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Alumna’s Cookbook Celebrates Food of Eastern North Carolina

Vivian Howard (English '00) on her book tour launching her new cookbook.

Before she built a hugely successful farm-to-table restaurant in Kinston, N.C., and became the star of a PBS documentary series on her life in the kitchen and as the mother of two young children, NC State alumna Vivian Howard (English ’00) dreamed of becoming a food writer.

As she began her journey in the culinary world — waiting tables, enrolling in a culinary program, landing an internship working in the kitchen of one of New York’s hottest restaurants — Howard was still thinking about becoming a food writer. But a food writer who had the cachet of having worked in professional kitchen.

Howard can now check that off her lengthy to-do list. Her new cookbook, Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South, recently hit bookstores.

“This is the culmination of that dream” says Howard. “It’s actually better. I’ve been able to blend the two things I love professionally — cooking and writing. I know it sounds so lame and cheesy, but it’s like a dream come true.”

Vivian Howard celebrates the food of Eastern North Carolina in new cookbookThe 564-page collection of recipes, stories and cooking tips has already received positive attention in publications such as Garden and Gun magazine and The News & Observer. The book’s title is a nod to the Lenoir County community, Deep Run, where Howard was raised and now lives.

Howard’s two-month book tour is taking her throughout the Southeast and to Chicago (where her husband, Ben Knight, is from) and Washington, D.C.

Like the episodes of A Chef’s Life, the book is organized by ingredients, with chapters on oysters, pecans, okra, beets, peanuts and other items that Howard says “define the cooking of Eastern North Carolina.” In the book’s introduction, Howard describes Eastern North Carolina as “my Tuscany,  my Szechuan, my Provence.”

“This is a Southern cookbook, but not one that treats the South like one big region where everybody eats the same fried chicken, ribs, shrimp and grits, collard greens and gumbo,” she writes. “Instead, I interpret Southern cooking the way we understand French, Italian and Chinese food: as a complex cuisine with abundant variations shaped by terrain, climate and people.”

While the cookbook includes recipes for dishes served at Chef & the Farmer and the Boiler Room Oyster Bar, the two restaurants that Howard and Knight own in Kinston, Howard says at least two-thirds of the book’s recipes are for home cooks.

“There are some historical recipes in every chapter, the traditional way our people would have prepared it,” she says. “Most of them are meant for average or aspirational home cooks. There’s probably one recipe in every chapter that only someone who’s really into cooking might attempt. I really wanted there to be something for everyone.”

Even though she is the star of the PBS show and the head chef at her restaurants (a third restaurant, a bakery focusing on breakfast, is in the works for next summer or fall), Howard says the cookbook is more of an individual project. The restaurants, she says, are the result of a partnership between her husband and her. The television show is a partnership between Howard and Cynthia Hill, the show’s producer and director.

“But this,” Howard says of the book, “is my solo tour, my first solo album. I have an editor and a publisher and an agent, but still this feels like it’s just me. If the book gets a bad review, or doesn’t sell, it feels very much like it’s my problem and my failure.”

Howard admits to being nervous about the book tour, in part because she’s bringing a food truck to many of her stops so that she can serve the food she writes about in the book. “Nobody’s ever done that before,” she says. “We want to make sure it works and that we have a nice time.”

NC State’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences awarded Vivian Howard its 2015 Distinguished Alumna of the Year award.