- Associated Press - Sunday, May 4, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - The photo is missing, and Carla Hall is experiencing a meltdown that can best be described as Carla Hall-esque: She has pitched her voice to an exaggerated wail. She raises her well-toned arms in the air, as if they’re a pair of question marks matching her puzzlement, while she searches the kitchen for the framed picture of her late grandmother, the woman Hall simply calls “Granny.”

“Where are you, Granny?” Hall cries in semi-exasperation as she searches the countertop in her Takoma home. “She was always right here. Who moved her? Arghhhh! Granny?!”

Underneath this comical facade lies genuine angst. Granny’s picture, after all, serves a purpose in Hall’s elegant, tan-colored kitchen with its faux-birch cupboards and drawers: It’s a reminder to the cookbook author, chef and co-host of ABC’s “The Chew” that no matter how famous she gets - and fans now routinely stop her on the streets of New York to strike up a conversation - her love of food remains firmly rooted in Granny’s kitchen back in Lebanon, Tenn.

As Hall will tell you, one of her goals as a recipe developer is to help cooks evoke feelings similar to the ones she experienced in Granny’s home, where as a child she gobbled down corn bread, smothered pork chops, candied sweet potatoes and mac ‘n’ cheese. Her mission, though, is not tied solely to Southern cooking, a cuisine so steeped in comfort-food mythology that it borders on cliche. To Hall’s way of thinking, almost any dish can provide comfort, if the cook pours herself fully into the preparation.

Hall’s philosophy is well known among her followers: The two-time “Top Chef” contestant calls it “cooking with love,” and to Hall, 49, it’s not some slick slogan cooked up by an image consultant to help her to connect with the common people. It’s the credo by which she lives her life - and honors Freddie Mae Glover, the maternal grandmother who made Hall feel so nurtured as a girl.

That philosophy takes a new turn in Hall’s second cookbook, “Carla’s Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes From Around the World,” in which she simultaneously attempts to preserve the uniqueness of various international dishes (before they fuse into a homogenous blob) while demonstrating that food often underscores the similarities - not the differences - between cultures. The book is pure Carla Hall. Its affections know no boundaries: It celebrates both the village and the planet, the me and the we.

I’ve arrived at Hall’s tasteful turn-of-the-20th-century home to better understand the newest chapter in her (cook)book of love. She’s preparing Chicken With Sour Cream and Paprika from “Carla’s Comfort Foods.” It’s a semi-Hungarian dish designed to trace a clean line from the Deep South to Central Europe.

“Basically, I’m doing chicken and gravy,” Hall says. “We think of milk gravy as comfort food, but really if you change a few ingredients, everybody has their version of smothered chicken. This is a Hungarian smothered chicken.”

As Hall browns the skin-on thighs in a thin slick of rice bran oil - a variation from the olive oil in her printed recipe - she talks about some of the motivations behind “Carla’s Comfort Foods.” Her desire, for instance, to seek commonality through food is one outgrowth of an unfortunate side effect of fame: the haters and their easy access to social media through which they can vent their tiny thoughts.

Hall refuses to let the small-minded among us change her behavior. She remains a relentless user of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, interacting with all who come, whether fan or bully. Her tactic is to kill the critics with kindness, or at least with wit and/or directness, even when their barbs pierce the skin. Like the time someone tweeted at Hall that she has the “ugliest nose ever.” (Her response: “I am grateful for a nose at all. Are you grateful Eric?”)

By singling out the commonalities among the countless cuisines of the world, Hall says, she hopes to bridge the divides among disparate cultures. In her hands, then, food becomes an analogy for the human genetics that bind us all together.

“Your nose may not look like mine,” Hall says. “Your skin may not look like mine. We may have different religions; our sexuality is different; but we’re very similar. We’re people, and that’s 95 percent of who we are.”

Actually, it’s 99.9 percent of who we are, but the point is well taken. The anonymity and insularity of social networks allow users to exaggerate our differences while ignoring our similarities. In a phone conversation earlier this year, she shared an example of how she deals with the haters.

“Somebody the other day, they sent me a tweet and it said, ‘Carla Hall ruins ‘The Chew’ for me,’?” Hall says. “So I say, ‘Sorry, I’m not taking a day off anytime soon.’ She responds and says, ‘My apologies for my harsh words. TV dehumanizes people.’… I said, ‘No worries. It’s actually social media that dehumanizes people. Just a reminder that I’m a human being.’

“That’s how I handle it.”

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