Somewhere South with Chef Vivian Howard

Von Diaz, Converger of Coconuts and Collards

Photo by Cybelle Codish

Von Diaz’s book, “Coconuts and Collards,” epitomizes what is best about the American South. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Atlanta, Ga., Diaz merged her Caribbean roots with her Southern identity to craft a memoir/cookbook that is convergent in both its stories and its recipes. In “Somewhere South” “It’s A Greens Thing,” episode, Diaz showed Vivian around Your Dekalb Farmers Market, so expansive and culturally diverse in its produce, non-perishable goods, and hot bar, that you have to see it to believe it. Diaz recently moved to North Carolina to take a position at Duke University’s acclaimed Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) and teach Food Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. We caught up with her from her new perch to see what she’s been up to since her appearance on “Somewhere South.”

Tell us a little bit about your background? If you could, tell us about your path to food studies. How do your Puerto Rican and Southern identities converge to inspire your chosen career path?

I was born in Puerto Rico to two young, arguably clueless, college students. They struggled to make ends meet, so my dad joined the Army and we moved to the suburbs outside of Atlanta, Ga. when I was a little girl. I grew up going back and forth to Puerto Rico, often spending whole summers with my grandmother, and so I maintained a close connection to my culture. That said, the back-and-forth was difficult when I was a kid, as I often struggled to feel accepted; not Latina enough for Puerto Rico, not southern enough for the South. But along the way, food became a bridge between those two cultures. I came to find that disparate foods—Southern cheese grits, Puerto Rican fried plantains—both gave me a similar feeling of home. I began my career in social justice activism, but I was always deeply passionate about food. When I became a journalist, I continued focusing my writing and radio reporting on marginalized communities. Over time, my curiosity about food—particularly the connections between the food of my homeland and that of my hometown—made me want to explore food through storytelling. Six years ago I started a journey that culminated in my first book, “Coconuts & Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South,” and began writing and producing radio stories and podcasts about the intersection of food and culture. And as such I've become increasingly fascinated by how food provides a unique lens for exploring the legacy of African and Indigenous foodways in both the Caribbean and the South.

You're a recent transplant to North Carolina after years in New York. What's it like being back in the South? What’s the reality you're experiencing with COVID and what are you looking forward to if normalcy ever returns?

I moved to New York for graduate school, and ended up living there for a decade. Living in New York is as wild as folks say; noisy, fast, congested, and exciting. Now I live in Old West Durham in a storybook little bungalow with a porch swing and a magnolia tree. I’ve been grateful for the slower pace and the ubiquitous Southern drawl. But I moved to Durham just three months before COVID-19 restrictions, so my experience has been complex to say the least. I often go for drives and look longingly at all the little patios where I might one day sit in the sun and enjoy cold beers and chicken wings. But despite quarantine, I’m grateful to be in North Carolina, enjoying this beautiful weather, and watching flowers pop up while listening to birds sing. So until it feels completely safe, my partner and I will stay comfortably at home, and look forward to the time when we can enjoy all of what makes Durham such a cool place to live.

Beyond being a cookbook author, you're also a radio producer. What are the similarities and differences between the two mediums? Do you explore food via radio production or are you exploring other subjects?

As diverse as this world and its people are, we all share one thing: food. And growing, hunting, preparing, cooking, and eating food will always be fundamental to humanity. Because of that, I think any topic can be explored through food. I have written and produced radio stories and podcasts about food, but I find food appears in stories where that’s not at all what I’m talking about. Plus, I’m a very multimedia storyteller, and find that each medium informs and strengthens the other. For example, radio stories are often very short. The pieces I produce for StoryCorps were often just two minutes long. When you have such limited time, you have to make different decisions about what you include in order to ensure the story is still meaningful and resonant. Similarly, my writing—mostly journalistic or personal essay—is descriptive and narrative. I’m always trying to tell a story, to paint a picture, and draw you in so you feel you’re there with me. All in all, I want folks to walk away from every story I tell thinking about food differently, and hopefully a little bit hungry.

Can you say a little bit about your fellowship at the  Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University? I know you the fellowship recently ended, so what are you up to now?

This spring I was the Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill. It was an honor to be selected for the fellowship, which I share with some truly remarkable people. There, I taught a course at both universities called Feeding Diaspora: Global Food Stories and Audio Storytelling, where my students explored the intersection between food and immigrant communities using audio storytelling. My students at both universities were amazing, and weathered the pandemic with grace. Their final projects ranged in scope from a COVID-19 diary from Singapore to how Muslim-Americans’ ceremonial food practices were being impacted by the crisis to how New York-style bagels made their way to Wilmington, N.C. I hope to teach this course again soon!

In what ways does your Puerto Rican identity show up in the work you are currently doing?

This fall I’ll be teaching two Food Studies courses at UNC-Chapel Hill: Food and American Culture, and Documenting Communities. And I’m certain they will both be heavily informed by my background, as the legacy of slavery connects Puerto Rico to the South so intimately. I hope my interest and background in immigrant foodways informs my students’ understandings of the ways migration influences cuisines and cultures more broadly. Also, I’ve continued working as a radio producer through the pandemic, and have been observing and experimenting with different approaches to collecting and sharing stories in the midst of crisis. I hope to share these experiences with my students, and to help them develop their own personal philosophy for thoughtfully, ethically telling stories about different cultures and communities.

As a "self-taught" cook, what advice do you have for folks who are cooking at home more right now because of the pandemic?

Choose one or two simple dishes you love, and master those! Chicken soup, tacos, green smoothies; any dish you enjoy so much you could eat it every day. Learning how to sauté onions perfectly, how to ensure your vegetables are not over or undercooked, or even getting better at selecting quality ingredients—these are all techniques that will make you a better cook in the long run. Oh, and watch instructional food videos. Anything you want to learn to cook you can find on YouTube, PBS, Netflix, Instagram, or wherever you stream videos.

Anything coming up that you want to share with our newsletter subscribers?
My recipe for Puerto Rican-Style Pimento Cheese is featured in the recently published book, “Tasty Pride”! All proceeds from the book go to GLAAD, and there are dozens of other amazing recipes from Southern contributors.