Moreton Neal

2005 SeasonMoreton Neal

Moreton Neal was married to Bill Neal for a decade and remained his friend until his death. With him, she was founder and co-owner as well as a chef at La Résidence in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Today, she is an interior designer in Chapel Hill and writes a regular column for Raleigh Metro magazine.


Remembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes from a Life in Cooking (2004)




When Bill Neal died in 1991, he was just hitting his stride as a food writer. The success of his first two cookbooks allowed him to retire from the grueling job of running a restaurant kitchen, and by 1988 he was devoting most of his time to writing. Bill's flair for the written word, his passion for history, and his genius for cooking and gardening promised so much more for his readers. His untimely death surely deprived us of many volumes.

But Bill's influence lives on. The restaurants he founded, Crook's Corner and La Résidence, are still going strong in Chapel Hill. Several of Bill's protégés opened noteworthy restaurants elsewhere in the South using many of his recipes and emulating his special flair. It's hard to find a Southern restaurant these days that does not offer some version of shrimp and grits, the recipe he popularized in his first cookbook. All four of his books--the three cookbooks and Gardener's Latin --are still in print, and many of his dishes continue to appear regularly on the menu at Crook's.

Bill grew up in the rural South and is best known for his Southern American cooking, but his instincts were honed as he methodically learned the techniques of French cuisine. For the first ten years of his professional life, both his cooking vernacular and his passion were rooted in a different South--the South of France.

In the introduction to Bill Neal's Southern Cooking , he explains the shift: "I had to go abroad to appreciate the mystery of food and its rituals in my native southland. . . . I saw it first in the lives of people whose languages, customs, and culture were foreign, but whose values were mine, before I saw the richness in my, my family's, my region's life."

Bill's new vision crystallized after Craig Claiborne, food editor of the New York Times , visited Chapel Hill in 1983 and invited Bill along with him to sample Carolina barbecue joints. Through Claiborne's eyes, Bill began to notice the richness and distinctiveness of Southern American cuisine. Soon after that, he took time off from Crook's and put pen to paper. Bill Neal's Southern Cooking , published in 1985, was the result.

Years after the book's publication, Bill explained his mission: "In the preface of the book, I wrote, 'Not long ago I read that to judge from southern cookbooks published in recent times, one would assume beef Stroganoff was a traditional dish. My heart sank.' My rebuttal was to write a small personal book that looked back over three hundred years of pioneer settlement, native displacement, and enslaved importation that created a cuisine unique among the food cultures of the world."

The purpose of this book is less intellectually ambitious, but certainly just as personal. Though Bill is now widely known as a historian and codifier of Southern recipes, his personal repertoire covered a much broader territory. Before the publication of his <i>Southern Cooking</i>, and the subsequent reorientation of the cuisine at Crook's, menus there and at La Résidence reflected Bill's "Mediterranean" aesthetic. So closely identified has he been with Southern American food that these recipes have remained, until now, neglected.

In 1999 Frances Gualtieri, who had owned and managed La Résidence since 1992, called to tell me that she and her husband Tom were thinking of putting the restaurant up for sale. (They later changed their minds.) My immediate reaction was, "I need to find our old recipes to pass on to the children before they end up in the garbage!" Most of these recipes, developed by Bill and all of us at La Res, were no longer available on the La R,sidence menu, nor could they be found in other local restaurants. Rick Robinson's Mondo Bistro, spiritually kin to the original La Res, had closed by then, leaving a void of good French bistro food on the Chapel Hill side of the Research Triangle. That kind of cooking, to my mind the best in the world, was out of fashion, replaced by a style of cuisine called "fusion," which could mean just about anything. I was determined to save my favorite recipes, the ones I thought of as the standards, to cook for family and friends at home.

During the process of rescuing those faded cards from La R,sidence's battle-scarred recipe box, I realized that even the most purely "French" of our dishes were a fusion of local produce and traditional technique. We adapted classic recipes all the time, substituting butter beans for flageolets, green asparagus for white, mountain trout for sole. Our bouillabaisse hadn't an ounce of "loup de mer" or "rouget"; we used North Carolina coastal grouper and snapper instead. And when Bill concocted dishes with Asian flavors (we were not beyond an occasional fusion of cultures ourselves), he would irreverently give them faux French names such as "soupe á la chinoise".

When I decided to expand this collection to include Crook's Corner recipes, I made a similar discovery. There were dozens of delicious menu items served there, particularly in the early years, that do not fall into the category of "Southern." The white bean soup is Tuscan in character; the chili and enchiladas that sporadically appear on the menu aren't any more Southern than the heart-sinking beef Stroganoff. Orange County farmers deliver fresh fennel, artichokes, and asparagus--decidedly not traditional North Carolina vegetables--to the kitchen door at Crook's. Like Bill Neal, current chef Bill Smith calls his menu "seasonal produce-driven" rather than strictly Southern. Next to hoppin' John, you may, on occasion, find braised leeks. The leeks are grown in Chatham County, so the dish counts as Southern, doesn't it?

The thread that holds these recipes together, particularly the ones that Bill prepared at home, is not at all regional. The collection is eclectic. What these recipes do have in common is a certain style. Whether they came from an old tradition or were the creations of Bill and his staff, or somewhere in between, these dishes are reflections of his personal taste and deserve to be preserved and shared. The collection can be summed up as "what Bill really liked to eat." You will find some surprises here, especially in the "At Home" chapter. Bill's taste could be quite prosaic at times. A mutual friend confided that she was invited to his house for dinner and was shocked that "the great chef" served pepperoni pizza. I've not included that recipe here either. To taste it, you can do as Bill did: call Domino's.

Because this book is meant to be a "best of Bill" collection, I have included hoppin' John, shrimp and grits, chocolate chess pie, and many more classics from Bill Neal's Southern Cooking , Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie , and Good Old Grits . Recipes for the La Résidence and Crook's chapters were developed from the recipe files of both restaurants, graciously given to me by Frances Gualtieri and Gene Hamer. The "home" recipes came from the sketchy handwritten cookbook Bill and I began after we married, from his Carrboro kitchen files, and from memory. Unfortunately, I never found that beef Stroganoff recipe we enjoyed in graduate school! I think its inclusion here would have made Bill chuckle.

Given his knack for being ahead of the curve, Bill's early death was almost not a surprise. Even in college, he had a premonition that his life would be short. He packed more living into forty-one years than most of us do in twice that many. His fatal illness forced Bill to become all too aware of the meaning of "quality of life" long before most of us give much thought to running out of time on this earth. He lived by the adage "Life is too short to drink bad wine," with all its connotations. In his final years Bill focused his waning energy on his favorite activities: cooking for friends and family, gardening, writing, and drinking excellent wine!

Bill's finely tuned taste buds were discerning to the end. On the night he died, he instructed me to send back his ginger ale to the hospital kitchen. "Something is missing," he insisted. "Tell them it needs just a drop of bitters."

Remembering Bill Neal is a tribute to Bill's talent, his love for food, and his deep commitment to Matt, Elliott, and Madeline Neal, who spent so many happy hours cooking and gardening with their dad. To them, Bill's friends, patrons of his restaurants, fans of his cookbooks, and those of you who just love good cooking, I'd like to say, "Enjoy the feast!"

From: Remembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes from a Life in Cooking by Moreton Neal © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.