Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Bill Neal and Crooks


Pork, still the meat of choice in the South, made no appearance on the menu, much to my surprise; Mr. Neal, a big pork man, put an oversize fiberglass pig outside Crook's Corner. But don't worry, Mr. Currence assured me, ''it's there in the background of almost every dish: the side meat in the muddle, cracklings in the cornbread and bacon fat in the Country Captain.''

In a recent article in Metro Magazine, a North Carolina monthly, Ms. Neal described Mr. Neal as ''a trendsetter, a driven perfectionist, a seductive charmer and the possessor of a legendary temper.'' He had a Pied Piper quality, one of his protégés recalled, that engendered fierce loyalties.

''The food,'' Ms. Neal insisted, ''the food was always sublime.''

Mr. Neal was an unusually well-read chef, who quoted Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers and Homer in his books, not to mention Mary Randolph, the 19th-century authority on Virginia cooking, who was related to Thomas Jefferson, and André Simon, the 20th-century French-born English authority on wine.

He tirelessly pleaded the cause of his native region's culture. All of it interested him, high and low, new and old.

Actually, Mr. Neal discerned a ''confluence of three cultures -- Western European, African and Native American -- meeting, clashing and ultimately melding into one unique identity, one hybrid society, which was changed forever by civil war in the 1860's.'' The legacy of that society, he wrote, ''is what still makes some of us Southerners -- the architecture, the literature, the food, the continuity of man and nature that shapes our perceptions.''

Over breakfast Thursday morning at Home, a Greenwich Village bistro where Mr. Stehling once worked, the chefs spun yarns about their mentor.

Mr. Stehling brought a tin of beluga caviar. His first trip to New York, he explained, was an eating expedition led by Mr. Neal. From a taxi on the way to the airport, Mr. Neal spotted a Caviarteria sign, jumped from the cab, dashed into the shop, bought some beluga, ran back out and sprinted down the street, catching up to the cab several blocks later. They ate the caviar on the plane, with Mr. Neal passing out samples to passengers sitting nearby.

''That was pure, exuberant Bill Neal,'' Mr. Stehling said.

Mr. Neal refused to hire Mr. and Mrs. Barker because they had degrees from the Culinary Institute of America, preferring to train his employees himself -- from scratch.