Recipes tell the tale of a culinary artist

By Kelly Perigoe : The Herald-Sun
Sep 27, 2004 : 7:07 pm ET

CHAPEL HILL — Five years ago, Moreton Neal received a call from La Résidence owner Frances Gualtieri. Gualtieri was considering selling the restaurant, which she had bought from Neal in 1992, and wanted to know if there was anything the former owner had left behind that she would like to pick up.

Neal thought of the recipes that she and her late ex-husband, Bill Neal, had compiled there when they founded the restaurant in 1975.

"I decided I needed to rescue them just for my own purposes and for my children," Neal recalled.

While Gualtieri and her husband did not end up selling, Neal said the recipes she retrieved "revived a bunch of old memories — and taste buds."

They weren’t neatly written, and there were no exact measurements; the recipes required a lot of work. "As I fleshed out the recipes, a memory came to me about each one," she said.

Moreton began compiling the recipes into what would become "Remembering Bill Neal: favorite recipes from a lifetime in cooking," a combination cookbook and memoir that commemorates Bill’s life in food.

Moreton submitted some of her recipe-inspired writing to UNC Press Editor in Chief David Perry, who encouraged her to pursue the project.

The book, whose official publication date is Monday, gives insight into Bill Neal’s life through recipes and memories, in the words of someone who knew him throughout the period of his greatest culinary achievements.

The Neals met at Duke University in 1967 in French class, and soon discovered their shared interest in cooking.

While both were raised in the South, Moreton said Bill and she grew up with two distinct kinds of Southern cooking. Bill, from Groton, S.C., was raised on "down-home cooking," and Moreton was raised close to New Orleans on what she called "lady food."

While the former was characterized by fish camps and barbecue pits, the latter was "dressier," she said.

"You used a little liqueur in things. Maybe that was the difference — booze," she added, with a laugh. "When you made black bottom pie, it had rum in it."

Bill Neal’s family’s idea of a great meal was to go out for barbecue, while Moreton’s family would go out for a nice French seafood dinner, she said.

When Bill visited Moreton’s family, the food won him over. Between the New Orleans influence and a few trips to France, Bill and Moreton became enamored with French cuisine, but were unable to find any great restaurants of that kind in the Triangle. So in 1975, with a little encouragement from friends and clients, they opened La Résidence.

Boasting French and French colonial food, La Res — as it is affectionately known — served up Moreton’s hors d’oeuvres and desserts and Bill’s main courses.

When the couple ended their 10-year marriage in 1982, Bill opened nearby Crook’s Corner with Gene Hamer while Moreton continued running La Résidence. Despite the divorce, the two remained friends.

Bill Neal, recognized for his role in bringing attention to Southern cooking, broke onto the national scene in 1985 after a rave review from New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne, followed by the release of his first book, "Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking."

"The timing was fortuitous," John T. Edge wrote in the foreword to "Remembering Bill Neal." "New American cooking was in vogue. Indeed, canonization of the movement’s leaders and the codification of the genre were already well underway."

Bill Neal went on to publish "Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie" and "Good Old Grits," as well as a gardening book, "Gardener’s Latin." He was working on a Southern vegetarian cookbook when he died in 1991, at the age of 41.

When he died, Bill Neal "was just hitting his stride as a food writer," Moreton wrote.

The collection of recipes in Moreton Neal’s new book features old well-requested favorites from Bill’s three published books, as well as recipes that have not yet been printed. It is organized into French recipes from La Res, Southern ones from Crook’s Corner and fast and easy "at home" favorites of the Neals’ three children.

The dish that Bill was most famous for is probably his shrimp and grits, still served at Crook’s Corner. Moreton explained that, after the Civil War, in the low country of North Carolina, grits were all people had. Because shrimp were easy to catch, and people made their own ketchup, they often ate a dish combining the three ingredients.

Bill developed and popularized his own distinct recipe, which Moreton said he probably modeled on an Italian pasta recipe.

Moreton said her favorite recipes in the collection are zucchini delight, the simplest one in the book, and chicken with 40 cloves of garlic.

At home, she cooks braised pork chops with baby limas and whole garlic more often than any other recipe.

"This stew — a little bit Southern, a little bit French, a little bit Italian — is pure Bill Neal," she wrote.

But it’s lemon cake pudding that evokes her favorite memories. It is a recipe that belonged to Georgia Kyser, whom Moreton called her "fairy godmother" because she took the Neal family into her Franklin Street home when Bill and Moreton were moving La Res from Fearrington to Chapel Hill.

Neal will begin her book tour at McIntyre’s Fine Books in Pittsboro’s Fearrington Village. McIntyre’s is owned by Keebe Fitch, whose father, R.B. Fitch, first took Bill and Moreton to Fearrington for La Résidence’s original location, a converted barn, the second floor of which served as the Neals’ home.

"I think it’s fitting … kind of coming full circle to have my book reading there," she said.

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