Seasoned in the South

Chapel Hill. Two words, one town – but the name says a lot. For many North Carolinians, the place evokes Tar Heel basketball. For others, it’s a liberal academic haven set in a state that retains a distinct strain of Southern conservatism. But here’s the kicker: Chapel Hill is also home to some major players in the culinary game.

A quick walk from the UNC-Chapel Hill campus offers ample proof of that. Near the west end of the renowned Franklin Street lies Crook’s Corner, a restaurant that has helped set the standard for fine but accessible Southern food – the best kind.

That’s where chef and author Bill Smith wrought his culinary magic into something notable, earning him a spot in the kitchen at a restaurant The New York Times deemed “sacred ground for Southern foodies” and the Raleigh News & Observer called a “temple of Southern cuisine.” Crook’s Corner, in fact, has been credited by some as the birthplace – or perhaps the primary breeding ground – of no less a Southern dish than shrimp and grits.

It was not simply crustaceans and milled corn that put Crook’s Corner on the map. Back in the 1940s, at the spot where Crook’s now stands, there was a fish market run by a woman, Rachel Crook, who was murdered under mysterious circumstances. The building underwent a series of identity crises before being abandoned, resurrected, turned into a barbecue pit and then sold to Gene Hamer and Bill Neal, the latter of which would become the pioneering chef and innovator of Crook’s Corner.

Neal, who died in 1991, not only ran a successful restaurant and created region-defining dishes; he also found the time to write several acclaimed cookbooks, including Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking (UNC Press, 1989) and (with David Perry) Good Old Grits Cookbook (Workman Publishing, 1991), that spread the word about Crook’s Corner.

In an interview about her recent book, Remembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes from a Life in Cooking (UNC Press, 2004), Moreton Neal, Bill Neal’s ex-wife and post-marriage friend, summarized his impact. “Bill was on the cutting edge of the American regional trend in the ’80s, when Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme, among others, were bringing attention to regional food in this country and there was a new interest in using local ingredients.”

After Neal’s death, it was Bill Smith who rode this wave, sauté pans a-blazing, to carry on the tradition of Crook’s Corner. Today, Smith continues to place almost reverent emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, as is evident from his new book, Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook’s Corner and from Home (Algonquin, 2005).

“If you try to do as much from scratch as possible,” Smith writes, “this enforces seasonality upon your menu. It also keeps your money in the community and strikes a tiny blow against corporate agriculture and the mass-market food industry. Best of all, it’s always, always better.”

In the book, Smith arranges his unfettered, uncomplicated recipes in what he sees as a “logical progression: a year in the kitchen.” He follows food through the seasons, utilizing ingredients that are in their peak at that particular time of year in North Carolina. He peppers his recipes with tales of their origin, Southern colloquialisms, humor and stories of his heritage. His grandmothers – one from the deep South, one a “mean Yankee German” – both had their influence on his culinary flair.

Smith, by the way, is no snooty foodie. He discusses the merits of plucking the entrails from the cavity of a roasted bird bound for the stock pot; hearts and gizzards, don’t you know, make a fabulous snack straight from the oven when seasoned with a bit of salt and pepper.

He applauds the Herculean efforts of the fearless rockers and hard-working immigrants in the Crook’s kitchen (the book’s dedication is written in both English and Spanish). He tends to favor them over food snobs who have a habit, he hints, of panicking under kitchen duress.

Smith also has an eye (and palette) for the poetic. He provides a recipe for an ethereal-sounding honeysuckle sorbet that, as he puts it, tastes like “walking around at night with your mouth open.” Smith describes the best areas for harvest (roadside flowers tend to impart a sooty flavor to the treat) as well as his preferred harvest method (at night, with a Budweiser in each pocket).

“There was a great deal of trial and error with this recipe because it took me about four years to realize that it would be a good idea to measure things and to then write down what I had done for the next year,” Smith tells Xpress. “After that, it all fell into place.”

The recipe for honeysuckle sorbet, as told by Bill Smith, is as follows:

4 cups (tightly packed but not smashed) honeysuckle flowers, leaves and stems discarded

5 1/3 cups cool water

1 1/3 cups water

2 cups sugar

Few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice

Speck of cinnamon

Place the flowers in a nonreactive container (glass or stainless steel) and cover with the cool water. Weight down with a plate. Let stand on the counter overnight.

In a small saucepan, make a syrup out of the sugar and the water by boiling it until all the sugar is dissolved and it begins to look lustrous and slightly thick, 3-5 minutes. Add a few drops of lemon juice to prevent the sugar from recrystallizing. Cool the syrup completely. Strain the honeysuckle infusion, gently pressing the blossoms so as not to waste any of your previous efforts. Combine the two liquids and add the merest dusting of cinnamon. You don’t want to taste it, but you can tell if it’s not there. I use the tip of a sharp boning knife to measure it. Churn in an ice-cream maker. This does not keep for more than a week or two.

The sorbet is a huge hit at Crook’s, where it has become something like an annual ritual. “People begin pestering me in the grocery store and on the street as soon as the weather warms,” Smith says. “I tell them to wait until they start to smell the flowers at night. … I’ve been giving the recipe to anyone who asks for years, so now lots of people around here make it at home.”

How nice and utterly Southern of him to share.

[Honeysuckle sorbet recipe from Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook’s Corner and from Home, by Bill Smith. Copyright 2005 by Bill Smith. Reprinted with permission from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.]


Meet the Author

Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café will host Bill Smith on Thursday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. Smith will read from Seasoned in the South and treat visitors to a sample of his Baked Sweet Potato Soup. For more information, call 254-6734.

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