Howard spoke on Milk Street Radio about the early days of moving back and opening her first restaurant, as well as some of the hallmarks of the food that define home for her: Tom Thumb sausage, pickled pork and cornbread.
Check out some of the excerpts from the interview below, and listen to the full show here on Milk Street Radio.
On returning home
When I left here when I was 14, I was certain that I would never move back, and moving back would have meant failure because I wanted to live in a city. I thought all success happened in cities. So when I came back, I felt like I had lost the opportunity to be successful and to do quality work. But what I learned after being here for a while, was that I probably couldn't do what I wanted to do anywhere else, and being back home, surrounded by the food and the people of my youth, really inspired me.
The hard part is coming back to a place that is not necessarily ready to accept what it is you want to do, and feeling like the possibilities are not endless. In small towns in rural America, there are not as many opportunities for people, and that is a hard thing.
What people get wrong about Southern food
One of the things people get wrong about Southern food is they think that it's all about fried chicken and pork chops, and really, historically in the South, people would only have a big piece of meat at the center of the plate, maybe on Sunday afternoon after church. The rest of the time meat would have been treated as a condiment, and so in that way, we are more like everywhere else in the world than not.
What people get wrong about Southerners
I think oftentimes when you read about the South or people tell stories about the South, it's not people really from the South telling those stories and, or there is some other sort of agenda. But my goal is to show Southerners, at least the people around me, as the kind of multidimensional people that they are. They're not mystical fairies who live a slower pace life, and they're also not bumbling idiots. We're all somewhere in between, and I believe that people who live in rural America have a different type of wisdom than people who live in urban America.
On shifting priorities
As an adult with children, my desires and what I require are much different than what I required when I was 23, looking to have an endless mimosa brunch in downtown Manhattan. You know, dinner at home with my husband and kids. Soccer practice, being able to take my kids to school and knowing a lot of the parents. Knowing the teachers and feeling like a person and not a number. Those are things that I look forward to every week. We are important parts of Kinston and Lenoir County. Our voices matter, our story matters. I feel like my kids matter in the community, and that's important to me.
On not upstaging anyone
I have a sister who, despite all of my professional success in the kitchen, I would not dare bring a dessert anywhere near her house for a holiday, because she would just sneer at it. She would sneer so hard, it would melt.
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