Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A "rural Princess Leia"

That was a headline I simply could not resist.  It quotes this New York Times story about Vivian Howard, a celebrity chef with her own television show, "A Chef's Life."  Kim Severson's feature about Howard tells of the woman's 2005 return to Deep Run, her hometown in eastern North Carolina, after working as a waitress and selling homemade soup out of her apartment in New York City.  Howard and her husband opened their restaurant, Chef & the Farmer, a few years later in nearby Kinston, and Severson suggests that Howard has become a hometown hero, helping to revitalize the area, in part because so many people come from out of state to eat at Howard's restaurant.  (As Howard points out, however, if the rising tide in Kinston had lifted all boats, there wouldn't be a need for a soup kitchen--to which Howard contributes--and a food pantry).

Here's an excerpt from Severson's feature that includes that magic Star Wars inspired phrase:
to many of the show’s three million fans, and to the guests who travel hundreds of miles to eat at her restaurant, Ms. Howard is a rural Princess Leia. In the wake of an election that laid bare the nation’s political, cultural and economic divisions, her life has a particular resonance with the kind of people who see her story as theirs.
Another segment of the story also gets at the rural-urban divide--and, indeed, the urban-over-rural hierarchy.  Regarding the restaurant:
At first, they served fancy city food. She remembers the day her sister pointed out that three of the four desserts had vegetables in them, and that didn’t mean carrot cake. 
Severson quotes Howard:
I was cooking down to people.  I didn’t feel like these people had anything to teach me. 
Ultimately, Howard chose to "embrace the local dishes she had grown up eating."
She could elevate the wild muscadine grapes, the slow-simmered butter beans and the “tom thumbs” — air-dried pork sausages whose casings are made from pig appendixes. In the process, she elevated herself. She came to consider the people in her town as guides to a stronger, simpler way of living.
As this quote suggests, the story is heavy on rural nostalgia, but it is nevertheless well worth a read in its entirety--not only for its feel-good value but because of what it might teach us about the current cultural and political rift between rural and urban.  I love this quote from Howard:
What I came to realize was that much of rural America feels forgotten and misunderstood and, frankly, hopeless.  Urban folks are afraid of rural folks, and rural folks are afraid of urban folks. On our show, we try to bridge the gap.
I don't know that I would choose the word "afraid," but I think Howard is on to something with that observation about rural and urban being in different orbits these days--with some feeling quite a bit of despair about that state of affairs.

Rural and urban are mostly talking past each other these days, with plenty of disdain flowing both ways across the rural-urban divide.   

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