“I remember Bill once telling us that the kitchen, within certain bounds, was a laboratory. Occasionally a tart would be lopsided or the mirepoix was never all exactly the same dice, and I remember him saying one time: We do everything homemade here. Everything is made by hand, so there’s nothing wrong with it looking like it.” – Bill Smith, chef, Crook’s Corner
There is a mystery and a mythology surrounding Bill Neal that never really dissipates. His was one of the first voices in the modern celebration of regional cuisine and, as the most academic, it is perhaps one of the most respected. Bill came of age and came to relative prominence in the days just before the celebrity chef and so he escaped much of the recognition and the scrutiny that comes with that fame. However, his contemporaries and those who still love and use his cookbooks know him to be both historian and innovator.
Bill Neal and his then-wife Moreton Neal opened their first restaurant, La Residence, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1975 after Bill’s love of cooking overtook his graduate studies in English. He was never formally trained as a chef, but was intensely dedicated to studying cooking techniques, flavors, and ingredients. The kitchen became his classroom and workshop. Neal’s next venture, the now-legendary Crook’s Corner, put to bed the notion that fish camps and barbecue joints were the only restaurants focusing on true Southern food. And as Bill researched and cooked, he began to do something that no one else was really doing at the time: take Southern food seriously.
John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance describes Bill as “early and important.” Bill Neal, he says, “was the first Southerner who applied an academic rigor to cooking. We were not very proud, back then, of ourselves and our cuisine. He rekindled our respect for the cooking of our own forebears. And he gave Southern cooking a strong national platform.”
It was around this same time that other chefs began to make names for themselves by focusing on fresh ingredients and regional cuisine. Alice Waters, who remains the most recognizable figure in Slow Food, was defining modern California cuisine at Chez Panisse; Paul Prudhomme became one of the most recognized faces in America and a literal advertisement for new and traditional New Orleans food; Jasper White was on his way to becoming the leading authority on New England seafood.
At this same time Bill Neal was being christened by New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne as the spokesperson for Southern foods, which Neal described as a ”confluence of three cultures — Western European, African and Native American — meeting, clashing and ultimately melding into one unique identity, one hybrid society, which was changed forever by civil war in the 1860’s.” In the magnificent Southern Foodways Alliance short film about Bill called, “They Came for Shrimp & Grits: The Life & Work of Bill Neal,” New York Times writer Kim Severson says, “Bill Neal was one of the real early adapters of southern regional awesomeness and the way that he was able to, in a very intelligent way, articulate it both on the plate and the pages of his cookbook, built a foundation for what all the southern chefs are doing right now.”
Southern Cooking was Bill Neal’s first cookbook and it offered evidence that Southern fare is not quaint, unsophisticated, or unimportant. His research and recipes acknowledged the complicated, sometimes difficult history of a food shaped by region, by agriculture, and by an ethnic mix of willing immigrants and enslaved peoples. To quote John T. Edge again, “Bill Neal was one of the first chefs who, by way of what he cooked in his restaurants and what he wrote in his books, said to eaters and readers, ‘These foods are of merit.’” His subsequent books, Good Old Grits Cookbook, Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie, and Gardener’s Latin: A Lexicon allowed him to explore his subjects further and stretch his legs as a writer. He was becoming a recognizable voice in the Southern food vernacular, just as he had become an influence and role model for his peers.
When Bill Neal passed away at the young age of 41, he left behind a rich legacy—and, quite by accident, created a new Southern classic dish from a traditional Low Country staple. “I made a dish that was taken from the traditional Charleston dish, shrimp and grits,” Neal said. “The first time I put shrimp and grits on the menu everybody thought that was the strangest thing they’d ever heard of. Now if I don’t have it on the menu, everybody complains.” Crooks Corner chef Bill Smith agrees. “Bill introduced shrimp and grits to the world here. It was a huge hit at once and now it’s inescapable; it’s everywhere.” Like many chefs, Natalie’s son Zach counts Bill Neal and his shrimp and grits as important influences.
In honor of Chef Bill Neal, Zach will be serving Neal’s version of Chicken Purloo (a dish that is akin to pilaf—made with chicken and rice—and found in Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking) in the café starting today and until Friday. We hope you will stop by to celebrate Chef Neal or, if you are unfamiliar with Bill Neal, use this as an introduction to his work and his lasting legacy.