If not for an argument, one of the most influential books on Southern regional cooking might never have been written.
“That book was formulated in his head and he wanted to leave to write it,” says Gene Hamer, owner of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill. “We were so busy with the restaurant. Bill was trying to carve out time to write when we went our separate ways.” Hamer is referring to Bill Neal, the self-taught chef who opened Chapel Hill’s La Residence in 1976 with his then-wife Moreton Neal. The book, started a year after Hamer and Neal opened Crook’s in 1982, was to become the culinary classic Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking. Hamer recalls that Neal wanted to move to New York for a few months, a notion Hamer deemed unreasonable as he had a new business to manage. Assuming they’d never work together again, Hamer bought out Neal’s share of Crook’s. Neal actually returned to Crook’s the following year, helping to launch a trajectory that led to the James Beard Foundation presenting its American Classic Award to the landmark in 2011. “Bill needed a place to show off the book, and I needed his face,” Hamer recalls. “The fact is, for the business to work, we needed each other. We renewed the bond of our friendship. I still miss him every day.” When the book was published in 1985 by the University of North Carolina Press, Craig Claiborne, influential food editor at The New York Times, wrote a lengthy article. Claiborne credited Neal for bringing deserved attention to Southern foodways, much in the same way that chef Alice Waters and Chez Panisse steered culinary interest toward newly minted “California cuisine.” Which was exactly what Neal wanted to hear. “He resented that California was getting all the attention,” recalls Moreton Neal, who introduced Neal to sophisticated Southern food in her native Mississippi. “Bill had an uncanny knack for getting ahead of a trend. He felt that if people would just go back to before World War II, before everything was processed and corn syrup and margarine got popular, they’d see that the South had an equally rich food heritage.” Thirty years after its publication, Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking will be the topic of a May 30 plenary session of the Carolina Cornucopia conference at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill. The influential book defied the stereotypical beliefs about Southern food; largely, that all proteins are fried and all vegetables greased with fatback. A classic example of Neal’s enduring legacy is his recipe for Shrimp and Grits, variations of which have become ubiquitous at Southern restaurants. It remains on the Crook’s menu, where it continues to satisfy locals and dazzle diners who travel there for the express experience. Fans also make pilgrimages to Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, where they seek out Bill and Moreton Neal’s son, owner Matt Neal. He recalls a chef from Cambridge, Massachusetts, stopping to visit and talk about how Southern Cooking was a touchstone in his own career. “I didn’t think that much about it, because it happens a lot,” Matt Neal says. “But earlier this month I saw that Barry Maiden was named Best Chef Northeast by the James Beard Foundation. It kind of blew my mind. It’s gratifying to my family that people are keeping this book alive.” Bill Neal went on to write two more cookbooks and edited Through the Garden Gate, a compilation of columns by garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence, before his death in 1991 at age 41. Food writer Kim Severson of The New York Times says Southern Cooking remains his most important work. “The book and Mr. Neal himself built the frame on which this latest Southern food revolution was built,” observes Severson, an ardent advocate of Southern fare who lives in Atlanta. “That book codified an elevation of Southern cooking that was quite true to the food.” Chef Ben Barker considered the book so essential that it was required reading for new kitchen staff at Durham’s now-closed Magnolia Grill. “We felt that, if you were a native, it was a great way to re-visit the food of your region, or examine regional variations of classic dishes,” Barker says. “And if you weren’t a native, it is a historically accurate, well-written introduction to the larder and the cuisine. We often used the recipes as jumping off points for inspiration, or foundation, for dishes at the Grill.” Nathalie Dupree is a Charleston-based cookbook writer whose lifetime achievements led to her being inducted this month into the James Beard Foundation Who’s Who of Food & Beverage. She says Southern Cooking broke new ground in distinguishing regional cuisines within the South and defining unique characteristics with roots in diverse populations, geography, agricultural potential and economics. “It was an enormous breakthrough for our understanding of Southern food,” Dupree says. “I think it is even more important today, in a sense, as so many of us were slow to realize the vast implications.” Moreton Neal, who wrote the 2004 cookbook/memoir Remembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes From a Life in Cooking, says he was thoroughly immersed in testing recipes and writing Southern Cooking. The book has since been revised and expanded by UNC Press. “Before then, the best Southern recipes came from those little Junior League and church cookbooks, and they had very little detail,” Neal says. “I remember reading one of his recipes and thinking that it just went on and on. I didn’t think people would like it. But I was completely wrong. It turned out that it was quite an achievement.”