Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In Thyme

Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South | A Cookbook Review

For a month, I dove into the world of Vivian Howard’s Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South, exploring complex recipes inspired by her upbringing in North Carolina. Here are my thoughts on this beautiful cookbook. All photos are my own.

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Cookbook collections usually skew in one of two directions: On one hand, you have purely practical cookbooks, full of useful techniques and recipes that can be used on a regular basis. On the other, there are “coffee table” and restaurant-style cookbooks full of beautiful pictures and memoir-style storytelling. The latter usually focus on transportation to another location – be it another country or a spectacular restaurant. Both types have their place, and in my opinion the best cookbooks are able to straddle that line.

While some readers might debate where Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South by Vivian Howard falls on that spectrum, two things are for certain: the cookbook is a beautiful ode to North Carolina ingredients and Vivian Howard is a fabulous storyteller.

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In Thyme

A little background: I wasn’t exactly excited to dive into Deep Run Roots when it was chosen as the Food52 Cookbook Club selection for March. I’d had a chance to get a relatively inexpensive copy a few months ago, and actually opted out. It had excellent reviews, but just didn’t look like my kind of cooking. I hemmed and hawed, did some more research, and then just decided to take the plunge. Worst case, I’d have something to write about when the month was up, right?

I’m happy to say I have plenty to write about, and that Deep Run Roots overcame these admittedly low expectations for a number of reasons.

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In Thyme

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First Impressions

As soon as I received the cookbook in the mail, I was blown away by its sheer size and variety of content. Over 200 recipes! Beautiful photography! Helpful hints along the way! Even my husband was impressed by how big the tome was, and he rarely pays attention to my book collection. Before I even got to the introduction, I found that the first chapter is on cornmeal. If the author was trying to seduce me into her good graces, there is no better way than to start with grits and spoonbread. I immediately got comfortable and leafed through the recipes.

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymeSolo spoonbread pictured, for the Spoonbread with Sausage Ragout (p. 40)

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Contents and Writing Style

If you love reading a cookbook like a memoir, you will love this book. Prior to this, I wasn’t familiar with Vivian Howard, her restaurant, or her PBS show, A Chef’s Life. I can honestly say I’m now a fan. The writing is personal and inspiring, and truly makes you feel like you’re being invited into the author’s life and kitchen. Howard is honest, at times self-deprecating, and not at all afraid to write about her own perceived failures. I hope I can someday write as well as she does. The personal touch didn’t end with the introduction – each chapter starts with short essay on the focus ingredient, including more stories alongside incredibly practical knowledge to help you utilize those ingredients to their fullest extent.

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymeSausage-Stuffed Honey Buns (p. 376)

The cookbook contains a variety of recipes – breakfasts, dinners, snacks, desserts, and even some preserves and drinks. The focus on individual ingredients makes this book more than just the sum of its recipes though. Each chapter highlights and explains key ingredients in Southern – particularly North Carolina – cooking. Even if an ingredient might not be practical or available in your area, the cookbook provides a comprehensive review of the local food culture Howard grew up in. While separating recipes by ingredient is not always my preferred method, for this reason it really works for the narrative of Deep Run Roots.

Ingredient-focused chapters also highlight the seasonality of many of the recipes. For a monthly cookbook club, this made the book feel somewhat limiting – nearly half the book focused on ingredients that are out of season for many of us, even if we live relatively close to the geographic location. Half of 200 recipes is still plenty to choose from though. I focused on the chapters with root vegetables, sausage, and cornmeal, and still had plenty to work with. The cookbook will continue to be useful throughout the year, and I have a number of recipes I look forward to trying once corn and other summer produce come into season in Delaware.

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymePecan Chewy Pie (p. 137)

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Recipe Writing and Structure

In an effort to give a proper review, I made seven recipes from Deep Run Roots over the last four weeks:

  • Fresh Sausage (p. 363)
  • Spoonbread with Sausage Ragout (p. 40)
  • Sausage Balls (p. 372)
  • Sausage-Stuffed Honey Buns (p. 376)
  • Sage Honey-Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Bacon-Roasted Rutabagas (p. 472)
  • Blueberry BBQ Chicken (p. 198)
  • Pecan Chewy Pie (p. 137)

I attempted to hit a variety of in-season items with varied levels of expertise and tastes required, while still staying in my own budget and meal plan. While a few I found to be overly complicated for the end result, I can’t say any of the recipes were failures. A few will even make it into my regular rotation. Also, I found a new vegetable I had no idea I’d love – can you believe I’d never had a rutabaga until now?!

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymeSage Honey-Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Bacon-Roasted Rutabagas (p. 472)

My absolute favorites were the Fresh Sausage (a new staple for my freezer); the Sage-Honey Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Bacon-Roasted Rutabagas (simple and delightful); and, while I doubt I’ll put in the 4 hours of time and dedication into making them again, the Sausage-Stuffed Honey Buns were phenomenal. The scent of the baking sausage, spices, and ungodly amounts of honey alone may have been enough to make it all worthwhile.

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymeSausage-Stuffed Honey Buns (p. 376)

Instructions in the book are clear enough to follow for someone that has a bit of experience in the kitchen. I did run into a few snags where I had to improvise, adjust the order of steps to be more time efficient, or look up an unfamiliar term. With this in mind, many of the dishes might be a bit overwhelming for the novice cook, and a vast majority involve a lot more steps than one might be accustomed to in a home kitchen.

As I worked, I found myself repeating the same question in my head: How necessary is every step to achieve success in the final result? For the most part, what I made used more dishes and techniques than I’m used to for what are otherwise straightforward, rustic meals. I often found myself wondering whether there could have been another round of editing to adapt the recipes better to a home kitchen, perhaps providing alternatives or reduced steps. It’s one thing to use multiple sinks full of dishes for a special occasion, but for an evening meal? I’m not so sure.

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymeSpoonbread with Sausage Ragout (p. 40)

Along these lines, Howard is particularly fond of using “recipes within recipes,” in which a single recipe requires the cook to make multiple components prior to the penultimate meal. These are either included in the recipe proper or scattered throughout the rest of the cookbook. Some recipes require preparation days in advance. While one should always do a detailed read of a recipe before making it, this is particularly essential with Deep Run Roots. It would be incredibly easy to miss that a step might require something to rest or cool for an hour or overnight until you find yourself wrist deep in dough with a family waiting for dinner. At these times, the writing of the recipe instructions in prose-form (rather than a step-by-step format) can be detrimental. The writing is beautiful, but can be cumbersome if it gets in the way of actually following the instructions.

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Detailed Recipe Notes 

The first thing I made from Deep Run Roots was the Fresh Sausage, resulting in three whole pounds – enough to be used in three different recipes. Because I need to omit garlic and onion from most of my diet, I’ve been searching for a homemade sausage recipe that would allow me to control the ingredients. My local butcher couldn’t sell me pork fat directly to mix with the ground pork shoulder, but substituting fatty pork belly in no way detracted from the delicious final flavor of the ground sausage. I’ll be returning to this recipe again and again in my every day cooking.

I used those three pounds of sausage to make three recipes: Spoonbread with Sausage Ragout, Sausage Balls, and Sausage-Stuffed Honey Buns. I have a huge soft spot for spoonbread. If you haven’t had it, it’s literally spoonable cornbread. It has a consistency similar to thick pudding and is rich with butter and cream. I love Howard’s spoonbread recipe, but it did take much longer than other versions I’ve made. It had additional steps, such as whipping the egg whites, which I normally wouldn’t do. All in all it took two hours start to finish for an incredibly delicious and rustic meal.

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymeSausage Balls (p. 372)

The Sausage Balls were the one dish I wasn’t impressed with, but it may have just suffered from my typical omission of onion and garlic for dietary reasons. Running too short on time to make the recommended apple butter dip in the cookbook, I made a very simple thyme, honey, and brown sugar sauce to dip them in, and that really made them pop.

The Sausage-Stuffed Honey Buns though – these were incredible. They took a long four hours, even after I adjusted the recipe order for maximum efficiency (making the filling and glaze while the dough rose for an hour, rather than before starting the whole process). It took two rounds of dishes in the sink to get through it, which is more than I usually need for similar baking projects, but they are some of the best things I’ve eaten in my kitchen. While I’m not sure I’ll commit to these as written again, I’ll definitely be playing around the flavor profiles on this one.

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymeSausage-Stuffed Honey Buns (p. 376)

Like the Sausage-Stuffed Honey Buns, the Pecan Chewy Pie recipe suffered from multiple steps and mid-recipe wait times. Making the ultimately rustic dessert was a process from start to finish. The end result was a very nice pecan pie with a light sweet flavor – perfect to serve as dessert or with coffee – but I can’t say I’d make it again due to the amount of work for the pay-off.

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymePecan Chewy Pie (p. 137)

One of the easiest and most satisfying recipes I made in the book was the Sage Honey-Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Bacon-Roasted Rutabagas. With a few simple but well-executed components, this dish made me smile with my first bite. The sweetness of the sage-infused honey-vinegar glaze, the perfectly cooked pork loin made according to Howard’s precise instruction, and the wonderful earthiness of the roasted bacon and root vegetable was everything I love in a good dinner.

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymePrepared pork loan for the Sage Honey-Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Bacon-Roasted Rutabagas (p. 472)

The Blueberry BBQ Chicken (recipe available online) was a serious hit with the Food52 Cookbook Club members. I liked it, but I thought the sauce was better after the flavors mellowed out with a little time in the fridge. The recipe makes a large amount – at least three pints – which is much more than you need for one preparation.

Taking a suggestion from Howard herself to use the vinegar-laced blueberry sauce like a shrub (Learn more about shrubs here), I made a delightful cocktail by mixing a few ounces with a hefty dose of rum, topping it with club soda. Ginger beer would have been even better, but it’s a good drink. Definitely give this a try if you make the recipe!

I’m far from done with this cookbook. I’m particularly excited to try a number of the summer season produce recipes, like the Jalapeno Peach Chicken, Whole-Fruit Fig and Lemon Preserves, Sweet Corn Vanilla Souffle with Blackberries, and Rice-Crusted Catfish with Cilantro-Lime Sweet Corn. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymeBlueberry BBQ Chicken (p. 198), with a simple side of spiralized potatoes and zucchini 

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Final Thoughts

Deep Run Roots is great for the cook that loves a good memoir and isn’t intimidated by a complicated recipe. It’s even better for someone that wants to learn more about a slightly different style of Southern cooking. If you are looking for single page recipes you can get on a table in 30 minutes or less though, it might not be the book for you. I look forward to following the author’s work and seeing what she does next after this truly beautiful tome.

Ultimately, I’m very happy I purchased Deep Run Roots and had the chance to truly explore it’s contents as part of the Club. It’s no surprise me to me that Vivian Howard has amassed such a faithful following, and I truly admire her talent and spirit. While I don’t see this cookbook becoming a new workhorse in my kitchen, I have no doubt I will return to Howard’s recipes and writing for ideas and inspiration for years to come.

Interested in exploring Deep Run Roots before committing to it? A number of the book’s recipes are available online:

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Book Reviews, Author Interviews, and Further Reading:

Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymeSpoonbread with Sausage Ragout (p. 40)
Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard - A Cookbook Review | Feast In ThymePecan Chewy Pie (p. 137)

Disclaimer: Please note that this post contains Amazon.com affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. I recommend products because I find them interesting or helpful, and all thoughts and opinions are my own.

2 thoughts on “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South | A Cookbook Review

  1. Love your review and thoughts on cooking from this book. I enjoyed cooking from it during March too. I’m looking forward to the tomato pie this summer.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words Joan! I love that the cookbook club makes me cook outside of my normal comfort zones – it’s the best way to learn.

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