I frequently watched “A Chef’s Life,” a PBS reality show/documentary series about Southern chef Vivian Howard that aired from 2013 to 2018, even though a lot of her cooking didn’t appeal to me. A bland Midwestern vegetarian, I’m not into pork bellies and hot spices. I neither cook nor eat okra. (“If the South had a mascot,” Howard says, “it would be okra.”) But a slaw of charred cabbage, crisp apples, and red onions was a salad I could get excited about, and Howard’s blueberry cobbler could satisfy my sweet tooth just by watching her prepare it.
More interesting than the cooking, to me, was Vivian herself. Sometimes she seemed whiny, complaining about things over which it seemed she actually had some control. Always stressed, guilty, and exhausted, she was running two restaurants, raising twins, building a new house, writing a cookbook, and putting on cooking events in far-flung places. “Gosh, Vivian,” I would think. “Say no to something.” But then I’m not an entrepreneur, not the mother of twins, not the star of a tv show. If her neurotic drive occasionally made her less appealing as a person, they made her a more interesting protagonist of a tv show.
I liked her best when she was visiting a neighbor or relative, like Ms Lillie Hardy, to learn how to make a traditional dish. Then she was respectful, funny, and attentive, asking questions even if they seemed dumb. She credited these traditional cooks with her subsequent chef-ly creations, served to the well-heeled patrons of her restaurants. Her establishments and her show, by all accounts, have invigorated her small town in North Carolina.
Ultimately, it was Vivian Howard’s true ambition, revealed in her cookbooks, that grabbed me: what she always wanted was to be a writer. Her first cookbook Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South made this ambition real. I don’t generally buy cookbooks, but I enjoyed perusing this one and eventually bought it as a gift for my son-in-law, also a Southern cook. Each chapter included essays, not merely recipes, on the history of the dishes she presented, written with wit and emotion and illustrated with beautiful photographs. You can find some of her recipes linked here in the Washington Post review of the book.
Her new book This Will Make It Taste Good, which I just checked out of the library, shows off her writing flair in a different way. Here she provides ten sauces or condiments that she calls “flavor heroes.” They can be added to dozens of recipes, including dips, vegetables, chicken, and other dishes, to make them, as she says, taste good. Her trademark wit and blunt opinions make this book fun to read, even if you never attempt a recipe. Consider this paragraph on baked beans, which she recommends preparing from scratch instead of pouring from a can.
If you go to the miniscule trouble of baking beans uncovered in an actual oven, you’ll notice the step creates a variation of textures that makes them more showstopper than afterthought. The beans on top dehydrate and caramelize with the help of the sugars in the sauce. They form a crust for the creamy, porky, sweet beans underneath. They’re equally as addictive at room temperature as they are piping hot out of the oven, maybe even more so. That makes them an ideal choice for cookouts that call you to the yard, not the kitchen. Perhaps that’s why baked beans became a thing in the first place.
She ends the recipe’s introduction by slyly asking, “Dare I say we need to make baked beans great again?”
Maybe I’ll try one of her recipes over the weekend and share my experience on Monday. Or maybe I’ll just keep reading.