I am picky about what cookbooks I buy, so my cookbook reviews should mostly be positive. Deep Run Roots, the much-anticipated book by Vivian Howard, is a hefty, pretty thing with an IACP Cookbook of the Year emblem on it, as well as “New York Times Bestseller” emblazoned across the top. Still in doubt? The cover also informs you that the author is a Peabody Award winner for her show, A Chef’s Life. That’s where this whole thing came from, anyhow; A Chef’s Life. It’s how the book came to be, the attention, and it’s also how I came to own the book.
In a recent conversation with friends, I explained that I didn’t have just one top dream vacation, because there are five different reasons you vacation: adventure, romance, literature (art/culture), relaxation, and food. My husband understands that I think this way (though his list would probably just include history and relaxation), so he keeps it in mind when we approach our anniversary, every year. We’re not at a place where we can just trot off to Thailand to vacation (yet), so we find great destinations as close to home as possible. (Sometimes in our own city, bless its foodie heart.) Last year–plenty early–we came up with the idea to go to none other than middle-of-nowhere Kinston, North Carolina.
Kinston, against all odds, has become a destination vacation. Maybe not for everybody, but for way more people than you would guess. Vivian Howard, a native to the area, went away to New York City awhile ago, became a fancy chef, and then returned home with her fancy New York City husband, though she never thought any of that would happen. She ended up getting super curious and even passionate about the local cuisine and culture and pitched a PBS show that took off like gangbusters. Several seasons later, Vivian’s restaurants–the swanky The Chef and the Farmer and the more approachable The Boiler Room–prompt people just like us to visit rural Eastern North Carolina. We also got to stay at a cottage on one of the farms (Brothers Farm) that is featured regularly in the show, which means we also got to meet Warren and Lillie, two of the people on the show. We couldn’t finish up our stay without buying the new cookbook.
(It was, by the way, a great getaway, and I would recommend doing just what we did, as well as taking in some of the other restaurants in Kinston, visiting Nahunta Pork Center and the antiques store downtown, and staying either at a B and B on a farm or The O’Neil Hotel. Brothers Farm is not currently open, though it was a great place to stay.)
Here is my caveat: I am skeptical of cookbooks with too many pictures. I know they’re all the rage, but I actually use my cookbooks, and use them hard. I want lots of recipes and I want them to be good, and I am definitely going to prop that book up next to the stove and sling sauces and powders around it with determined fury. All those photos, to me, just mean money and space and a small guilty feeling when oil spatters on them. Don’t get me wrong: I love beauty. I have coffee table books. And then I have cookbooks.
This book is full of beautiful photos. And it is far bigger than it would need to be if it were just a cookbook. Then again, it isn’t just a cookbook. It’s a personal journey, a cultural ode, and a love letter to Eastern North Carolina’s people, as well as a cookbook. In that sense, the marginless, high-def photos could be justified. But how does the cookbook stack up without them? Are they just gloss without any content?
Nah. The cookbook is full of information, tips, human interest, and–duh-duh-duh-duh!–great recipes. A few of the recipes are straight-forward (though she always justifies these with a circular journey and a heart-warming story), but most of them are creative, one-of-a-kind concoctions that it clearly took her time and experience to perfect, but that she has made accessible to the home cook. I love it when a cookbook author has a palate similar to mine, and hers seems to be. In other words, we like the same things. (However, I am allergic to both okra and collard greens, so two sections of the book are almost useless to me.)
There is no doubt that Howard is a talented chef. She’s also a very hard worker. I’m not sure her and I would be besties, but I really appreciate her insatiable curiosity and her willingness to seek out answers in the real world. Her humility and respect for others is, I’m pretty sure, what draws viewers to her show and what has made her a darling of North Carolina.
If you have seen the show and like it, you’ll like the book. It’s very similar; broken down into important Southern ingredients and woven with both Vivian’s story and her relationships with those around her and with a charming mix of journey and information. Then you can either throw it on the coffee table or on your sideboard–your choice. There are other great Southern cooking cookbooks, but I would definitely recommend this Eastern North Carolina one for your cookbook collection.
Recipes I can’t wait to try:
- Stewed Tomato Shirred Eggs with Ham Chips
- Slow Roasted Beef Short Ribs with Turnip Puree and Gremolata
- Bacon Wrapped Watermelon Rind Pickles
- Butterbean Hummus with Marinated Peppers
- Chocolate Fig Gravy
- Cocktail Tomatoes with Brown Butter Scallops
- Sausage Balls and Dirty Faro
- Peanut, Pepsi, and Bourbon Float