As North Carolina Chef Vivian Howard prepares for her holiday special on PBS, she reflects on culinary Christmas traditions from sausage biscuits to corned ham.
by Jill Warren Lucas
Fans of “A Chef’s Life” know that Vivian Howard and Ben Knight spent several years honing their craft in top New York City kitchens. They were too busy building their careers to find time to decorate their tiny apartment for the holidays. The couple spent so much time at work, it seemed pointless.
Things have changed a lot since they became successful restaurateurs in Kinston, North Carolina, where they live near Howard’s parents. They are still wildly busy running the upscale Chef & the Farmer restaurant and the more casual Boiler Room Oyster Bar. And they travel more, participating in major culinary events and launching a line of branded products, starting with their tangy Blueberry BBQ Sauce.
But there are two small diners who command special attention in their world. And at age 3 1/2, the couple’s twins are firm believers in getting things right for the arrival of Santa.
“This is new for me. Having been in the restaurant business my whole adult life, I never curated my own traditions,” says Howard, whose hourlong “A Chef’s Life Holiday Special” will air on PBS December 16 (check local listings here). “In my family, we have just one tradition: eating sausage biscuits, lots of them, while we watch people open gifts.”
Knight and Howard’s dad get up before dawn to grill sausages for Christmas morning breakfast, which they enjoy with homemade muscadine preserves and biscuits that Howard learned how to make in one of last season’s most endearing episodes.
“Mastered is a hard word, but I can make them now,” she says with her characteristic self-effacing chuckle. “We’ve always eaten canned biscuits in our house. I made Lillie Hardy’s biscuits from the show last year. They made canned biscuits, too, expecting mine to be terrible, but mine were gone in five minutes. And the canned ones were left. So there.”
Traditions created with the twins in mind include visiting a Christmas tree farm and going on a hayride, decorating the house and making cookies.
“We’ve tried to incorporate things we all can do together,” Howard says, recalling the enchantment of watching “Dolly Parton’s Home For Christmas” special when she was a child. “I remember thinking, ‘Why don’t we do this? Why aren’t we singing all the time?’”
Some of these new family traditions, along with elements of Hanukkah that were part of Knight’s childhood, will be featured in the holiday special. The show will also focus on traditional foods she has learned to make from other chefs and home cooks, including Bill Smith’s legendary corned ham. The longtime chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill learned to make the dish from his own family while growing up in New Bern.
“It’s really magnificent, but it’s not something you’re going to make on Friday night,” says Howard, who broke down a whole hog with Smith to use the best available cut. “It’s really holiday food. But it’s one thing for sure that we will continue to do.”
Howard says that PBS was uneasy with showing how the animal was humanely dispatched and butchered, which happened while the children were elsewhere.
“There’s some discussion that it’s supposed to be a holiday special and a holiday event and we kill an animal on it,” she explains. “I can understand the argument, but it’s what inspired the whole thing. If we’re all going to have this big ‘ol piece of meat on our plate at Christmas, what’s wrong with showing how it got there?”
As Bill Smith explains in the program, corned ham is nothing like corned beef. The fresh ham is heavily salted and lightly cured for 11 days before roasting. Since the ham prepped for the special was huge, Howard says they cut it in half before roasting for about four hours. If you’ve been lucky enough to try Smith’s recipe — it’s featured most Saturdays at Crook’s between Thanksgiving and Christmas (call ahead to make sure it’s on the menu) — you’ll never forget the candy-sweet cracklings and tender meat. (Get the recipe here.)
“I call it ‘pork crack’ on the show, and they’re like, ‘Oh, don’t say that,’” she laughs. “Apparently you have to be careful what you say and do on PBS.”
Howard says the twins are accustomed to having cameras around the house and seeing mommy and daddy on TV. They are getting their 15 minutes of fame this year — the end of the apples episode included a jealous head bonk with a plastic shovel — but don’t expect to see them much next season. “I’m not trying to raise a band of Kardashians,” Howard says. “My daughter has tendencies already.”
The entire second season of the Peabody Award-winning series has been finished for some time, and Howard currently is working on episodes for next year. Just before Thanksgiving, she filmed a segment on casseroles with Sheri Castle. The Chapel Hill cookbook writer is the author of the new Southern Living Community Cookbook.
Howard is also working on her debut cookbook, which will be called Deep Run Roots and focus on the food of her eastern North Carolina community. Geared for home cooks, it will have 26 chapters, each featuring a different local ingredient.
“I had hoped to turn it in by December so it could be out when the third season starts, but that’s not going to happen,” says Howard, whose contract includes a second book to follow. “I’ve written maybe a quarter of it. It has a lot to do with childhood memories. I love writing the stories and the head notes. It’s the recipes that I hate writing.”
Photo credits, from top: Family photo by Rex Miller, Howard making cookies and Howard with red velvet cake by Josh Woll, Howard with Bill Smith and the whole hog by Rex Miller.