See another Women Who Inspire story in the Sunday, Oct. 28 Lifestyles section of The Sampson Independent
Vivian Howard rubbed her thumb and forefinger together, trying to quickly ease the writer’s cramp forming in her hand. In one fell swoop, she tilted her head back, gave her now familiar guffaw and pulled another copy of her book “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South” toward her, signing her name with a flourish.
“You don’t really get used to this,” she remarked, looking up at the huge stack of books awaiting her signature, never allowing the pen to stop, ” but I’ve gotten faster at it.”
She’s not kidding. In less than 45 minutes Howard was finished, 200-plus books signed, stacked in boxes and headed out the door of the Sampson Community College board room to a gathering group of women there as part of the first-ever Women Who Inspire creative conference.
“Last time, I think I signed 2,000 at one sitting. Sometimes it makes my hand a little sore.” She flashes her trademark grin and rises, greeting a handful of women who have found their way to the board room to meet her before the luncheon where she is about to speak.
Howard, star and co-producer of the hit PBS series “A Chef’s Life,’ owner of The Chef and the Farmer restaurant in Kinston and now best-selling author, was at SCC Friday as part of her nine-week book tour, serving as keynote speaker for the Women Who Inspire conference, which also featured a five-member panel of local businesswomen who gave frank testimony to the grit and determination — along with their personal secrets — that helped to make them each successful. Also part of the nearly day-long event was a host of breakout sessions featuring experts in everything from time management and business fashion to finance for the small business owner and wellness for women.
The event was a collaboration between the SCC Small Business Center, the SCC Foundation, the Clinton-Sampson Chamber of Commerce, the James Sprunt Community College Small Business Center, the Duplin County Economic Development Commission and International Minuteman Press. Sponsors for the event were Prestage Farms, Smithfield, Go Automotive, Caison Enterprises, Southeastern Outdoor Products and Huff Orthopaedic Group.
But the luncheon was all Howard, who took the stage to not only read an excerpt from her book, a comprehensive record of modern Southern cooking, filled with stories and more than 200 recipes from the award-winning chef, but to share her own thoughts on the stresses of being a working mother and wife with a drive and determination to be successful.
“There are major stresses to being a working mother, I’ll tell you that is a fact. There’s the guilt factor. I feel guilty when I’m working and not with my twins, and then again, I feel guilty when I’m with my children and not working. It’s just the way it is.”
With her myriad jobs that are taking her across the country, she said, the guilt seemed to always be there. “Look, I’m into my third week on this nine week book tour, so the guilt is there when I can’t see my children, tuck them in at night.”
Howard studied the crowd of women numbering nearly 200, leaned back from the podium and continued.
“You have to strike a balance between work, family … that’s an elusive thing. Heck I’m not sure it even exists. It’s different for every individual, that’s for sure, and it sometimes depends on the stage of life you are in. Right now, I’m leading a very unbalanced life. I mean look at me – I’m on the road, cooking from a food truck, promoting this book. So balance, jeez, don’t ask me about it.”
She laughs along with the audience, a sense of ease sweeping across her face as she admits she wasn’t always comfortable in front of a group as large as the one assembled for the luncheon.
Although Howard said she had “done a fair amount of public speaking” over the course of the last few years, she stressed the fact that she was once introverted and insecure. “But having my entire life broadcast for the whole world to see has brought me out of my shell.”
She laughs again and throws her head back, now looking as if she’s completely at home with the audience.
“While I want to be a present mom and wife, I also have an inner desire to do what I’m doing. So if you’re looking for me to explain balance … sorry.”
During her nearly hour-long remarks, Howard touched on the importance of family in your life, the significance of working hard and the greatness of loving what you do and where you do it.
“A lot of who I am, as it is with everyone, is the way I was raised. To my father, work was like a religion. And I soon realized the harder I worked, the more praise I would get from him. Today I value hard work both in myself and in others. It’s not that different from most of you who, like me, were probably raised on the family farm and grew up understanding the importance of working hard. It was the reality of life.”
‘Deep Run Roots’
Her book, like the PBS series ‘A Chef’s Life,’ is a reflection of a Howard transformed by a strong belief in her eastern North Carolina roots and her desire to celebrate it and bring awareness to it.
It’s ironic from the girl who left her Duplin County hometown at the age of 14, eventually parlayed her desire to be a journalist into a far different craft as a chef, finally returning home to open The Chef and The Farmer with her husband Ben, and the help of her parents, John and Scarlet Howard.
Everything she thought she was leaving behind is now what she celebrates and wants other to celebrate too.
“You see things differently as an adult,” Howard told the group. “Before I wasn’t all that connected to this region, but now I have found the great, great value in the food traditions in eastern North Carolina. It was the foundation for making ‘A Chef’s Life.’ We wanted to raise up our food traditions and show the people of our region for the wise, resourceful people we are.”
Ditto ‘Deep Run Roots,’ a book she hopes celebrates her roots and the food traditions that make the region so special. “I am driven and obsessed with making eastern North Carolina a place where people want to be, a place people want to visit, eat, enjoy. The show, the restaurant and this book are my attempts to do just that.”
Howard said the publication of her book is a lifelong dream. “I always wanted to be a writer,” she attested, a grin spreading across her face. “This book allows me to tell stories through food and through the people who have helped me become the person I am.”
She is the first to admit, she said, that this is not an ordinary cookbook. In fact, she said “Deep Run Roots” is really only about 50 percent cookbook. The other 50 percent, she said is narrative. “It is organized in a very unusual way. I’d say it was very out-of-the-box. It’s ingredients driven, with 25 chapters that are kinda random. It’s organized according to how an ingredient impacted my life and the region.”
To that end, she chose to read an excerpt from the book detailing a story about chicken and rice she once made for her mom while she was recovering from surgery.
“You see, it’s a story about me and my mom, but it could easily be any mother and daughter. It’s about chicken and rice, but also about the relationships.”
Each chapter, she said, is like that, with recipes, narratives and relationships, tied together in a celebration of eastern North Carolina and its foods.
“It’s a unique book and I hope, more than anything, it celebrates this region, these people and the foods and traditions. In a broad sense, this is my large attempt to define North Carolina as a cuisine region. I want to celebrate the region and bring awareness to this region because it is deserved.”
Reach publisher and editor Sherry Matthews at 910-249-4612. Follow her on Twitter @sieditor1960; follow the paper @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.