The First Lady of Carolina Cooking

How 500 pounds of blueberries—and returning home to the South—gave new life to chef Vivian Howard

vivian howard
Vivian Howard, North Carolina native and former New York chef, preps for dinner service in the kitchen at her restaurant, Chef & the Farmer.Tim Robison

This is how the blueberry helped me find my voice.

When we opened Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, Kinstonians made a lot out of my pedigree. A small group of people were thrilled that a local girl, trained in New York, came home to open a restaurant, but most people were a little suspicious. Both groups believed I brought back with me a different notion of how to cook, a revised palate, and a penchant for the sophisticated. What I brought back, unfortunately, were just other people's recipes. I had no sense of the type of food I wanted to cook. And I certainly had no idea how to use food, particularly the food of my childhood, to connect with people.

I didn't grow up at my mother's hip making biscuits or elaborate Sunday lunches. I was instead busy plotting my grand exit from the middle of nowhere, Deep Run, a tiny farming community about halfway between Raleigh and the Atlantic Ocean. If you call Deep Run home, you either live on or adjacent to a farm. No stoplights, no strip malls. And I had big dreams, the kind I believed you could never realize in a community that housed more pigs than people.

deep run
Howard's home in Deep Run (right), where the blueberries aboundTim Robison & Matt Taylor-Gross

I moved away for school and ultimately landed a job in New York City. After a stint in advertising, I began to work in restaurant kitchens, where I met my husband, Ben Knight, a painter who dressed in leather and chains and worked at the restaurant as a server to pay the bills. From our apartment in Harlem, the two of us opened a soup business, delivering to our customers on days off from our other jobs.

One winter during a visit to Deep Run, my family suggested we move back home to give our soup business a North Carolina storefront. Upon our return to a frigid New York, Ben and I trudged through the snow and up four flights of stairs only to discover our heat was broken—and decided it was time for a change.

I live now on the same winding rural road where I grew up and go to work each day 15 miles away in Kinston, where we opened our restaurant in 2006. The first year, we did fine. I made seasonal, tweaked versions of other people's food, and it was pretty good. Did James Beard rise from the dead to give me a medal? No. But at the time, I wasn't embarrassed by any of it.

vivian howard
Howard swaps out saltines for pork rinds in this riff on an oyster bar classic.Tim Robison

Well into the next year, my dad called to say he had a blueberry connection who was ready to make a deal.

A note about my dad: John Currin Howard, like a lot of men, loves a good project. But when most men would settle for fixing up an old car or building a fence around the property, my dad would move two dilapidated homes from opposite ends of the county to our family farm, connect them with a hallway, and make it his nap shack, which Ben and I moved into when we came back home. That's my dad's type of project.

So when John Currin told me he had a source for blueberries, I knew one thing: I was going to be buying a lot of blueberries. That Saturday, just before dinner service—the absolute worst time to receive a massive produce delivery—my dad showed up with 500 pounds of them.

By raising our food traditions up, shining a light on them, and validating them, we've been able to give people a pride in the place they come from.

Even if I had a crew of five people dedicated only to those berries, there wasn't enough working refrigeration in all of downtown Kinston to store them. So the berries sat out in the heat, boxes stacked on top of one another. The next day, Ben and I woke up to a quarter ton of blueberries past their prime.

This was before you could go to the Internet and learn how to pickle a pine tree, so I put my nose in The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook by Patrick O'Connell and stumbled upon a recipe for blueberry vinegar. It sounded good, so that's what I made. Then we had to figure out what to do with 30 gallons of blueberry vinegar. Neither my New York training nor my cookbook obsession pointed me anywhere useful, so I looked around me.

Eastern North Carolina may be known to outsiders for whole-hog barbecue sauced with seasoned vinegar, but a whole-hog pig pickin' is not an everyday event. What I actually ate once a week as a kid was chicken done the same way—split in half, then slowly smoked until the skin crackles and the meat falls apart before being dressed with cider vinegar and spices.

boiler room
Howard's other restaurant, Boiler Room, in nearby Kinston, puts a modern twist on the classic Carolina oyster bar.Tim Robison

A man named Tom Heath, a fixture from my childhood whose connection to my family I can't really explain, used to bring us three barbecued chickens every Saturday morning. Like the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, the smell of vinegar and smoke pulled me out of my bed to our kitchen, the promise of chicken still warm from the coals much greater than the comfort of sleep. Tom's chicken, cooked in smoke and bathed in a mildly sweet vinegar sauce—that's how my blueberry barbecue chicken was born. A few days later, it hit our menu. Our guests loved the way it looked: crispy, crackly, caramelized purple. They responded to the way it smelled: sweet, smoky, intoxicating. But most of all, people loved that it made them remember something they had eaten many times before, and somehow it complemented rather than competed with those memories.

No one was more surprised than I was. The blueberry chicken was familiar, but different. And I pulled it off because I tapped into a deep personal connection to my hometown. I had found my voice in those blueberries, and together we sang about this place.

—Vivian Howard's Deep Run Roots (Little, Brown), from which this essay is adapted, will be released in October.

Get Vivian Howard's Recipes

tomato pie

Roasted and Fresh Tomato Pie

As soon as the first tomato blossom turns into a tiny green orb, people start calling Chef & the Farmer to find out if tomato pie is on the menu. In a restaurant where we sell more big hunks of meat than I'd like to admit, tomato pie outsells everything all summer. If you have access to two different colors of tomatoes, combine them here—one for the roasted portion and another for the fresh. It's a nice visual touch. Get the recipe for Roasted and Fresh Tomato Pie »Tim Robison
cornbread coffee cake

Cornbread Coffee Cake with Fresh Figs and Walnut Streusel

I developed this cake with breakfast in mind, maybe something to share with family over coffee. But when I first made it, my kids named it corn-candy cake and called for it after supper. I obliged and put some whipped cream on top. Whenever you choose to eat it, feel good about baking it a day ahead. It keeps beautifully and is as satisfying at room temperature as it is warm. Get the recipe for Cornbread Coffee Cake with Fresh Figs and Walnut Streusel »Tim Robison
peanut float

Peanut, Pepsi, and Bourbon Float

Peanuts in Pepsi, once a common tobacco field snack, is now a tall glass of fabulous. This foaming spectacle of sweet, salty, creamy, crunchy, and boozy is the gold standard of ice cream floats. The ice cream will keep in the freezer for up to three weeks. Get the recipe for Peanut, Pepsi, and Bourbon Float »Tim Robison
watermelon rind pickles

Watermelon Rind Pickles

Even when summer gets away from us at the restaurant and we're not able to pickle and preserve the heck out of everything in our path, we somehow find a way to make these pickles: It feels good to make something translucent and crispy out of stuff that's potentially trash. That's one reason we go to the trouble. The other is that they're a pork chop's soul mate. Use a vegetable peeler to peel a whole watermelon—it's easier than slicing it up first. Get the recipe for Watermelon Rind Pickles »Tim Robison

Pork Rind Roosters

pork rind roosters
Roosters are an oyster bar standard made up of a single saltine topped with an oyster, horseradish, and several slices of jalapeño. The tradition: You shoot one back, grimace, chase it with a beer, and before you know it, you've eaten a dozen and got a T-shirt to prove it. This is not that. This tastes good. Instead of something you'd eat only after partying a bit, this version is an adept way to start a party. Get the recipe for Pork Rind Roosters »Tim Robison
blueberry bbq chicken

Blueberry BBQ Chicken

Similar to a shrub—a fruit syrup punctuated by vinegar—my Blue Q sauce makes a bracing drink when mixed with club soda or booze. It's also the first step in a fruity vinaigrette. And as much as it loves smoke, this sauce sees my oven more than my grill. Keep in mind this is not a marinade. Brush it on toward the end of cooking and let the chicken soak up more of the sauce before serving. The final soak is key. Get the recipe for Blueberry Barbecue Chicken »Tim Robison

More North Carolina