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Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard

There have always been cookbooks around our home. My mom had quite a collection of them. In fact, I even had an uncle, Harold Knapik, who wrote one. Back in 1971, Harold, who was an excellent amateur French style chef, came out with Haute Cuisine without Help. I enjoy cooking very much but the thing is that with a few exceptions I don’t actually read cookbooks. I flip through them, check out how different things are made. I’m not usually interested in details like measurements so much as an understanding of the preparation of a dish. These days if I need to learn about how to go about making something I’ll consult YouTube and channels like Food Wishes.

I’ve recently watched a few episodes of A Chef’s Life on PBS and found it very compelling. I liked the way it combined the business of running a restaurant with family pressures and at the same time looked at ingredients important to chef Vivian Howard by featuring the producers of those ingredients.

Today we live in a processed world in which everything comes to us packaged up and ready to consume. I think of the U. Utah Phillips song, Daddy What’s a Train. Kids don’t even know milk comes from a cow. Rings true, doesn’t it?

I’ve always liked to know the why and how of things, where they came from, why they are this way and not that. A Chef’s Life showcases a chef who has left the hustle and bustle of New York and gone back home to, against all odds, open a restaurant and at the same time come to terms with her roots in rural North Carolina. In the show, she mentions that she took time away from the two restaurants her and her husband operate to write a cookbook. I thought, this is a book I’d enjoy reading.

Deep Run Roots is a big cookbook with lots of pictures and recipes, but really it’s a book of stories about Vivian Howard rediscovering the place she grew up, rediscovering then reinventing the food traditions she grew up with. Most of what I know about North Carolina is about the old time music traditions, about Doc Watson, who lived in Deep Gap and others like Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham and the other legends of Round Peak music from Surry County. I’ve only been there once, and that was to go to Merlefest, which is of course a music festival.

Today we can pop over to the local grocery and find just about anything we might want and at any time of the year. Many of the food traditions Vivian Howard writes about came about due to the seasonality of some foods and the need to preserve them for winter. Hence you have smoked and cured seasoning meats and concoctions like the fermented Collard Kraut.

Deep Run Roots is a big book but a fast read. I gobbled it up in a couple days. Along the way I’ll try some of the recipes (to the extent I’m capable of following a recipe). Even though I’m usually the first to say I’m sick to death of celebrity chefs, I like Vivian Howard’s story and I like her approach to food and ingredients and cooking. I see Deep Run Roots as a memoir disguised as a cookbook. It’s a beautiful book and it would also make a great gift for the foodie in your life. Recommended.


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