The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.

NO.53
SUMMER2017

An Appreciation of Bill Neal

It is no original notion to admire Bill Neal, the restauranteur, author and champion of southern foodways. It may be less common to appreciate his contribution to the preservation and promotion of a British food tradition.

Almost two decades after his death at the cruelly early age of 41, half of the chefs, cookbook authors, food writers and restaurant owners in the American south, and a significant number of culinary professionals elsewhere, claim to have been his friend (‘George Washington slept here’), and an even greater number nationwide profess their admiration for him. Julia Reed, for example, referred recently to “the late, great Bill Neal.” (Reed 96)

Neal’s is a powerful legacy. Both of his restaurants have entered the realm of legend; professional chefs as well as amateur cooks prize his writing. So does the Editor.

His biography is interesting. Neal’s extended family, including all of his grandparents, cultivated and shared most of their own considerably varied food supply on neighboring subsistence farmsteads in North Carolina. By his own account he lived much like an eighteenth century yeoman farmer’s son, hoeing cotton, tending livestock and harvesting fruit until the twentieth century belatedly intruded on his world:

Orchard Scene“Almost everything that went onto our table had the input of three generations’ work and care. I am amazed today when I think of the array of fruits and berries that we picked as children. Blackberries from neglected pastures; wild plums, persimmons and muscadines from the woods; cherries, peaches, and apples from our small orchard and pears from the neighbors’: and figs from the tree behind the smokehouse…. It was a life as idyllic for children as it was tenuous and exhausting for adults.” (Neal, Biscuits x)


It had to end, and it did before Neal’s twelfth birthday, when, in a potent distillation of the emerging southern economy, Neal’s father plowed under the cotton field and built a factory to manufacture synthetic textiles.

Neal always liked the kitchen, but despite his beginnings and sense of loss at the erosion of traditional southern culture, he never intended to farm or cook for a living. Instead he earned a degree in literature from Duke, where he dabbled in dormitory cooking, and spent the year after graduation teaching high school before moving on to study English in graduate school at Chapel Hill. His work was the better for it; while Neal’s cookbooks are both practical and accessible, they also are learned and literate. The writing is good and so are the recipes. He surpasses most professional food scholars in placing the food in historical context and interweaves a deft selection of both fiction and primary sources with his narrative.

During graduate school Neal and his wife began catering for his professors to help meet expenses. Like most Americans serious about food during the 1960s and 70s, the Neals started out as Francophiles; the confidence gained from the catering business and several excursions to France eventually led Neal to abandon his academic career and open a Chapel Hill restaurant, La Residence, in 1976. Neal had wanted to study in Paris at Cordon Bleu but the need to support three children prevented him, and his work was the better for that too. After his divorce in 1982, Neal opened a new place, Crook’s Corner, where he gradually shifted focus from France to the American south and found his calling. He also began to write, and gradually produced three pathbreaking books between 1985 and his death in 1991.

Anecdotes about Neal abound, and like many visionaries of outsized personality he was a “seductive charmer” who “engendered fierce loyalties” (NYT) but whose volcanic temper could abuse and terrify the unlucky. Once Neal fired one of his crew as the cook arrived at the restaurant, shouting at the unfortunate that yesterday was his last day at work. Neal also was the target of missiles hurled by recipients of his invective (actually not uncommon in restaurant kitchens; the Editor barely evaded a steel oven pan that flew like a lethal Frisbee, but she was the underling and the launcher was chef). He did not suffer fools or imperfection and did not lack confidence; the notion that southern food bore any significance was a joke when Neal became its champion, so he refused to hire kitchen staff with any formal training lest they pollute or subvert his vision.

His subject was the origin and evolution of southern food but he was too creative and flexible to approach it as a musty archivist. Neal therefore explains that:

“Historically, all these recipes existed in some easily recognizable form before 1860. Because most recipe writing of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries is sketchy at best, I have not been interested in facsimile recipes. Rather, what you will find in this book are imaginative and original reconstructions of historical dishes that were prepared in the antebellum South.” (Neal, Southern Food 4)

If Neal extrapolated or interpolated from his sources, however, he also remained true to their techniques and ingredients. Measures and cooking times, seasoning and texture may change but not the intrinsic character of the recipes. He was interested in food for people to cook and eat rather than just ponder or study.

Neal believed that “[o]ur food tells us where we came from and who we have become” (Neal, Biscuits xi) and identified three broad strands that intertwined to create a distinctive southern style of cooking before their abrupt submergence by the forces of civil war and modernity: “From 1607 to 1860, European, African and native American cultures accepted and modified each other’s agricultural, dietary, and social customs and molded them into a distinct regional cuisine.” (Neal, Southern Cooking 3)

Bill Neal's Biscuits spponbread and sweet potato pieOne of those strands was British. Neal does not, and should not, argue that the British strand was dominant or superior; his insight was just in recognizing its validity, a notion that repeatedly escaped his contemporary food writers and continues to escape most Americans, including for instance Betty Fussell and Florence Fabricant.

Something does distinguish this British strand of southern food from its other antecedents, however, and that is its resilience. When Neal observes that some European dishes “passed directly into the tradition with little or no change” the examples that he offers come from one place: “Wine jellies, trifles, and fruitcakes are scarcely distinguishable from their eighteenth-century British ancestors.” (Neal, Biscuits xi) Only one chapter in Biscuits, Spoonbread & Sweet Potato Pie, ‘Our British Heritage,’ concerns the foods of a single nation and Neal’s short but apt bibliography cites Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery but no European author except for another British one. The foods described in the chapter include a number of preparations lost to other regions of the United States and indeed to much of Britain itself, including cracknels, manchet, velvet cakes and wigs; bannocks, baps, crumpets, rusks and scones. These preparations remain mysterious to many if not most or all Americans outside of the south.

Neal identifies the British origin of Country Captain and also includes a number of distinctly and explicitly British dishes in his Southern Cooking. There is a recipe for a savory bread pudding that includes cabbage and bacon, and one for pork roasted in a pastry case: “A paste was often employed by English cooks who mastered fine roasting of large cuts and joints of meat. Southern cooks inherited the method and typically provided a more piquant seasoning.” (Neal, Southern Cooking 98) We will, however, respectfully disagree with that last assertion; Elisabeth Ayrton, David and Jane Grigson, among others, have demonstrated that English food traditionally was highly seasoned and spiced.

Neal’s ‘fish muddle,’ a traditional stew that he found on the islands of the Outer Banks, looks a lot like a variation of water souchy, and he discusses its origins:

“The customs and foods of the earliest English colonists have been maintained on these Atlantic outposts; linguists study the dialect for its Elizabethan overtones, and anthropologists record the raucous Twelfth Night celebrations. Muddle is the traditional feast of the region whose poor soil yields a meager harvest.” (Neal, Southern Food 19)

Other recipes that bear a distinctly British pedigree include meat pies and oyster pie, raspberry fool and cheese straws.

In common with other European techniques, Neal notes that British ones were adapted to North American ingredients, none more so than corn, both as an alternative to malt for whiskey and in the guise of meal and grits. Neal glazes ham and binds liver pudding with cornmeal instead of breadcrumbs, but otherwise his recipes for these dishes would have been familiar to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century kitchen in Britain as well as the south. Other southern staples, like bell peppers, smoked bacon and tomatoes, transformed British antecedents like Country Captain.

Neal was prescient enough to recognize both the excellence of regional southern cuisine and its debt to British tradition. Nobody else among his brilliant generation of American cooks shared that insight and we are grateful for it.

A recipe for roast pork similar to Bill Neal’s and recipes for cheese straws and Country Captain appear in the practical, a discussion of cheese straws and their origin appears in the critical, and further notes on Country Captain appear elsewhere in the lyrical.

Sources

R.W. Apple, Jr., “Bliss from the South: A Chef’s Grand Legacy,” The New York Times, 23 July 2003

Bill Neal, Biscuits, Cornbread & Sweet Potato Pie (Chapel Hill 1990);
Southern Cooking (Chapel Hill 1981)

Julia Reed, Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns and Other Southern Specialties (New York 2008)

It is no original notion to admire Bill Neal, the restauranteur, author and champion of southern foodways. It may be less common to appreciate his contribution to the preservation and promotion of a British food tradition.

Almost two decades after his death at the cruelly early age of 41, half of the chefs, cookbook authors, food writers and restaurant owners in the American south, and a significant number of culinary professionals elsewhere, claim to have been his friend (‘George Washington slept here’), and an even greater number nationwide profess their admiration for him. Julia Reed, for example, referred recently to “the late, great Bill Neal.” (Reed 96)

Neal’s is a powerful legacy. Both of his restaurants have entered the realm of legend; professional chefs as well as amateur cooks prize his writing. So does the Editor.

His biography is interesting. Neal’s extended family, including all of his grandparents, cultivated and shared most of their own considerably varied food supply on neighboring subsistence farmsteads in North Carolina. By his own account he lived much like an eighteenth century yeoman farmer’s son, hoeing cotton, tending livestock and harvesting fruit until the twentieth century belatedly intruded on his world:

“Almost everything that went onto our table had the input of three generations’ work and care. I am amazed today when I think of the array of fruits and berries that we picked as children. Blackberries from neglected pastures; wild plums, persimmons and muscadines from the woods; cherries, peaches, and apples from our small orchard and pears from the neighbors’: and figs from the tree behind the smokehouse…. It was a life as idyllic for children as it was tenuous and exhausting for adults.” (Neal, Biscuits x)


It had to end, and it did before Neal’s twelfth birthday, when, in a potent distillation of the emerging southern economy, Neal’s father plowed under the cotton field and built a factory to manufacture synthetic textiles.

Neal always liked the kitchen, but despite his beginnings and sense of loss at the erosion of traditional southern culture, he never intended to farm or cook for a living. Instead he earned a degree in literature from Duke, where he dabbled in dormitory cooking, and spent the year after graduation teaching high school before moving on to study English in graduate school at Chapel Hill. His work was the better for it; while Neal’s cookbooks are both practical and accessible, they also are learned and literate. The writing is good and so are the recipes. He surpasses most professional food scholars in placing the food in historical context and interweaves a deft selection of both fiction and primary sources with his narrative.

During graduate school Neal and his wife began catering for his professors to help meet expenses. Like most Americans serious about food during the 1960s and 70s, the Neals started out as Francophiles; the confidence gained from the catering business and several excursions to France eventually led Neal to abandon his academic career and open a Chapel Hill restaurant, La Residence, in 1976. Neal had wanted to study in Paris at Cordon Bleu but the need to support three children prevented him, and his work was the better for that too. After his divorce in 1982, Neal opened a new place, Crook’s Corner, where he gradually shifted focus from France to the American south and found his calling. He also began to write, and gradually produced three pathbreaking books between 1985 and his death in 1991.

Anecdotes about Neal abound, and like many visionaries of outsized personality he was a “seductive charmer” who “engendered fierce loyalties” (NYT) but whose volcanic temper could abuse and terrify the unlucky. Once Neal fired one of his crew as the cook arrived at the restaurant, shouting at the unfortunate that yesterday was his last day at work. Neal also was the target of missiles hurled by recipients of his invective (actually not uncommon in restaurant kitchens; the Editor barely evaded a steel oven pan that flew like a lethal Frisbee, but she was the underling and the launcher was chef). He did not suffer fools or imperfection and did not lack confidence; the notion that southern food bore any significance was a joke when Neal became its champion, so he refused to hire kitchen staff with any formal training lest they pollute or subvert his vision.

His subject was the origin and evolution of southern food but he was too creative and flexible to approach it as a musty archivist. Neal therefore explains that:

“Historically, all these recipes existed in some easily recognizable form before 1860. Because most recipe writing of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries is sketchy at best, I have not been interested in facsimile recipes. Rather, what you will find in this book are imaginative and original reconstructions of historical dishes that were prepared in the antebellum South.” (Neal, Southern Food 4)

If Neal extrapolated or interpolated from his sources, however, he also remained true to their techniques and ingredients. Measures and cooking times, seasoning and texture may change but not the intrinsic character of the recipes. He was interested in food for people to cook and eat rather than just ponder or study.

Neal believed that “[o]ur food tells us where we came from and who we have become” (Neal, Biscuits xi) and identified three broad strands that intertwined to create a distinctive southern style of cooking before their abrupt submergence by the forces of civil war and modernity: “From 1607 to 1860, European, African and native American cultures accepted and modified each other’s agricultural, dietary, and social customs and molded them into a distinct regional cuisine.” (Neal, Southern Cooking 3)

One of those strands was British. Neal does not, and should not, argue that the British strand was dominant or superior; his insight was just in recognizing its validity, a notion that repeatedly escaped his contemporary food writers and continues to escape most Americans, including for instance Betty Fussell and Florence Fabricant.

Something does distinguish this British strand of southern food from its other antecedents, however, and that is its resilience. When Neal observes that some European dishes “passed directly into the tradition with little or no change” the examples that he offers come from one place: “Wine jellies, trifles, and fruitcakes are scarcely distinguishable from their eighteenth-century British ancestors.” (Neal, Biscuits xi) Only one chapter in Biscuits, Spoonbread & Sweet Potato Pie, ‘Our British Heritage,’ concerns the foods of a single nation and Neal’s short but apt bibliography cites Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery but no European author except for another British one. The foods described in the chapter include a number of preparations lost to other regions of the United States and indeed to much of Britain itself, including cracknels, manchet, velvet cakes and wigs; bannocks, baps, crumpets, rusks and scones. These preparations remain mysterious to many if not most or all Americans outside of the south.

Neal identifies the British origin of Country Captain and also includes a number of distinctly and explicitly British dishes in his Southern Cooking. There is a recipe for a savory bread pudding that includes cabbage and bacon, and one for pork roasted in a pastry case: “A paste was often employed by English cooks who mastered fine roasting of large cuts and joints of meat. Southern cooks inherited the method and typically provided a more piquant seasoning.” (Neal, Southern Cooking 98) We will, however, respectfully disagree with that last assertion; Elisabeth Ayrton, David and Jane Grigson, among others, have demonstrated that English food traditionally was highly seasoned and spiced.

Neal’s ‘fish muddle,’ a traditional stew that he found on the islands of the Outer Banks, looks a lot like a variation of water souchy, and he discusses its origins:

“The customs and foods of the earliest English colonists have been maintained on these Atlantic outposts; linguists study the dialect for its Elizabethan overtones, and anthropologists record the raucous Twelfth Night celebrations. Muddle is the traditional feast of the region whose poor soil yields a meager harvest.” (Neal, Southern Food 19)

Other recipes that bear a distinctly British pedigree include meat pies and oyster pie, raspberry fool and cheese straws.

In common with other European techniques, Neal notes that British ones were adapted to North American ingredients, none more so than corn, both as an alternative to malt for whiskey and in the guise of meal and grits. Neal glazes ham and binds liver pudding with cornmeal instead of breadcrumbs, but otherwise his recipes for these dishes would have been familiar to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century kitchen in Britain as well as the south. Other southern staples, like bell peppers, smoked bacon and tomatoes, transformed British antecedents like Country Captain.

Neal was prescient enough to recognize both the excellence of regional southern cuisine and its debt to British tradition. Nobody else among his brilliant generation of American cooks shared that insight and we are grateful for it.

A recipe for roast pork similar to Bill Neal’s and recipes for cheese straws and Country Captain appear in the practical, a discussion of cheese straws and their origin appears in the critical, and further notes on Country Captain appear elsewhere in the lyrical.

Sources

R.W. Apple, Jr., “Bliss from the South: A Chef’s Grand Legacy,” The New York Times, 23 July 2003

Bill Neal, Biscuits, Cornbread & Sweet Potato Pie (Chapel Hill 1990);
Southern Cooking (Chapel Hill 1981)

Julia Reed, Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns and Other Southern Specialties (New York 2008)

It is no original notion to admire Bill Neal, the restauranteur, author and champion of southern foodways. It may be less common to appreciate his contribution to the preservation and promotion of a British food tradition.

Almost two decades after his death at the cruelly early age of 41, half of the chefs, cookbook authors, food writers and restaurant owners in the American south, and a significant number of culinary professionals elsewhere, claim to have been his friend (‘George Washington slept here’), and an even greater number nationwide profess their admiration for him. Julia Reed, for example, referred recently to “the late, great Bill Neal.” (Reed 96)

Neal’s is a powerful legacy. Both of his restaurants have entered the realm of legend; professional chefs as well as amateur cooks prize his writing. So does the Editor.

His biography is interesting. Neal’s extended family, including all of his grandparents, cultivated and shared most of their own considerably varied food supply on neighboring subsistence farmsteads in North Carolina. By his own account he lived much like an eighteenth century yeoman farmer’s son, hoeing cotton, tending livestock and harvesting fruit until the twentieth century belatedly intruded on his world:

“Almost everything that went onto our table had the input of three generations’ work and care. I am amazed today when I think of the array of fruits and berries that we picked as children. Blackberries from neglected pastures; wild plums, persimmons and muscadines from the woods; cherries, peaches, and apples from our small orchard and pears from the neighbors’: and figs from the tree behind the smokehouse…. It was a life as idyllic for children as it was tenuous and exhausting for adults.” (Neal, Biscuits x)


It had to end, and it did before Neal’s twelfth birthday, when, in a potent distillation of the emerging southern economy, Neal’s father plowed under the cotton field and built a factory to manufacture synthetic textiles.

Neal always liked the kitchen, but despite his beginnings and sense of loss at the erosion of traditional southern culture, he never intended to farm or cook for a living. Instead he earned a degree in literature from Duke, where he dabbled in dormitory cooking, and spent the year after graduation teaching high school before moving on to study English in graduate school at Chapel Hill. His work was the better for it; while Neal’s cookbooks are both practical and accessible, they also are learned and literate. The writing is good and so are the recipes. He surpasses most professional food scholars in placing the food in historical context and interweaves a deft selection of both fiction and primary sources with his narrative.

During graduate school Neal and his wife began catering for his professors to help meet expenses. Like most Americans serious about food during the 1960s and 70s, the Neals started out as Francophiles; the confidence gained from the catering business and several excursions to France eventually led Neal to abandon his academic career and open a Chapel Hill restaurant, La Residence, in 1976. Neal had wanted to study in Paris at Cordon Bleu but the need to support three children prevented him, and his work was the better for that too. After his divorce in 1982, Neal opened a new place, Crook’s Corner, where he gradually shifted focus from France to the American south and found his calling. He also began to write, and gradually produced three pathbreaking books between 1985 and his death in 1991.

Anecdotes about Neal abound, and like many visionaries of outsized personality he was a “seductive charmer” who “engendered fierce loyalties” (NYT) but whose volcanic temper could abuse and terrify the unlucky. Once Neal fired one of his crew as the cook arrived at the restaurant, shouting at the unfortunate that yesterday was his last day at work. Neal also was the target of missiles hurled by recipients of his invective (actually not uncommon in restaurant kitchens; the Editor barely evaded a steel oven pan that flew like a lethal Frisbee, but she was the underling and the launcher was chef). He did not suffer fools or imperfection and did not lack confidence; the notion that southern food bore any significance was a joke when Neal became its champion, so he refused to hire kitchen staff with any formal training lest they pollute or subvert his vision.

His subject was the origin and evolution of southern food but he was too creative and flexible to approach it as a musty archivist. Neal therefore explains that:

“Historically, all these recipes existed in some easily recognizable form before 1860. Because most recipe writing of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries is sketchy at best, I have not been interested in facsimile recipes. Rather, what you will find in this book are imaginative and original reconstructions of historical dishes that were prepared in the antebellum South.” (Neal, Southern Food 4)

If Neal extrapolated or interpolated from his sources, however, he also remained true to their techniques and ingredients. Measures and cooking times, seasoning and texture may change but not the intrinsic character of the recipes. He was interested in food for people to cook and eat rather than just ponder or study.

Neal believed that “[o]ur food tells us where we came from and who we have become” (Neal, Biscuits xi) and identified three broad strands that intertwined to create a distinctive southern style of cooking before their abrupt submergence by the forces of civil war and modernity: “From 1607 to 1860, European, African and native American cultures accepted and modified each other’s agricultural, dietary, and social customs and molded them into a distinct regional cuisine.” (Neal, Southern Cooking 3)

One of those strands was British. Neal does not, and should not, argue that the British strand was dominant or superior; his insight was just in recognizing its validity, a notion that repeatedly escaped his contemporary food writers and continues to escape most Americans, including for instance Betty Fussell and Florence Fabricant.

Something does distinguish this British strand of southern food from its other antecedents, however, and that is its resilience. When Neal observes that some European dishes “passed directly into the tradition with little or no change” the examples that he offers come from one place: “Wine jellies, trifles, and fruitcakes are scarcely distinguishable from their eighteenth-century British ancestors.” (Neal, Biscuits xi) Only one chapter in Biscuits, Spoonbread & Sweet Potato Pie, ‘Our British Heritage,’ concerns the foods of a single nation and Neal’s short but apt bibliography cites Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery but no European author except for another British one. The foods described in the chapter include a number of preparations lost to other regions of the United States and indeed to much of Britain itself, including cracknels, manchet, velvet cakes and wigs; bannocks, baps, crumpets, rusks and scones. These preparations remain mysterious to many if not most or all Americans outside of the south.

Neal identifies the British origin of Country Captain and also includes a number of distinctly and explicitly British dishes in his Southern Cooking. There is a recipe for a savory bread pudding that includes cabbage and bacon, and one for pork roasted in a pastry case: “A paste was often employed by English cooks who mastered fine roasting of large cuts and joints of meat. Southern cooks inherited the method and typically provided a more piquant seasoning.” (Neal, Southern Cooking 98) We will, however, respectfully disagree with that last assertion; Elisabeth Ayrton, David and Jane Grigson, among others, have demonstrated that English food traditionally was highly seasoned and spiced.

Neal’s ‘fish muddle,’ a traditional stew that he found on the islands of the Outer Banks, looks a lot like a variation of water souchy, and he discusses its origins:

“The customs and foods of the earliest English colonists have been maintained on these Atlantic outposts; linguists study the dialect for its Elizabethan overtones, and anthropologists record the raucous Twelfth Night celebrations. Muddle is the traditional feast of the region whose poor soil yields a meager harvest.” (Neal, Southern Food 19)

Other recipes that bear a distinctly British pedigree include meat pies and oyster pie, raspberry fool and cheese straws.

In common with other European techniques, Neal notes that British ones were adapted to North American ingredients, none more so than corn, both as an alternative to malt for whiskey and in the guise of meal and grits. Neal glazes ham and binds liver pudding with cornmeal instead of breadcrumbs, but otherwise his recipes for these dishes would have been familiar to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century kitchen in Britain as well as the south. Other southern staples, like bell peppers, smoked bacon and tomatoes, transformed British antecedents like Country Captain.

Neal was prescient enough to recognize both the excellence of regional southern cuisine and its debt to British tradition. Nobody else among his brilliant generation of American cooks shared that insight and we are grateful for it.

A recipe for roast pork similar to Bill Neal’s and recipes for cheese straws and Country Captain appear in the practical, a discussion of cheese straws and their origin appears in the critical, and further notes on Country Captain appear elsewhere in the lyrical.

Sources

R.W. Apple, Jr., “Bliss from the South: A Chef’s Grand Legacy,” The New York Times, 23 July 2003

Bill Neal, Biscuits, Cornbread & Sweet Potato Pie (Chapel Hill 1990);
Southern Cooking (Chapel Hill 1981)

Julia Reed, Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns and Other Southern Specialties (New York 2008)