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PBS series explores the connectivity of Southern foods

Courtesy of Josh Woll
Vivian Howard holds up a bitter melon while shopping at an Indian grocery store in Cary, North Carolina.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Although she’s spent years creating food, Vivian Howard always learns something new.

The acclaimed chef, author and restaurant owner is taking on a different challenge with her new six-part series, “Somewhere South.”

The series premieres at 9 p.m. Friday, March 27, on New Mexico PBS. The series runs each Friday through May 1.

Howard is best known for hosting “A Chef’s Life” for its five season run and says this project is a new journey for her.

“It’s less about my personal journey,” she explains. “This show is designed for me to get a better understanding of the vast reach of Southern food. This is a different experience for me.”

In the series, Howard serves as both student and guide, exploring cross-cultural dishes through the professional and personal relationships she has with Southerners of many backgrounds.

Each episode examines the connectivity of a single dish – from dumplings to hand pies, porridge and more – and the ways people of different cultures interpret that dish while expressing the complex values, identities and histories that make up the region.

Along the way, she meets new friends and teachers, and discovers “how breaking bread and sharing a meal can create a comfortable place to have meaningful, memorable conversations.”

“I really wanted to evolve the narrative of what it means to Southern food,” Howard says. “We’ve always understood a very narrow picture of that. I wanted to be part of shining a light on a more varied subject.”

Howard wanted to bring forward Southern food.

She enjoyed exploring dishes such as hand pies, the original convenience food

Courtesy of Blaire Johnson
Chef Vivian Howard, right, talks to farmers with the help of translator Jack Mpigiri at The Burundi Women’s Farm, a project of the Global Growers Network in Decatur, Georgia.

that workers could take into coal mines, factories or fields, and its various iterations – from applejacks to pepperoni rolls to empanadas. A discussion with Korean American chefs leads to the realization that while they all understand what a dumpling is, they can’t define it.

“Every episode is about a dish that every culture shares,” she says. “Every culture has a dumpling and a way of cooking greens. Every culture has a barbecue dish or a porridge.”

Each episode served as a history lesson for Howard.

For instance, during the porridge episode she learned more about slavery and enslaved Africans.

“I learned that many times slaves were selected for their knowledge and ability to grow certain crops,” she says. “Their knowledge of rice helped build the economy of Charleston (South Carolina). Those are pieces that we don’t usually get to learn in history books. I’ve learned things like that and it’s been a great experience. Very much in this show, I am a student.”

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