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Vivian Howard Puts Her Moxie Where Her Mouth Is

The abracadabra of telling your ambitions to the world

illustration: JENNY KROIK

When I resolve to do something, I say it out loud.

Not out loud in my shower or in earnest for the mirror, but out loud, boldly to another person, often multiple people on separate occasions. It’s an uncontrollable tic of mine that has served me extremely well in some circumstances and shamed me painfully in others.

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There have been big successes, like when I told my sous-chef while expediting a Friday night service that I was going to make a documentary series about the food and farmers of Eastern North Carolina, and our very own restaurant and his work would probably be part of it. I had just dreamed up the idea the night before while standing in the very same spot. At the time, I had no media presence, no disposable income, no experience doing anything in front of the camera or behind, and I knew exactly one person who had ever made anything other than a home video.

Still, I went home that night and promptly gave the news to my twins’ nanny. The following morning, I laid it all out for my parents and as soon as possible warned my sisters that if they wanted to shed ten pounds before being on TV, they should get started.

My sous avoided a direct response to this declaration by hiding behind a giant bowl of flying fried collards he was tossing with salt. The nanny said she hoped the series would result in some travel, and my family agreed I had always been full of ideas. Nobody laughed in my face or asked if anything was wrong. Nobody started a diet that day either. But I hoped I had planted enough seeds that someone would eventually follow up with some questions. Accountability is a powerful motivator when you hate to disappoint people.

On New Year’s Eve 2021, in lieu of a kiss at midnight, I made the first resolution I had ever intended to keep. Twenty twenty-two would be the year I would write an op-ed intended for and poignant enough for the New York Times. Ever since I’d moved to New York in my early twenties, the idea of writing for the newspaper had skulked. Even after I made my way back to North Carolina to put down roots, the ambition stuck with me, with no little thanks to the chip on my shoulder: I never wanted to be a Southern writer with a Southern opinion, I wanted to be a good writer with a worthy opinion, and I decided somewhere along the way that being published in the NYT would validate me.

I was alone that New Year’s, so the next day, I called my then ten-year-olds and promised them that within a year, their mom would have her own words printed in our nation’s paper of record. Opinionless months later, I was stunned when Flo, our family’s squeaky wheel, asked me out of the blue how the “piece was coming for the Times.”

Flush with maternal shame, I wanted to know how she knew to call it a “piece for the Times.” Flo said there was no way not to. She heard me blabbing on the phone about the thing I wanted to write but hadn’t yet all the time. I asked Flo to stay in her lane. She failed to, and although I missed my deadline by a few weeks, I did write an opinion “piece for the Times” this past January on the restaurant industry’s struggles.

illustration: JENNY KROIK

Not all of my “say it to slay it” plans, however, have worked. Too many times I’ve tried my hand (um, mouth) at talking into practice things that my gut didn’t want to do at all.

When A Chef’s Life took off on PBS and I got the gift of writing my first cookbook, I ran as fast as I ever had—and oddly, without the usual fatigue—away from the Chef & the Farmer’s daily, insatiable grind. In the sprint while I was toiling on memory-rooted essays and testing recipes, I felt excited to work. But what crept into my car when I drove past the restaurant or what slid out of my pillow when I woke up in the middle of the night was guilt—guilt for abandoning the family of people I had cooked, cried, cursed, danced, and laughed with for almost six years. So what did I do? I dropped in for a company-wide pre-shift meeting. I stood behind the bar, my old pulpit where I had preached the gospel of new dishes, and I promised those people I would come back. I would cook, mentor, and make things the way they used to be. I thought that giving my word, saying it out loud, would have the impact it did before. I would do the thing.

Turns out, saying it out loud only works when you want to do what you say.

Most often, though, it’s the little to medium stuff I proclaim into existence—sometimes. When my children were younger and I would rattle off a list of activities, errands, and household chores we would collectively complete on any given weekend, Theo and Flo used to moan that I was the fire extinguisher of downtime, a weekend dictator who vacuumed up all the fun. What they didn’t know then that they most definitely do now is that my diatribe of duties is as much a means of convincing myself of the things we will do as it is to prepare my children—a self-imposed challenge to take my own word that occasionally evolves into “the mom who cried wolf.” Now instead of moaning, the twins just roll their eyes. They know that no matter what I say, unless I have scheduled and already paid for an endeavor, we average 0.75 activities per weekend day.

My tendency to give my word when what I’m really giving is my hope has gotten me into enough predicaments that I have recently been trying to break the habit. In order to attempt to fix my twitch, I have taken a closer look at the reasoning behind my madness. And, I’m sorry to say, I must once again blame my parents.

First off, they practically force-fed me a TV diet of Dallas and The Young and the Restless as a child. I knew that even when a character’s plan was half-baked, if Victor Newman said he was going to take down every Abbott but Ashley, or if J. R. Ewing stated plain the fate of Sue Ellen, Bobby, or Pam, it was as good as done. (And it wasn’t lost on me that only men got to make the big statements while women were made out to be the sneaky ones.)

But perhaps even more powerful than my parents’ shared worship of 1980s TV dramas was my mother’s insistence on and belief in prayer. Specifically, the act of praying out loud stamped an imprint on her agnostic daughter I can’t shake. Mom taught me to ask God for the things I needed and if necessary to ask other people to ask God for the things I needed. To hear her and the congregation of Bethel Baptist tell it, collective prayer—everybody praying for the same thing—got God’s attention and made him focus.

Between J. R., Victor, and God, my parents got me good. I’ll most likely keep say-praying my way.