Food & Drink

Vivian Howard Pays Tribute to a Classic Southern Cookbook

The recipes and advice from Jenny Fitch and North Carolina’s Fearrington House Restaurant still resonate

Photo: Courtesy of The Fearrington House

If I had been rifling through my decidedly deep cookbook collection three years ago and plucked The Fearrington House Cookbook’s yellow spine from the shelf, I’m not sure I would have chosen to sit with it the way I have in 2022. But like a lot of us, the pandemic, and in particular, its stay-at-home orders, forced a shift in both the way I spend my time as well as the things that pique my interest. As a result, The Fearrington House Cookbook resonates in a decidedly of-the-moment way. 

Jenny Fitch and her husband, R.B., opened the influential Fearrington House Restaurant in 1980 on the old Fearrington family farm in Pittsboro, North Carolina, a spread that today also includes a charming inn and spa, among other amenities. By 1987 she and the restaurant’s chefs had gathered and developed enough beloved recipes for her to write The Fearrington House Cookbook

photo: Courtesy of The Fearrington House
Jenny Fitch at Fearrington.

The book, reprinted this summer with a new cover, was first released in that golden hour before every chef with a successful restaurant, every model and actress pivoting careers, every social media influencer with more than 200,000 followers laid claim to a particular kitchen expertise and secured a book deal. Instead, Fitch’s Fearrington represents a life’s work in print organized by seasons that are broken out into events like First Day of Spring, Garden Harvest Dinner, After the Game, and Groundhog Day Lunch. Almost certainly inspired by Edna Lewis’s first book, The Taste of Country Cooking, the approach, one I treasure, gives us a long-exposure look at not only what we eat but when and why. 

Before our lives slowed to the rhythm of the pandemic and every single day looked and felt the same, I was never inclined to isolate micro-celebrations within a season and make them a thing. My personal circus was way too loud to plan a day and a meal around Early March Kite Flying or an August Ice Cream Party. Yet since our long stay at home I look at where I live and all the produce and flora at our fingertips here with expanded possibilities. My surroundings are more interesting to me, and Fitch’s Fearrington is here for it.

Adjacent to many recipes, Fitch, who died in 1995, shares advice on all things flowers and greenery. From how to arrange flowers culled from a roadside ditch to which varieties should go into a bride’s bouquet and why, I found myself delighted by all the non-cooking yet incredibly practical expertise she puts forth. Within every season she also prescribes a list of my favorite medicines in the form of moment-worthy projects: How to make candied violets in spring, herb vinegars and oils in summer, potpourri in the fall, and how to plant a wildflower field in winter all number among the slightly-aspirational-but-not-at-all-difficult enterprises she teaches readers how to do. 

Of course, there are recipes, too—great ones like Lewis’s chocolate soufflé, shared here; a simple scallion sauce to spoon onto roasted meats; pecan date cheese straws; as well as old-school period pieces like asparagus vinaigrette, cucumber sandwiches, and crab quiche. The book, however, has no photos. Instead, every plant, flower, cake, and loaf of bread got illustrated in black and white by Daneen Nyimicz Griffin and others—a liability a decade ago, but an opportunity in 2022 to break out the colored pencils and make this cookbook a family keepsake.