New series with Chef Vivian Howard hits the whole South, Mississippi included

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Courtesy of “Somewhere South”

Petra Kay (far left) shows Vivian Howard, Alli Parshall and Susan Hart (left-to-right) how to make matzo balls in Hart’s home near Jackson.

Celebrity chef/author/restaurateur/TV host Vivian Howard’s new series takes her on a culinary trek through the South, discovering tasty ties that reach across cultures and give the region much more flavor than most folks take in at first glance.

“Somewhere South” premieres Fridays, March 27-May 1, at 8 p.m. on PBS, PBS.org, the PBS Video App and Mississippi Public Broadcasting stations. The third episode in the series, “Dumpling Dilemma” April 10, includes stops in Mississippi, as well as Howard’s home state of North Carolina, as she explores the morsels’ appeal across French, Chinese, Jewish and soul food traditions. The journey takes in the Chinese-American story in the Mississippi Delta and the Jewish community in Jackson.

Howard’s previous award-winning series “A Chef’s Life” with co-creator Cynthia Hill concentrated on cuisine in eastern North Carolina. In “Somewhere South,” “We wanted to show a broader picture of what it means to eat Southern food and to be Southern,” Howard says, by highlighting the people who settled here and the traditions they brought.

“There’s really only about 20 dishes in the whole world,” she says. “Everybody has a way of cooking greens. Everybody has a dumpling. Everybody has a barbecue. Everybody has a pickle.” Those broad categories set a common ground and serve as a welcome mat to the histories, heritage and distinctive dishes of the communities that comprise the South. Such connections, across cultures and across tables, soften the edges of people’s feelings about each other, she hopes.

She was eager to get to Mississippi, with its agricultural heritage that parallels her own. “Most people think about it being black and white, and for the most part, that’s the narrative that exists, at least outside the state,” Howard says. “So, finding these really well-developed, longstanding Mississippi communities is not what you would expect, and it was really exciting for us.” 

In the series, her encounters highlight community stories and revive treasured memories.

Her Delta tour included a dumpling feast at Gilroy and Sally Chow’s home and a swing by Gene’s Market in Clarksdale, a visit to the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum at Delta State University in Cleveland and a stop by Mai Little China in Greenwood. Chinese dumplings — dough pockets with flavorful fillings, steamed or pan-fried — are so time-consuming and labor-intensive that hardly anyone makes them at home anymore, Sally Chow says, relying on restaurants, such as Asian Palace in Memphis for them instead. Still, delicious memories of home traditions linger, and her cousin, Carol Chinn, shared her mother’s recipe for shrimp, pork and mushroom dumplings and her’s dad’s homemade steamer (think cake pan meets ice pick).

The history of Chinese immigrants who came to work in the fields in the Delta, and found better opportunities with grocery stores, emerges. At their height around the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, Cleveland had about 20 Chinese groceries, says Emily Jones, archivist at Delta State University and curator of the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum in the Capps building on campus. “These were grocery stores, but they were more like corner markets … literally, on the corners. They were pretty much the refrigerator of the neighborhood,” with customers within easy walking distance, who lacked refrigerators at home. Many are gone now, as later generations moved on, but remnants remain.

Courtesy of “Somewhere South”

Vivian Howard meets chef Matthew Mai and his wife, Cathy Mai, in the kitchen at Mai Little China in Greenwood.

In Greenwood, Mai Little China restaurant owners Cathy and chef Matthew Mai share pork and chive dumplings and a sweet dumpling with peanuts and coconut. Both connect to previous generations. The chives, originally planted by Cathy’s mom, come from a garden now tended by Matthew’s mother. Her mother’s sweet dumpling recipe represents a comfort food from her childhood. “She could whip out 100 in a day, leisurely, and every one uniform,” Cathy recalls. “It was special to be able to share that,” and honor her mother, Lillian Kwong, who died last October.

The spotlight also turns to the Jewish community in Jackson, and the culture’s ubiquitous dumplings, matzo balls. It’s a chance to share the history of Jewish peddlers turned merchants, Beth Israel Congregation’s roots in the state capital and its bombing and courage in the civil rights movement.

Petra Kay takes friends Susan Hart and Alli Parshall, as well as Howard, through the process of making matzo balls, the way she learned from her own mother — using the schmaltz (chicken fat) that’d rise to the top of the broth, and employing a deft touch in rolling the balls. Kay grew up in Germany, but her 30 years in Mississippi represent the longest she’s lived anywhere.

“It was fun. It brought back a lot of memories,” Kay says. “My mother has been passed away quite some years,” but going through the motions and explaining the technique channeled her spirit. “Oh yes, this is how she did it. I’d hear her in the back of my mind, which takes me back to my childhood, ‘Don’t roll them too long,’ ‘Don’t play with it,’ ‘Put it in the soup,’ ‘Don’t handle it so much, they’ll be rock hard!’”

Courtesy of “Somewhere South”

A bowl of Petra Kay’s matzo ball soup that Vivian Howard learned to make in Jackson.

It was a lesson that followed Howard home. “My husband is Jewish,” she says, “and it’s been this long-running joke that his mother made terrible matzo balls. It was not something I tried to do, because obviously mine would be terrible, too!” she laughs. “I loved going to someone renowned for her cooking skills in general,” and sharing in Kay’s passing along the knowledge. “One of the things keeping the Jewish faith and traditions alive in the community would be through the food.”

Beth Israel Congregation shares traditional Jewish foods with the larger community through its annual Beth Israel Bazaar, postponed this year until further notice because of COVID-19 concerns.

“I loved the feeling of the Jewish community,” Howard says, “But also greater Jackson. It just seems very integrated and warm.

“With this show, we have the opportunity to open people’s eyes to the vast communities and cultures that live and have lived in the South for a very long time.”

“Dumpling Dilemma” airs April 10 at 8 p.m. on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.