I’m a big fan of Vivian Howard. Her show A Chef's Life ran for five seasons on PBS and I’m sure I’ve seen them all. She is a classically trained chef that cut her teeth in New York City but came back to her home, the eastern North Carolina town of Kinston, to open a fancy farm-to-table restaurant, Chef And The Farmer (https://www.vivianhoward.com/chef-the-farmer), with her husband Ben Knight. Vivian’s show generally focused on an ingredient used in her southern cooking at the restaurant, her sourcing and discussing the ingredient, and then her cooking with that ingredient. We see where Vivian gets clams, beans, eggs, persimmons, etc., and all the local characters from whom she gets them.
The show, however, was so much more than I think they imagined it would be. First it detailed the struggle of opening Chef And The Farmer, and a devastating fire early on that the restaurant survived. It deals with the relationship between Vivian and her husband Ben, her parents who offered to help her start the business, and her long time relationship with Brothers Farm and its main man, Warren Brothers, an important supplier, and Ms. Lillie, who I believe works at the farm. Vivian is not concerned about looking bad, she seems anxiety ridden and can be quite snappy in the kitchen. Her quality standards are very high and she wants things done her way. She’s a real person with real problems. One triumph shown in the series is publishing her cookbook, Deep Run Roots, and the fancy book tour that follows. She was on the Today show and toured in a food truck in support of the book. Small town girl makes good.
After pretty much exhausting the ideas in A Chef’s Life, Vivian is back with Somewhere South, again on PBS, with six episodes in the first season. She still follows a featured ingredient and does quite a bit of travel investigating its origin and exploring different versions of cooking it, and often deals with immigrant communities in the US who introduced the ingredient to US cooking or have their own interpretations of what we may view as an all American basic. Her show has transformed from the personal journey of A Chef’s Life to a food as culture show, and there are (mostly) pluses and some minuses to the new approach.
Episode one is 'American as Hand Pies' and she visits a factory in Winston-Salem, NC that has been producing these pies for decades (link here https://bgpies.com/about/). In West Virginia she explores the Italian immigrants who came to work the coal mines and the ‘pepperoni rolls’ they would take in the mines for lunch. As it turns out pepperoni rolls are still a big food item in that area. Talking empanadas, the Latin American hand pie, leads to a Texas family that settled from Spain centuries ago, Jewish people that had to convert to Catholicism, living in Mexican Texas before the state was conquered by the US. These people suffered racism almost to the present day, telling stories of the lightest skinned family member going out to get hamburgers as to avoid conflict with the redneck locals. 'Hand Pies' is well put together and interesting.
The episode on dumplings leads us to Chinese immigrants in Mississippi. It’s great to see the power of America, second generation Chinese folks speaking with a thick-as molasses Mississippi southern accents and wearing tons of Ole Miss gear making real deal Chinese dumplings and Jewish families in Jackson, Mississippi making matzo ball soup. Returning to Kinston, she stops in Durham, NC (Adrienne’s stomping grounds) to check out a few restaurants that also make dumplings.
The greens episode involves nearby neighbors from NC, the Lumbee Indians, who have a special collard green sandwich that looks delicious (here’s a link https://www.ourstate.com/collard-sandwich/). Vivian explores how greens are sometimes used for chow-chow in eastern NC. She visits Clarkston, GA to get greens recipes from African immigrants, and ends up in Cary, NC to sample Indian recipes from that area’s sizable Indian community, new twists on greens.
The highlight of the series is when Vivian has a summit with a number of up and coming African-American chefs. It’s obvious she has come to realize that southern cooking is mostly an appropriation of African (or Slave) cuisine, and to see her break bread with chefs such as B.J. Dennis (champion of Gullah and Geechee cuisine) and Mashama Bailey (owner of Augusta, GA’s The Grey https://thegreyrestaurant.com/) is remarkable; we get to hear these chef’s discuss their views on ‘Southern’ and ‘Soul’ food. Vivian also visits The Grey and goes to Edisto Island in SC to sample Gullah culture.
Vivian is no airbrushed television personality. She’s a real person who is an excellent chef and this series shows that she is trying to learn more. She is still growing as an interviewer, but the show is smart enough to let those she visits take the center stage and tell their own stories. We are all improved by following this part of her journey, and to boot there are some amazing recipes. Somewhere South takes an incisive look at the many influences and cultures that have made and keep remaking southern cuisines. Living and eating in the American South makes it mandatory viewing for me, but there is much to appreciate here for anyone anywhere as the fascinating stories come together.