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Rocket scientist Howard Conyers is a barbecue man and now a food show host

Howard Conyers

Howard Conyers interviewing David Shields for an episode of Nourish. Provided

He’s a whole hog pitmaster and a rocket scientist at NASA, but now Howard Conyers is also a food show host and producer for PBS Digital Studios, a new YouTube channel for the PBS network that explores all sorts of topics, including food.

The Manning native, who lives in New Orleans, traveled to the Lowcountry to explore some of the area’s food stories. The first episode of Nourish debuted this week on YouTube, with plans to release new segments every other week.

Conyers became the host by accident. Producer Christina Melton featured his story about cooking whole hog and researching the history of Southern food on the pilot episode that she pitched to PBS Digital. "They liked it so much, and they liked him so much that they wanted him to host it," says Melton, a documentary filmmaker and director of special projects at Louisiana Public Broadcasting, who is now thrilled to be co-producing the series with Conyers. 

"My only condition was that I get to go out into the field," says Conyers, who had a list of stories he was interested in telling.

"Howard is very knowledgeable and he tapped into an entirely different circle of food historians, practitioners, researchers that was broader than what I had envisioned," says Melton.

They were both interested in Carolina Gold Rice, David Shields and the Moruga Hill Rice of Trinidad. Conyers was eager to connect with chef BJ Dennis, a Gullah Geechee ambassador who recently traveled to New York for to teach a cooking class. "The work he does in Gullah Geechee means so much to me because I have those roots as well," he says. 

For that segment, Conyers and Dennis planned a June event at Joseph Fields Farm on Johns Island to demonstrate Gullah Geechee fare that attracted prominent African-American chefs such as Eduardo Jordan of Junebaby in Seattle, Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah, Alexander Smalls of The Cecil in New York and Bryan Furman of B's Cracklin' BBQ.

"We dug the pit in the ground (for the whole hog), so they could experience the historical aspect," says Conyers. 

Fellow whole hog pitmaster Rodney Scott also showed up. Conyers and Scott grew up less than 45 minutes from each other; Conyers in Manning and Scott in Hemingway, both cooking whole hog barbecue in a similar fashion. But Conyers says he didn't know about Scott. "Before Rodney got famous, I didn't know anything about him. There were plenty of barbecue cooks between us."

For his day job, Conyers works at the John C. Stennis Space Center, a NASA rocket testing facility, on the border of Mississippi and Louisiana. The Manning High School graduate received his master's and Ph.D. from Duke University, and credits his childhood on a farm with preparing him for a life in science.

"If I didn't grow up on the farm and learn STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) hands-on, I wouldn't be a rocket scientist today," he says.

Melton says Nourish will air new episodes on PBS' new YouTube channel every other week throughout the summer. There are no plans to air it on broadcast television. 

"I really want Nourish to be a food show that talks about the culture and the people and the science that all ties in to what I'm all about," says Conyers, who hopes to explore the influences of Native Americans, West Africans and Spaniards on Southern cuisine. "I really want people to see the greater picture that makes the South special in my mind."

Other episodes in the series include a short-course in Louisiana Gumbo 101 with Leah Chase of Dooky Chase's; the secret to cochon du lait (from the Cochon du Lait Festival in Mansura); and an explanation of why homegrown tomatoes taste best, featuring iconic seed saver John Coykendall. Nourish is available at the PBS Digital Studios channel on YouTube.

Follow Stephanie Barna on Twitter @stefbarna.

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