Cookbooks - True Grits

Bill Neal was to Southern food in the '70s and '80s what Alice Waters of Chez Panisse is to Californian cuisine: a provocateur and revolutionary. The gussied-up shrimp and grits that appear as standard fare in today's white cloth New Southern establishments? Neal was the first to tinker with that Low Country specialty at his Chapel Hill, N.C., restaurant, Crook's Corner. The South's star chefs often cite him as an inspiration, and his 1989 collection of recipes, Bill Neal's Southern Cooking, is still handed out locally to novice kitchen cooks as a training manual.

Neal died of complications from AIDS in 1991. "He was just hitting his stride as a food writer," notes Moreton Neal in her tribute to her one-time husband and business partner, Remembering Bill Neal ($22.95, University of North Carolina Press). Aside from fond remembrances and quotes about Neal from today's best Southern cuisine interpreters, the tight anthology of recipes is remarkably approachable. From pimento cheese, which Bill Neal dubbed "the pâté of the South," to Cajun steak and fried pies, the ingredients are familiar and the directions clear.

The book's early chapters are devoted to recipes from the Neals' joint venture, La Résidence, but it's the later chapters on Bill Neal's food at Crook's Corner and the section dubbed "At Home" that hold the most compelling appeal. And yes, Neal included her late ex-husband's sublime version of shrimp and grits, with bacon and mushrooms, for those who never got to taste it from the hands of the man himself.??

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