The Piglet2017 / First Round, 2017

Simple vs. Deep Run Roots


Diana Henry

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Deep Run Roots

Vivian Howard

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Judged by: Emma Straub

Emma Straub is The New York Times bestselling author of Modern Lovers, The Vacationers, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, and Other People We Married. She likes chocolate and carbohydrates.

The Judgment

My last two novels featured characters who either wrote about or cooked food for a living, and because of that, I have become accustomed to answering questions about food at my book events. People ask if I am a good cook, with sweet, hopeful expressions on their faces, and I have to give the same answer that I will give you now. No, I’m not. Alas! I’m an enthusiastic eater, a decent baker, and a mediocre cook. Such is life. I’m working on it. And so with apologies to the many, many dedicated and talented cooks who are my fellow judges and enjoyers of this contest, here goes nothing.

When the books arrived in the mail, I leafed through and made a quick decision—Deep Run Roots’ Vivian Howard looks like Elizabeth Taylor in "Giant," and there are photos of her eating a big, messy sandwich (the “Elbow-Lick Tomato Sandwich,” which makes me very badly wish it were tomato season), mayonnaise running down her chin, and I fell in love. Anyone who will print not one but THREE photographs of herself happily dripping sandwich detritus is a-okay with me. The book reads like a memoir, with lengthy (the book is 564 pages long) and lush descriptions of Howard’s hometown thoughts (she’s from Deep Run, North Carolina, which sounds no bigger than a minute, and is filled with people like Howard’s Uncle Reddy, who lived to 100 because he ate a sweet potato everyday). I was prepared to pick this book based on the story and Howard’s gorgeous face alone.  


My husband likes banana pudding. I personally don’t know why someone would want a dessert that had no chocolate in it, but I love my husband and so I decided to make the banana pudding. How could so many things go wrong so fast? I learned Howard’s worldview pretty quickly, which I can sum up like this: I had to make the cookies. I had to roast the bananas. I had to go back to the store to get cream of tartar, because who ever buys cream of tartar? Surely it’s in your kitchen somewhere from the last time you had to use it six months ago, right? None of this was Howard’s fault, to be sure. And sure, yes, the cookies ended up being the best part, but still. The rest of the banana pudding was a hot (warm) mess, and it took a hundred years to make. I took the bulk of it to my book club, and the host, literally the kindest, most generous woman I know, said “Maybe it tastes better than it looks?” It didn’t. 



The pimento cheese grits with salsa and chips, on the other hand, was a solid gold hit. I wanted to make the most Southern dishes I could, because I thought that that might make me look a little bit more like Howard. She wanted me to make the pimento cheese and the salsa and the grits, and so it too took me a hundred years, but it was hard for my husband and me not to eat the entire skillet. I understand that this is how cookbooks work—and this dish was certifiably delicious—so I forgive her. Thank god she didn't ask me to make my own chips. Howard’s voice is folksy and endearing, and I loved her stories about her family and the Piggly Wiggly—and I wanted very badly for her to be cooking instead of me. 

Does it make me a philistine if I took a second look at the other cookbook, Diana Henry’s Simple, and realized that my life was about to get a lot better? Every recipe is on one page. The roasted chicken and cauliflower? One page. The flourless chocolate cake with coffee cream? One page. My toddler and I baked the cake together in ten minutes. Eggs and potatoes (or, as Henry calls them, "Huevos Rotos") that look impressive but take four seconds to prepare, all in one pan? Diana, marry me. Grilled zucchini, burrata, and fregola (though I used Israeli couscous, because Diana is relaxed like that). Turkish pasta with feta, yogurt, and dill. Each of them were easy enough to do at the end of the day before collapsing into a heap. 


And about that chocolate cake. It was so good that I was glad I hadn’t made it for a dinner party, where other people would have gotten to gobble it all up. I ate a piece every day for the next several days, and snacked on the it throughout the day, like my own personal chocolate cake buffet. Creamy, rich as hell, divine. 

What happened is not Howard’s fault. I’m actually very grateful for this experience, because it helped me identify exactly what will make me scream at a cookbook fourteen times in one day. Here is what I discovered: My biggest cookbook pet peeve is when a recipe refers to one or more other recipes in the book in order to make a single dish. This may not always be true, but right now, with one three-year-old and one nine-month-old, I’m either cooking with one hand while holding a baby, cooking with two hands while trying to make sure that one baby doesn’t murder the other baby, or cooking after the babies are asleep and I am more than halfway there myself. The banana pudding took up, all told, about half of my childcare hours in one day, between the trips to the grocery store and all of the steps and the goddamn meringue and the cookies. Making it felt like when you look at travel times for flights across time zones—ready in +1 day. 

Both of these books are gorgeously photographed, with encouraging, warm voices, and scores of enticing recipes. I felt like I got a lot more of Vivian Howard out of Deep Run Roots than I did Diana Henry out of Simple, and I loved her, but if the true test of a cookbook is how much flour is going to be caked into its spine, how many drops of oil are going to stain its pages, then I have to choose Simple. What I want most out of a cookbook is for it to make me feel competent and resourceful, able to understand basic concepts enough to repeat them without stress or strain. Deep Run Roots might be my crush, but Simple is going to be my new best friend. 


And the winner is…



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Do you Agree?


Nora March 9, 2017
I am revisiting comments here. I posted early after the judgement appeared. Thanks to the person who led me to Diana's flourless chocolate cake on Food52, and thanks to Diana and Food52 for making it available. A comment for Lori--jump in and cook from Deep Run Roots. I have that strange allergy to meat (Google alpha gal if you don't know about this) so even though I grew up on ham hocks, I can not longer eat them. There are a lot of recipes here that do not require side meat and many that will make vegetarians happy. The butterbean burger is the best veggie burger ever.
Lori March 9, 2017
Thanks, Nora. Just after making this comment, I went to the Farmer’s Market and happened upon a stand with various grass-fed and small-herd free-range meats. They had a ham hock and I bought it with the idea to try a recipe for collards in Howard’s book. I like ham. I’m not a vegetarian. I’m just eating less fat and meat these days. Re her collard recipe on p. 426, I think I would have gone for her Grandma Hill’s lower-fat recipe and I wish she’d included that.. even though I agree with her truth that fat makes things tasty.
Lori March 8, 2017
I bought Deep Run Roots after the series because I was sold on Vivian Howard's personality and experience in her commercial restaurant kitchen and because of her interesting story of writing and preparing the book... not to mention the interesting stories about Southern cooking and eating.. so I wanted more.. and I'm satisfied with my purchase. I hadn't realized how big the book is and admittedly I havent yet made any of the recipes or gone to buy ham hocks in the supermarket..
greg T. March 2, 2017
Just discovered Piglet and read 3 challenges a day for three weeks (had to savor it) and am now on 2017 with the rest of you.. my question is as this is a "live" piglet to me.. do they post daily? How long does it last?
Lindsay-Jean H. March 3, 2017
Hi Greg - so happy that you found the Piglet! New judgments go up on weekdays, but you can also sign up for the email series, so you can be alerted when each new one goes live:
Lindsay-Jean H. March 2, 2017
In case you missed it, for all of you Deep Run Roots lovers, it's our Cookbook Club's book for March, come join in!
Sauertea February 28, 2017
I do not have Deep Run Roots but I do have Simple and it is a wonderful book. I have made the posset from the dessert section and to describe it as heavenly is an understatement. Last weekend I made the seared tuna with the preserved lemon relish! Out of this world. Tonight I am making sweet potatoes filled with mushrooms, chorizo and topped with eggs. I am curious about Deep Run Roots, but I am truly excited about Simple and am planning out the next several weeks of menus.
Diana H. March 1, 2017
Thank you so much, Sauertea! Means so much when people really USE the books you write. Deep Run Roots is also great - one of my favourite books of last year
Emily M. February 27, 2017
I am a huge Diana Henry fan and, given the book she was up against, was bracing myself for an early exit this year. What a pleasant surprise to read this thorough and thoughtful review that captures what's so great about Henry's books: the food is delicious, the recipes are mostly doable, even on a weeknight, and they just work--but they are also never boring. She brings together flavor combinations and ingredients in ways I hadn't thought of, but that I'm glad that I now have in my repertoire. I have north of 500 cookbooks in my collection at this point, but I never feel like her books are retreads--there's always something new to try. And as a mother of a 2 and a 4 year old, I appreciated that perspective--and that Straub actually took the time to cook multiple recipes out of each book, which not all Piglet reviewers do!

That said, I'm sorry that Simple had to go up against Deep Run Roots in the first round--I just got it and it is such a beautiful, heartfelt love song to a specific region of the South that I didn't know much about. And not all of the recipes are that complicated--try the raw collard and raisin salad!

Although, like Straub, I expect to spend more time with Simple in the kitchen, they are both gorgeous books and worthy of a place on your shelf.
Diana H. March 1, 2017
Thank you, Emily. I'm glad that the book is working for you - I have an 11 year old and a 17 year old, and the youngest is pretty picky.
Deep Run Roots is a heartfelt, lovely book. One of my favourite from last year
Westcoasty February 26, 2017
While I appreciate the point of view of those commenters who wish for a more experienced cook to do Piglet reviews, I loved this review because it fitted my lifestyle so perfectly (though I don't have children). I am becoming a good cook but still feel stressed and exhausted, rather than excited, by multi-step recipes with sub-recipes. This is particularly true when trying to assemble a meal after a tiring day at work.

The other point I would like to make is that if I am trying to make dinner when already exhausted, the last thing I want to do is leave home again to go buy the one ingredient I don't have in my cupboard. I don't have cream of tartar on hand right now either! I choose my menu based in part on ingredients on hand, and pick up missing components on my next grocery store run, so that I have them next time I look at the recipe.

At this point I would very much like to buy Simple, because it seems likely to become one of my go-to cookbooks, one that won't send me on a hunt for ingredients I can't find without buying them from another country - a cookbook that understands that sometimes we want great food without having to spend four hours making it. Getting great results from simpler recipes boosts my confidence and makes me more likely to try complicated recipes down the road. I am very grateful to Food52 for some of my new favourite dishes that are just that kind of recipe.
Diana H. February 26, 2017
Dear Westcoasty,
I do not want you to be in any way misled - some of the recipes in Simple do require odd ingredients, though there are plenty that don't. Every so often I stock up on unusual things as they help me to make interesting meals that aren't complicated - I think a good store cupboard is essential for making day to day cooking interesting. Do have a flick through Simple -either in a book shop, library or online (Amazon) to see what you think. As another time-short stressed woman I wouldn't want you to be disappointed! The techniques are simple, though - you don't need to be experienced to make anything, and there are lots of dishes that you just bung in the oven.
Westcoasty February 26, 2017
Dear Diana, what a lovely woman you are! I do buy the occasional unusual ingredient myself - right now I am hoping to find a good excuse to buy rosewater. I will indeed flip through Simple before purchasing it, but so far it sounds perfect for me. "Bung in the oven" is PRECISELY what I want to do some days!
Jeannette February 27, 2017
Try putting rosewater in your cranberry bread - the recipe in Beard on Bread is good.
Westcoasty February 27, 2017
Thanks, Jeannette!
Lucinda Q. February 25, 2017
I think you've gotta know what you are buying the cookbook for- My family has lived in SC since the Crown's German land grands put us here as sustenance farmers in 1752, I have Deep Run Roots because it is a southern novel, a walk through my culture, with food as the vehicle- because I LITERALLY have deep run roots here. I may not make many of these recipes (I'll always make my Aunt Ruth's banana pudding; why guild the Lily?), but i love love love reading this book. Simple I might buy for cooking quick, but lots of these recipes I've seen before, basically, and likely already have. I like the amount of heart and soul in Deep Run Roots, the details in Vivian's words, her honesty, and her connection to ingredients, place, and people. So while the recipes may be once in a blue moon ones, I will treasure this as more a read than a daily instructional. I would never make Boeuf Bourguignon a la Julia on a weeknight, but that doesn't make Mastering the Art of French Cooking a substandard cookbook. I am very glad I bought Deep Run Roots, no regrets.
petalpusher February 25, 2017
Out of all the recipes from Deep Run Roots, Banana Pudding? From scratch? With the nasty weeping banana's? As you can tell it's something I don't care to eat let alone spend time preparing. Make your husbands favorite using the Nilla wafer recipe.
I admire Vivian Howard's honesty and candor in her television series, but the drippy sandwich photo montage is off putting.
No purchase of these books.
anniette February 24, 2017
Love this idea! I am a librarian who can find happiness and something to try in any and every cookbook. This fresh take on reviews is fun to read. I, too, will seek out both books, and the reviewer's novel!
Shaun February 23, 2017
This review sold me on the whole Piglet enterprise (first year I knew about it) *and* made me really excited about Simple, since I had already purchased Deep Run Roots for the F52 Cookbook Club. I'm really going to have to start giving my library card a workout (or build new bookshelves) because there is no way I can keep up with all the amazing cookbooks out there.
Michelle February 23, 2017
Ha! I knew it. Simple has been on almost every single end of year review for 2016 as one of the best cookbooks because of it's simplicity. I'm excited to buy this book now more than before because I'm not a great cook and I usually fail at recipes when too many ingredients are involved. I can't wait to get this!
Diana H. February 23, 2017
Dear Michelle,
Thank you so much but - just in case you are disappointed - I should point out that some of the recipes do need a good store cupboard (and you may find you need to shop for some unusual ingredients). There isn't anything you can't get online or at a deli or Wholefoods, but I don't want you to be misled in any way. It is the use of the odd unusual ingredient that helps make the food interesting. The good news is that - in terms of technique - no recipes are difficult at all: they are truly simple (I am a greedy but pretty lazy cook, especially during the week, or when I want to have friends round and spend more time talking to them than in the kitchen). I hope you get the book, obviously. Do feel free to contact me here or at [email protected] if you want to check what would be a good substitute for something. Happy cooking :)
Michelle February 23, 2017
Hi Diana,
Thank you so much for letting me know. Technique is more of a problem for me. I got into healthier cooking about 3 -4 years ago so I still consider myself a beginner. I look forward to getting your book and thank you for offering your help should I need suggestions about substituting an ingredient for one of your dishes.
Gardener-cook February 23, 2017
Want to throw in an unqualified rave for "Simple." I got it on Kindle last week and have cooked four recipes and loved them all. I tend to be an intense Paula-Wolfert kind of cook, and it was good for me to be reminded that quick simple food can be wonderful food. I do think that Diana Henry's books presuppose a very well-stocked pantry, which is fine with me because I love to have all kinds of unusual ingredients on hand, but you will want to scan the ingredients list before assuming that you can make the recipe quickly.
Diana H. February 23, 2017
I too am a Paula Wolfert type cook in that I am prepared to make a lot of effort and I love big flavours and other cultures. BUT having children just made it more difficult to find the time. I still wanted interesting food, I didn't mind if it took time to actually cook (if it was in the oven) but I didn't want to do a lot of prep - I just often felt defeated by that (except at the weekend). I've spent years compiling recipes that suit my life - a full time job and kids. It is so easy to run out of ideas - but I've worked hard at it and many of them are in this book. You do need a well stocked pantry, though - I agree!
Sara S. February 23, 2017
I own five Diana Henry books and think she's great. However, I find it very irritating that Ms. Straub picked two random recipes from a tome such as Deep Run Roots and then wrote it off. I think that a reviewer more adept at working with cookbooks and knowing how to read them and find recipes that will work for him/her would have been able to do this more accurately. I wish Food52 would ask people who have knowledge and interest in *cookbooks* to do these reviews. I appreciate the desire to have non-insiders from the food industry, but surely you can find some who actually work with and understand cookbooks? Like perhaps the hundreds of avid home cooks on this site?
It's A. February 23, 2017
I agree with Sara S. I don't think Deep Run Roots got a fair shake here. I love Diana Henry, but DRR is a superb cookbook!
Michelle J. February 23, 2017
There are cookbooks that I return to regularly like The Joy of Cooking and then there are books in my extensive library that I just love reading, like Prune. I am an experienced cook and find that some cookbooks have recipes that must have never been tested and those cookbooks are tossed. Others are so well tested they are a pleasure. I look forward to reading both of the reviewed books, but expect to find SIMPLE the book I would use most often give as a gift. Great idea for both the inexperienced cook AND the cook who likes great food that requires less effort.
Cyprille February 23, 2017
I don't know why an author should be penalised because the reviewer is too disorganised to 1) read the ingredients and write a shopping list and 2) ensure they buy everything on said list.

I'm tired of this faux ditziness which is a very overused writing style these days. If you're going to review cookbooks, don't make the authors a victim of your inability to organise yourself properly. There's a failure to show appropriate respect to readers too. I don't expect reviewers to be expert cooks because cookbooks have to attract readers who are less proficient too, in order to build new reading audiences. But facile comments about who owns basic baking ingredients, cream of tartar being one of them, is unfair.
TheFritschKitchen February 23, 2017
Again, I have to ask, have you people really never started a recipe positive that you have all the ingredients, only to realize half way through that you were mistaken? And I think that key point that a lot of commenters are missing is that even after she got the cream of tartar and finished the recipe, it didn't come out good. She did not ding Deep Run Roots because she didn't have all the ingredients, she dinged it because in the end, the recipe failed her. And that's what is important - if you're going to put in effort for a multi-recipe recipe, the end result needs to come out great.
LittleKi February 23, 2017
Honestly, failure to really read the review just as bad. She did cook from both books, multiple recipes, loved some from Deep Run Roots, but picked the other book as a winner. Her review is cooking from HER life, which matters to a lot of us. If cookbooks aren't set in the context of life, what is their point? Cooking and eating is part of living and if I have tested a recipe for my book club and it really flops, that's time and money out the window along with a feeling of embarrassment and apology to my guests. Ugh. Life matters. Context matters.
Cyprille February 23, 2017
No, I read the ingredients list first. It's not rocket science.
TheFritschKitchen February 23, 2017
What a pedantic life it must be in that ivory tower of yours
Kathryn February 22, 2017
A lot of people are mentioning buying the books- just a little reminder that most libraries have great cookbook sections and keep up with the latest cookbooks. Borrowing them out to give them a trial run means you support your community library and find your true love as well!
jenniebgood February 24, 2017
Kathryn - Hear hear! I use my library all the time - love that I can check out whatever cookbook I want before buying it!
Kathryn February 22, 2017
I love "Simple" I borrowed it from the library and renewed it as many times as possible. Even for a vegetarian there are so many fantastic and tasty options. It was a winner for a weeknight foodie who works 70 hours a week but still wants to have delicious at-home food for dinner
Judy February 22, 2017
I love it! Some days you need an easy meal and some times you have the luxury of a good read and a fabulous meal! I'm in for 2 books, so far!
Bridget February 22, 2017
I loved this review. "I’m an enthusiastic eater, a decent baker, and a mediocre cook. Such is life. I’m working on it." I loved the authors writing style and refreshing honesty. I also love how passionate (albeit sometimes impolite) comments of those coming to Vivian Howard's defense. Makes we want to run out and buy her book. Bring on the next review!