We met at Book Expo of America in Chicago this year. When I held out my hand and started thanking you for introducing the world to Eastern North Carolina (ENC), I was overcome with emotion. To my surprise, I started getting choked up. You consoled me by explaining that people get emotional when they talk about home with you. Just like a true southern dame, you didn’t leave me standing in the middle of a sea of people with my mascara running.
I was going to write a review of your cookbook, Deep Run Roots, which I have been anticipating since I caught wind of its publication, but I cannot possibly write an unbiased review. I knew it from the moment I ripped open the envelope and held the enormous cookbook in my hands. You took me home.
Like you write about, I too have a stack of cookbooks by my bed. Yours graced the top of the pile and I read it cover to cover, start to finish, in a couple days. Your writing reminds me a lot of my own. I’d like to think we’re cut from the same cloth, you and me; dreamers stitched with sentimental, loyal fibers.
Your cookbook reads like a novel. Like A Chef’s Life, emphasis is placed on the ingredients (each standing alone as chapters) and the people who inspire the recipes. You, friend (can I call you friend?) are a storyteller, though a chef by trade. Your writing made me laugh out loud. And yes, it made me cry. Anyone who’s ever put a loved one in a nursing home, weighed down by Bible Belt guilt, will shed a tear or two when (s)he reads the essay introducing the fig chapter.
Your cookbook also moved me because it evoked feelings of nostalgia, homesickness and pride in my ENC roots. And as I know you understand, it has taken me a LONG time to reach this place. I’ve avoided and felt embarrassed about my roots–dare I say I’ve resented them–for the majority of my adult life. So much so, I moved 5,000 miles away to redefine myself and forget, or ignore in the very least, where I came from. I’ve learned, though, that running away from those roots was the same as running away from myself.
It’s because the smell of the seafood section in the grocery store reminds you of the Crystal Coast. Or tilling your rocky garden makes you long so desperately for the sandy loam that you used to take for granted. Or every cold day reminds you of the terribly hot, humid August ones. Or on a day you’re sitting outside on a porch, you get a hankering for a Pepsi cola in a glass bottle with either a pack of Nabs or a handful of peanuts. Or in the fast-paced world of suits and traffic, you long to drive back roads hugged by soybean fields, flat land, and thick forests. For years, I’ve taken this beauty for granted.
Growing up, I certainly didn’t notice the beauty in its food. At family reunions, everything on the table was slightly-varying shades of brown from being fried, boiled-too-long, or made from a box. Don’t get me wrong. I love a piece of cold fried chicken and cornbread just as much as the next southerner, and growing up my favorite breakfast was a pack of instant grits with American cheese and bacon bits (sound familiar?!) but beautiful these are not.
Your recipes, with their simple, understated photos and beautiful food illustrations, are familiar but fresh. The Chicken and Rice (be still my heart), Tempura Fried Okra with Ranch Ice Cream (my word!), Pimento Cheese Grits with Salsa and Pork Rinds (Heavens-to-Betsy!) all sing the praises of our homeland while appealing to anyone who claims to love food.
Because of my ties, I journey home as I cook my way through your book. I started this weekend when I made the Chocolate Orange Beet Cake with Cream Cheese Walnut Frosting. I served it to a house full of guests and everyone loved it, including the kids. The color of the cake itself was stunning, reminiscent of red velvet but something entirely different, and taken to another level by the addition of the orange syrup and the chocolatey, cheesy, walnut-y frosting. I also loved it because it wasn’t cloyingly sweet, which makes it a HUGE win in my book!
So, Viv, once again I thank you for shedding a little light on our “Tuscany, [our] Szechuan, [our] Provence”. And thank you for doing it with so much talent, grace, emotion, and love. Because it takes a lot of love and heart to do what you’re doing. On behalf of all ‘Down East’ expats, whether by choice or circumstance, I would like you to know that your heart and love connect us to home through the ingredients we know best. To some extent, your stories are our stories. Your family’s recipes are our family’s recipes. Your loss/gain is our loss/gain. Your love for home is our love for home. A home we can feel proud of. Thank you.
Maybe your biggest fan,
What the cookbook is/does well: Storytelling and a 564 page ode to the Coastal Plain of North Carolina
What the cookbook is not: Organized for quick reference.
Who this book is best suited for: Anyone who loves stories with their supper and food anthropologists, novice or expert.
Three words to sum it up: Respectfully & Freshly Familiar