UPDATE: This event has been canceled.
Somewhere South Premiere
Sun., March 15, 4:30 p.m. | The Carolina Theatre, Durham | $15
Episode 2 of Somewhere South begins with a simple montage: An instant grits packet is torn open, poured into a ubiquitous-looking yellow bowl, and slid into the microwave. Voilà: Porridge 101. But like most of the food examined on Vivian Howard’s new PBS show, the dish is not as straightforward as it seems.
Where A Chef’s Life, the documentary series that Howard hosted for five seasons, zeroed in on specific ingredients, Somewhere South fixes a wider lens on Southern foodways. Over six episodes, Howard explores foods that cut across cultures and experiences. The show, produced by the Durham-based Markay Media, premieres this week at the Carolina Theatre. Triangle viewers will recognize a number of familiar faces, including chefs Cheetie Kumar, Ricky Moore, and Michael Lee.
The porridge episode is particularly characteristic of the show’s commitment to candor. Instant grits turn into a conversation about slavery and racial injustice when Howard travels to Charleston to celebrate the late chef Edna Lewis and sits down with African American food writers and chefs to discuss the history of soul food.
It’s not a manicured discussion, and at times the pauses are viscerally uncomfortable. Howard doesn’t rush to fill the silence: sure, she identifies as a storyteller, but she’s there to listen.
But this is what makes Somewhere South so valuable: Nuance has a place at the table. Simple dishes co-mingle with complex ones and familiar narratives with ones that are less celebrated or that have been erased from discourse about the American South altogether.
Beyond the show, which will air Fridays on PBS between March 27 and May 1, Howard has other projects on the burner. In February, she announced that she’ll expand from North Carolina to Charleston, where she’ll open the new restaurant Lenoir and establish a brick-and-mortar for her mail-order baking business, Handy + Hot.
Ahead of the Somewhere South premiere, the INDY spoke with Howard about the foods that, as she puts it, “soften the edges around the way we feel about our neighbors.”
INDY: A Chef’s Life was airing during the 2016 election, and you talked about bridging the urban-rural divide. How has this filmmaking process been different—do you feel the media narrative around those places has changed?
VIVIAN HOWARD: I think it would be hard to argue that the media perspective has stayed the same. But really, our goal is to make content that softens the edges around the way we feel about our neighbors. I had that mission in 2016, and I have the same one now. We certainly are mindful of this because the whole goal of the show was to broaden the definition of Southern food. A Chef’s Life told a narrow version of that story, and in an effort to be more inclusive and transparent and curious, we wanted to dig deeper and learn more and share that.
On that note, what has this show allowed you to explore that you weren’t able to explore in A Chef’s Life?
[A Chef’s Life] was really very much about my personal life and my professional life and my restaurants. The premise behind this is that every episode is about a dish that every culture shares, and it’s about looking at all types of communities in the South and showing us how the South is really just a microcosm of the rest of the nation.
What surprised you the most while filming?
There’s so much. I learned so much about actual human history through food—seeing the common threads between the way we eat. We filmed in Clarkston, Georgia, for this episode on greens. Every culture has their way of cooking greens, and we learned a lot from several refugee communities there. Clarkston is one of the most diverse square miles in the whole nation. We ate at a woman’s house from Burundi, and she cooked this feast for us, and while the ingredients were very different—we had Fufu and Okazi leaves and meat that was braised in red palm oil.
I had never seen any of those ingredients, but it was very much the way that the Southern table looks like. When my family sat down to eat, there was a pot of beans, there was a piece of bread you ate with your hands that was used to sop up the grease from those beans, there was a messy-looking piece of braised meat. It was the same.
It made me feel connected in a way I hadn’t realized that I was.
Shifting gears, you have these new outposts in Charleston. What’s your connection with the city?
I lived in Charleston one summer during college and was a server at Sticky Fingers, like two blocks from where the restaurants will be. As a Southern chef, I’ve traveled to Charleston for far more festivals than I’d like to mention. I always said that if I were to open more restaurants, that would be somewhere that I want to spend more time, and I find Charleston incredibly charming. All that being said, I opened a restaurant in Kinston 14 years ago in an economically depressed region. Kingston has evolved somewhat; it’s a tourist destination. But it still has a lot of challenges. The opportunity to open a restaurant in a city that’s growing, that has a thriving dining scene, and a city that I love—it’s not an opportunity to pass up.
Can you tell me about the restaurant name Lenoir?
I live in Lenoir County. And, you know, names are so hard. Several people pressured me to name it Vivian’s, and I was like, no, I will never, I will not do that. But Lenoir—the word itself is pretty, it makes you question [if] it’s French. I love having the idea of something really sophisticated-sounding tied to this rural agriculture, tobacco-focused county in Eastern North Carolina.
Contact deputy arts + culture editor Sarah Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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