Turning Shame Into Strength: Embracing the “Backwoods” Cuisine of Your Birthplace

By Joe Sevier


Joe Sevier
Chef Vivian Howard prepares tom thumb, an all-but-lost sausage traditional to eastern North Carolina.
Chef Vivian Howard prepares tom thumb, an all-but-lost sausage traditional to eastern North Carolina.

As soon as she was old enough to think such things, Vivian Howard ached to get out of Deep Run, North Carolina. Following her escape—and a detour into accounting—Howard spent years training among the ranks of fine-dining New York line cooks, growing in prestige and skill. Then, one day, a twist of fate found her back in the Carolinas.

“I felt like I’d failed,” Howard confessed on the main stage at the 12th Annual StarChefs International Chefs Congress. She and her husband had successfully opened Chef & the Farmer—the now famed restaurant—but the food she was cooking was, in her words, “mediocre replicas of other people's food.”

Around the same time, an unknown neighbor left a gift on her doorstep: a murky, funky-smelling vat of leafy, swampy greens. “I thought someone was playing a prank,” said Howard; but a call to her father revealed the gift as collard kraut. “Here I was trying to recreate the dishes of chefs I admired, and a mile up the road some old geezers were making sauerkraut out of collard greens.” It was those murky greens that led Howard to the realization that there was more to the Eastern Carolina foodways she had “grown up with but had never really seen.”

She began researching those traditional foods: attending church potlucks just to see what was being served, poring through vintage community cookbooks, delving deeply into what makes the food of the place she grew up distinct compared to the larger Southern landscape. One of those dishes is tom thumb, an air-dried sausage that Howard demoed stuffing at the Congress. A 65:35 mix of pork shoulder and fat, loaded with sage, black pepper, and cayenne, what really makes tom thumb stand out is its casing. Given the innocuous name “appendix,” the cecum is part of a pig’s digestive tract. It gives the fermented sausage a distinctive funk—a flavor Howard calls both “pleasing and alarming.”

Exalting the food of Carolinian grandmas has given Howard a greater pride of place. “There’s a shame that comes from living in rural America,” says Howard, noting that the media too often ignores the value of these traditions. Hopefully, the media’s disregard is at a turning point. At any rate, if one Congress goer is to be believed, the perceived shame of Eastern North Carolina is dissipating. You see, his parents live a 10-minute drive from Howard’s farm—and they’ve begun to cook their vegetables a little more thoughtfully. “You think I had something to do with that?” asked Howard. “Well, they talk about you all the time,” he replied. And that’s certainly something to be proud of.

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