A dream job? Yes. Pinch me? Please. I still can’t believe it happened.
Cooking is a passion for me, but not a profession. And, I don’t want it to be my profession, but when asked to explore this passionate hobby with Chef Vivian Howard, well, I might have squealed when I accepted the job.
This past summer I spent seven weeks living in “Howardville” recipe testing Chef Vivian Howard’s upcoming cookbook, Deep Run Roots. This amazing, moving, passionate, endearing, truthful, soulful, and history ladened cookbook is due out October, 2016 through Little Brown.
Publication is a long process. I would venture to say that cookbook publication is an even longer process than a regular book. And for Vivian Howard, of course, her cookbook is not even a regular cookbook. She’s been working on this book for almost two years. It is part memoir, part technique instruction, part recipe book, and all wonderful. She has classic dishes and, true to her flavor pallette, modern and what I call “pushed” dishes. So, for severn weeks I cooked an average of 3 dishes a day. Somedays, when I was really on fire, I did 7 dishes. It was a LOT of work. I worked 10-12 hour days running to the store (the closest Food Lion was exactly 7 minutes away), running to town (20 minutes away), running to Goldsboro or Greenville (30-45 minutes away-the closest “bigger towns” for fancy cheeses or cuts of meat), cooking, writing recipe feedback sheets, and delivering samples and leftovers to Chef and her extended family. There were a few days that differed. I assisted on a photoshoot and filmed a segment for her show, A Chef’s Life. I went to the beach with the Howard clan for two nights. I snuck away to the beach with my own cousins for two nights. And, I let my mom and dad come down and be my “assistants.” But, most of all, what I did was LEARN.
I learned that I can cook, that I understand flavor in a way I hadn’t before. I understand sweating onions and leeks with just a little salt. I understand blanching, roasting, and I’ve mastered a very thin slice (well mastering for me is getting it right 75% of the time). Pickling is no longer such a mystery (though I couldn’t do it without strict instructions) and canning is my newest back pocket trick. I learned that rice pudding, made the right way, can go from my most hated desert to one of my favorites. I revisited old, country recipes, ones my grandmothers would have made, and decided that the modern versions are my favorite. I learned that history of place and family drives us to either expand our horizons or pulls us close to what we treasure most. I learned that food is central to all the emotionality that time and space offer up.
The biggest lesson was that my hands are my favorite kitchen utensil. How had this not been the case before? Hands can do it all. I told this to Vivian in September and she was surprised by this revelation as well. When home cooks are cooking one dish for dinner we are just fine with the extension utenils (spoons, spatulas, mixers, tongs, etc.) doing the job and touching all the raw ingredients for us. But, when you are cooking for hours on end everyday, it is simply faster and more authentic to just get in there with your hands. And when you are truly feeling the food, you are more in tune with it. You know better when it’s working and when it just seems off. And the feel of separating an egg, letting the yolk nestle on your fingers while the white albumen slides through is heaven.
I didn’t see Vivian very much. And I didn’t really expect to. She was still writing cookbook chapters as I tested. We were on a sort of race with each other. The woman works nonstop. I like to say that she lives at her office in Kinston and has a family in the country. Her work ethic is inspiring. She is driven in a way that I have never seen, but then again, I’ve never seen someone at the beginning of building an empire. Her work consumes her days for endless hours. When my parents came to visit, I drove them past the new Vivian Headquarters (her mother-in-laws former apartment in an old Tire warehouse- we call it VHQ) and there she was, standing in the kitchen, spotlighted by high ceiling overhead lights, working. It was 10pm.
And yet, in all the fuss and hubbabub and constant, constant work, her family is ever present. I was honored to live amongst them in Vivian’s childhood home across the street from her current home, caticorner to her sister’s home and in the front yard of her parents current home (her dad built and moved into an A frame in the backyard a few years ago.) You could call it a compound. They call it “Howardville.”
At times I felt like the fifth sister, spending time with the matriarch, Miss Scarlett, between her daily errands and minding of the family whereabouts. Miss Scarlett became a dear friend and a sort of second mother in those seven weeks. She’s the same age as my own parents and has a similar storied Southern Christian upbringing.
The question I get most, even from Chef, is “What was your favorite dish?” And truly, my answer is difficult to produce. I loved them all, even the ones that were difficult, time consuming, used ingredients that made me squirm, or needed to be tested several ways. But there are a few stand outs: Grilled Flank Steak with Charred Red Onion and Cucumber Relish, Grits and Greens, Blueberry Cobbler with a Cornbread Cookie Crust, Miso Flounder with Cucumber Noodles, Perfect Rice with Herbed Butter, Peanut Butter Ice Cream and Bourbon Pepsi Float, Sweet Potato Ice Cream with caramel and toasted meringue, Sweet Potato and Caramelized Onion Bread, Blueberry and Crab and baked pimento cheese.
I was so lucky to do this job, to experience cooking on a dream level for an amazing chef and writer. Come October 2016, you’ll be lucky too. Make the Grits and Greens first. Thank me later.