A few weeks ago, on a chilly weeknight at North Carolina State University, chef and author Vivian Howard delivered one of the sharpest talks I’ve ever heard in a college lecture hall. It was about blueberry barbecue chicken.
Howard is a Lenoir County native and the star of “A Chef’s Life,” the wildly popular PBS series that helped transform Kinston, North Carolina into a fine-dining destination. People travel from all over the country to her restaurant, Chef & The Farmer, for a creative take on southern specialties — dishes like Parmesan creamed hoppin’ john or braised pork shoulder with sweet potato lasagna. More than 3 million people from every part of the United States watch the television show.
None of that would have happened without blueberry barbecue chicken, a brilliant mix of old-school country cooking and high-skill culinary artistry. In the success of that dish, and the unlikely stardom of someone like Howard, there are lessons for our divided state.
When she first returned from New York to open a restaurant back home, Howard envisioned a place serving traditionally upscale, French-inflected dishes. And for a while, that went fine. “We were doing ok,” she told the audience at NC State. “But we weren’t setting the world on fire. No one was driving from Raleigh to eat our food.”
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That changed when Howard began to recognize the value of eastern North Carolina’s food and farming heritage. “I thought I was going to be a teacher, not a student,” she said of her return to Kinston. But she started taking lessons from church suppers, Sunday buffets, and roadside produce stands.
“We needed to appeal to our community, to listen to the people in our own backyard,” she said. “I decided to cook my people’s food, but bring a chef’s sensibility to it.”
Merging those distinct lenses — blending local knowledge with the techniques of a well-traveled chef — is how you get something as delicious and original as blueberry chicken. It became the restaurant’s breakout dish, putting Howard and her hometown in the national spotlight.
It takes a unique perspective to combine something as straightforward as grilled chicken with something as fussy as a blueberry reduction. And that perspective is tough to find in a culture that pits one set of values against another: the authenticity of country cooking against the pretentiousness of haute cuisine, the common sense of rural folk against the snobbery of urban intellectuals, the dynamism of city life against the malaise of small towns.
The divisions in our politics, our media, and our culture make it hard to see that these stereotypes are senseless. The big-city chef is a hard worker in a tough job, and the down-east farmer is an artisan when it comes to butterbean flavors. We all have a lot to learn from one another, and our state has a lot to gain from blending ideas and worldviews.
We also have a lot to lose when we make assumptions and talk past one another. That’s how our rural counties come to be seen as backward and forgotten, starved for enlightenment. And places like the Triangle and Charlotte get painted as out-of-touch and elitist, privileged enclaves separated from the “real” North Carolina.
It’s an easy narrative, one that serves the interests of politicians and partisans who profit from making cultural enemies out of fellow citizens. The truth — that we all possess both brilliance and blind spots, that we all benefit from an open exchange of ideas — is more complicated and more satisfying.
Howard is such a charmer because she’s able to bridge our divides with disarming honesty. On her television show, vulnerabilities and insecurities are laid bare, right along with her pride and accomplishments. “People are really looking for some honest connection, because there’s so little of that out there,” she said.
For her, that means admitting an early desire to escape eastern North Carolina — to finally live “in a town big enough for an Applebee’s”, as she put it. It means finding the humility to listen, to rediscover wisdom in the place she grew up. And it means acknowledging the struggle to keep a foot in two worlds, to be ambitious without getting above your raising.
In finding that balance, Howard has learned to shrug off self-righteousness from all sides. Her talk at NC State was generous and humane, speaking to a shared pride that doesn’t depend on tearing anyone down. She’s using her education and experience not to leave her roots behind, but to share and elevate them.
That’s a recipe we can all work to master.
Eric Johnson works for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.