PBS's A Chef's Life

Photo from www.achefslifeseries.com

I don’t normally watch cooking shows. Mostly because they make me hungry. But a Twitter friend turned me on to A Chef’s Life on PBS.

I don’t know Vivian Howard, the chef/star of the show. But I feel like I do. She grew up in Eastern North Carolina and has is in possession of an accent you want to just fall into and never leave. It warms my heart. She sounds exactly precisely like the kids who attended Camp Morehead with me. And that is a good, good thing. The Eastern NC accent is a particular accent that if you haven’t had the pleasure of drinking in deeply, you are truly missing out.

Vivian also escaped to New York City for a number of years and only returned home when her parents offered to help her and her (Yankee) husband start a restaurant. I didn’t know Vivian when she lived here, but I could have. And we would be friends. Right?

Before I get too creepy/stalkery about the whole thing, let me tell you the other three things that make the show for me.

First, I love that each ep features a particular ingredient. Now, they may mostly be a little stereotypically “Southern” but I don’t care. Let’s talk real strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, pigs, grits, and muscadine grapes. I’m just fine with that. Almost licked the TV screen.

Second, I love the farmers and older people who help educate her on how to prepare different ingredients. More of that North Carolina accent, please. And the salt-of-the-earthiness. I want to give out hugs.

Finally, there’s a dose of reality in this “reality” show. By that, we discover the first episode that their restaurant burns down and they have to rebuild. Their reaction feels real. And in each episode Vivian and her husband, Ben, well, they kinda bicker a little bit. No one throws any wine glasses, nor do they pretend a Martha’ Stewart level of having-it-all-together facade. Just some back and forth like normal humans do. Refreshing.

I also like the difference between how Vivian appears when she narrates and teaches in the “educational” portions of the show when she is wearing her makeup (she looks looks great) contrasted with the “documentary” portion when she is in chef’s mode (kinda, well, frumpy). Not only does this make me feel okay about writing this post in m’sweatpants, but also reminds me that my mother was probably right about the difference “puttin’ on your face” makes after a certain age. Sigh.

All that is to say, my future best friend Vivian didn’t pay me a dime to talk up her PBS show, but I’m doing it anyway, because I’m really enjoying it. Check it out online here.

(originally posted on Just a Pinch of South, 2013)

Hacking the Rockaways

rockaway umbrellas

You are dying for a day at the beach, and you’ve heard of the Rockaways*, but you’ve never been. Do it right. Here’s how to kill it your first time out.

1. Check the beach forecast. Sure, it looks sunny out the window of your 4th floor walkup, but the Rockaways are nearly 20 miles from Midtown Manhattan. Coastal weather can be very local, so be sure to check the conditions for zip code 11694. If it’s not going to be hot and sunny, just pivot to brunch and save the beach for another day.

2. Get up early. You work hard all week: we get it. Setting an alarm for a lazy beach day may seem counterintuitive, but the chance to lay claim to the best bit of beach before the crowds has its own rewards. You can always nap while you work on that cocoa butter tan. Plus, there’s a great Rockaway breakfast option (Thurs-Sun) you can only get before 11 am (see #5).

3. Obey your subway app. Estimated travel time via the A train from Midtown is about 1.5 hours. Now before you let that get you down, keep in mind that that is less than the wait for brunch at Clinton Street Baking Company. Here’s a little trick that may save you a few minutes. Sometimes it is faster to take the A to Broad Channel and switch to the S train that goes along the shore, however, depending on the whims of the MTA, it may be faster to take the A to Rockaway Boulevard and then switch to the Q53 Limited bus, which follows nearly the same route. Only your subway app will know for sure (try HopStop). Check it as you are pulling into the Rockaway Boulevard stop. If you take the bus, note that the Q53 stop is under the (elevated) subway stop. Take the bus to the 97th Street stop (across from Rockaway Taco, see #5 yet again). If you take the S train, get off at the Beach 98th Street stop.

4. Bring cash. Nearly every place you want to eat or shop is cash only. Don’t be the sucker paying outrageous ATM surcharges. Bring the green stuff.

Rockaway Taco taco

5. Eat well. The grim concession stands at Jones Beach are no match for the creative and tasty options at Rockaway. The mother ship of comestible goodness is Rockaway Taco. Set back a few blocks from the beach proper, the crowds of knowing hipsters lining up for lunch at 11:30 look more like tan LA transplants than the pale Brooklyn species we are more accustomed to seeing around the city. These city surfer types know what’s good because the tacos and fresh juices are on point. If you follow #2 and arrive early, Rockaway Taco serves chilaquiles (tortilla chips smothered with sausage and egg) for breakfast. Good stuff. Save some room because just a few blocks away right on the beach is the 97th Street Concession providing more delicious and unusual dining options from the kind of purveyors you would expect to see at Smorgasburg. We are fans of Bolivian Llama Party, and you will be too once you’ve tried one of their Triple Pulled Pork Chola sandwiches. If that’s not to your fancy are plenty of other options including La Cevicheria,  Breezy’s BBQ, and the Lobster Joint.  

6. Slather, rinse, repeat. It’s easy to be distracted by the good food from the actual point: enjoying the sand and the surf, but don’t forget to apply a generous dollop of sunscreen before you sit back relax and enjoy your urban beach day


*Never heard of the Rockaways? What are you, new to town?

The Rockaway Peninsula, usually called “the Rockaways” faces the Atlantic Ocean and happens to be in the borough of Queens. The beaches are wide and some of the shoreline has surfable waves.  In the neighborhoods along the shore you may find a set of row houses next to a surfer bungalow down the street from both a boarded up store and a rather fancy looking high rise. It’s a mix of decrepit buildings and new post-Sandy construction. The Hamptons it is not, but that is part of the charm.

Aspirational Southern Cooking Circa 1929

I found a little 64 page cookbook written in 1929 called "Our Favorite" and Tested Recipes compiled by some sort of committee of ladies from Atlanta. It must have belonged to my paternal grandmother. In the forward these ladies write:

Realizing the complexity of the present mode of life, and the high cost of living, this book has been collected and complied for the young housekeeper, who needs some tested and not too expensive but good recipes, from the homes of some of Atlanta’s good housekeepers, and their friends, noted for their good dishes. To them this Book is dedicated with the wish that there is never a failure.

And by “housekeepers” they do not mean hired help. They mean wives. How nice of them to think of young women and their need to never have “a failure.” I guess if housekeeping is all one puts her energy into, an unsatisfactory meal would have a certain emotional weight about it that it might not today.

What is also interesting is how very few of the recipes listed are what we think of as particularly “Southern” in nature. No fried chicken. They list chicken a la king, then croquettes, fricassee, panned and escalloped chicken. That is it. They list more puddings, not desserts, but puddings, than they do chicken recipes. There is an extensive list of different cakes and cookies. I have to say I don’t disagree with these ladies’ priorities. It’s hard to have a failure if you’ve got a good dessert.

I’ve included a recipe from the “Sandwiches” section that sounds delicious. And Southern. The name of the lady who submitted it is listed along with how to make it. Credit must go where it is due.


The Varsity Blues


My mom died in 1997. My father called me at 6am and met me at the airport a few hours later.

When we walked in the door at home, it was already beginning to buzz with my mother’s close friends. Ann C and Ann P, our housekeeper Geraldine, Mrs. N. They were in the kitchen, mostly, doing I-don’t-know-what. Keeping busy. Trying to help.

By this time, I was drained, dazed, sad, yet relieved mom was no longer suffering. It had not been a matter of whether she would make it or not, but when she would go.

I didn’t really want to talk. What was there to say? I didn’t even need to cry. I was cried out. Watching the women at work, I felt a little lost.

The past few months my visits home had been about helping care for my mom, relieving my dad so that he could rest, and now there was nothing much for me to do.

He, too, seemed not to know what to do with himself. My mother always said, “Your father is good in a crisis.” Which is true. Those situations always bring out the best in him. But after the crisis? What is one supposed to do then? I think he picked up the newspaper and pretended to read. I wandered around the house trying to look occupied. Family would arrive soon enough. The house would fill up, and we would be busy with preparations for the funeral, but not yet.

There was a knock. My father’s friend Neal stood on our front porch with two boxes from The Varsity. Hamburgers, french fries, chili dogs, slaw dogs, pimento cheese burgers, onion rings. He presented his gifts and left a few minutes later.

It was such a small thing. Maybe it seems like an odd choice. But it was perfect for my dad and me. Neal read the situation exactly right. We didn’t need to talk it out. We didn’t need more “help.” We did need comfort. And Neal brought it to us, almost wordlessly, in a cardboard box.

The deviled eggs and casseroles would show up in their own good time. But I’ve never been happier to see that red box in my entire life. In my grief, I didn’t even realize I was starving.

 originally posted on justapinchofsouth.tumblr.com March 15, 2012

An Atlantan Ordering A Beverage in a Northern Restaurant

 No, Pepsi is not okay.

No, Pepsi is not okay.


Waiter:                What would you like to drink?

Atlantan:             A Coke, please

Waiter:                Sure. Is Pepsi okay?

Atlantan:             No.

Waiter:                No?

Atlantan:             No.

Waiter:                What would you like then?

Atlantan:             Iced Tea. Do you have sweet tea?

Waiter:                Yeah, I guess. It's sweet.

Atlantan:             Wait. Is it from a mix or is it brewed?

Waiter:                 Brewed? You want hot tea?

Atlantan:             No. Iced tea. Is it made with tea bags or a powder?I don't want it if it's made with a powder.

Waiter:                 It comes out of the same thing as the Pepsi. You know, the drink        machine (points to the soft drink dispenser).

Atlantan:             Water. Just bring me water.

*Originially written for justapinchofsouth.tumblr.com