By Rebecca Rochat
John Egerton, an American journalist and one of the founders of Southern Foodways Alliance, writes, “Within the South itself, no other form of cultural expression not even music, is as distinctively characteristic of the region as the spreading of a feast of native food and drink before a gathering of kin and friends. For as long as there has been a South, and people who think of themselves as Southerners, food has been central to the region’s image, its personality, and its character.” There are many diverse regions that make up the South and the culinary traditions of each have been defined by terrain and by three cultures that have left their imprint on the Southern culinary landscape: Native American, European, and African.
It was the Native Americans who introduced European settlers to corn, squash, pumpkins, beans, onions, blueberries and blackberries, native plums and cherries. Lima beans, chocolate, white and sweet potatoes, and peppers arrived from Latin America. Wild game such as deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds and ducks were plentiful. The Spanish introduced pigs into Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas and Southern pork offerings such as baked and country ham were born.
Cajun cuisine came to Southern Louisiana through descendants of French Canadians who migrated there in the mid-1700s. Creole cuisine, associated with French and Spanish cooking techniques, is a blend of the various cultures that came to French Colonial Louisiana including Spanish, African, Caribbean and Portuguese. In simple terms, Creole cuisine uses tomatoes, Cajun food does not. Creole cuisine has been described as “city food” while Cajun cuisine has been described as “country food.”
It was the African Americans who influenced the flavors and cooking methods of Southern cuisine using local ingredients, but cooked using African methods. Nuts were used as thickeners, smoked meats and fish were used for seasoning, “potlikker,” the broth rendered from cooking greens, was enjoyed on its own dish rather than being thrown away.
As a result of these cultural influences, there is no single type of cooking throughout the South. Red beans and rice in Louisiana becomes black beans and rice in Florida and “Hoppin’ John” in South Carolina. In Virginia and Maryland, crabs are steamed, but along the Gulf Coast they are boiled. And there are so many ways to make barbeque that, well, let’s just say that is enough “fodder” for another article. One thing you can say about Southern cuisine is that however it’s prepared, home cooking is the best.
to the regions’ image”
Georgia’s culinary landscape is as diverse as the South itself. Geographically, Georgia is divided into five “physiographic provinces”: the Appalachian Plateau, the Valley and the Ridge, the Blue Ridge, the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain. The diverse landscapes are a result of geological and climatic forces which resulted in differing types of soil, flora, fauna, elevations and water resources. These “microclimates” not only define the physical landscapes, they are directly related to culinary landscapes unique to Georgia. The low amount of sulfur and high amount of water in the soil in Toombs County are the reasons Vidalia onions are sweet. The loamy soil of South Georgia provides a thriving environment for peanuts and peaches. Seafood dishes and stews were born from the waters of the Lower Coastal Plain and early cold weather in North Georgia is conducive for curing hams and other pork products.
‘Top Chef’ judge Hugh Acheson, a Georgia native who owns several celebrated restaurants in the state, knows just how unique Georgia’s culinary landscape is, “Georgia is one of the quintessential places of amazing bounty. From coastal shrimp, clams, and fish, to apple orchards in North Georgia, to olive oil production in Lakeland, to peanuts and grits and every vegetable under the sun, we have an agrarian history that we are reclaiming.”
The Blue Ridge boasts some of the state’s most spectacular scenery with the Blue Ridge Mountains forming the foothills of the Appalachian Highlands. The area is also becoming a major agri-tourism and culinary tourism destination in Georgia. In January 2015, the Georgia House of Representatives named Rabun County in Northeast Georgia as the official “Farm to Table Capital of Georgia.” In fact you could say Rabun County is the epicenter of the Georgia farm to table movement. In 1917, Carrie and Arthur Dillard established the Dillard House which has become famous for their farm fresh, family style meals. Carrie, who was a wonderful cook, gardener and hostess, established the tradition of serving their guests just-picked produce from the Dillard gardens.
The Blue Ridge accounts for less than one percent of Georgia’s best farmland and because of the many mountains and valleys, farms tend to be small, however 98 years after The Dillard House opened, Rabun County continues to produce locally grown sustainable foods. The celebration of local and sustainable farming is evident on the many fine dining menus where restaurateurs and chefs proudly display their sources.
West of the Blue Ridge in Northeast Georgia is the Ridge and Valley region which is comprised of long, parallel sandstone ridges overlooking wide, rolling valleys. The ridges, while appearing to be mountains are actually only a few hundred feet tall. Nestled among the ridges and valleys of Northwest Georgia is Gilmer County, Apple Capital of the state. Ellijay in Gilmer County for most of the year is a quiet, mountain hamlet in the heart of Georgia’s apple country, but from late August to December you will find mile after mile of roadside stands overflowing with tasty, tree-ripened apples for eating or cooking. The real celebration of Ellijay’s apple crop comes the second and third weekends of October with the Georgia Apple Festival. Most of the ten orchards and their roadside shops are very close together on Highway 52. Apples have been a staple in Southern dishes since Colonial days. Applesauce, apple butter, apple jelly, fried apple pies, and apple pie have all been a part of traditional Southern cooking.
The Southern American Lowcountry consists of 10,000 square miles of rich marshland in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. The fertile terrain has produced a sub-set of Southern culinary landscapes that have produced three main types of dishes most associated with Lowcountry cooking: one-pot stews, an abundance of seafood and rice dishes. As with other subsets of Southern cuisine, there is a mélange of international influences such as African, French, English and Caribbean. John Martin Taylor, culinary historian and author of Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking says: “Nowhere in America did the cooking of master and slave combine so gracefully as it did in the Lowcountry kitchen.” Condiments are an important staple of Lowcountry cuisine. “The hallmark of the cuisine is the vast array of condiments,” Taylor says. “Because of the subtropical climate, you have to find ways to preserve things. Virtually every meal has chutneys. You serve it with roast game and meat. There are all sorts of mixed pickles and relishes. I’m glad to see more of the condiments coming back into play. The chefs today are also making a concerted effort to use fresh local and traditional ingredients. To understand the Lowcountry, you have to know what is available and what has always been there. Fresh and local are terms that are always going to define the cuisine.”
Covering about 60 percent of the state, The Coastal Plain is Georgia’s largest geographical region and encompasses The Upper and Lower Coastal Plain. Early settlers found that the Lower Coastal Plain, which includes the actual coastal area and Sea Islands, was poorly suited for agriculture as not much grew there except pines and brush. The fact that the Lower Coastal Plain was not agriculturally fertile is most likely why early settlers turned to the ocean as their primary food source. The estuary waters were teeming with wild shrimp and blue crab; mudflats were home to plentiful oysters and fresh, salt, and briny waters were home to hundreds of species of fish. Rice, which became a major part of the everyday diet, grew in the marshlands. The cuisine that evolved from the waters of coastal Georgia and South Carolina has become known as Low Country or Southern Coastal which has its roots in Caribbean and African cuisine. “The difference is in the spices. Low Country cuisine tends to be spicier and more often utilizes shrimp and crab, while Southern Coastal cuisine is more often mildly seasoned with fin fish,” explains John Howton, owner of Blackwater Grill on St. Simons Island. The area is also perfect for collecting caviar, every seafood lover’s delicacy.
“One pot” dishes have become synonymous with Low Country cuisine. Low Country boil or frogmore stew, one of the region’s most famous dishes, is a one-pot dish of potatoes, corn on the cob, crab claws, and shrimp. The original recipe which has its roots in Creole-like Gullah cooking is credited to Richard Gay of Gay Fish Company in the community of Frogmore on St. Helena Island. A Low Country boil, unlike other one-pot dishes, is drained from its cooking liquid and either transferred to a platter or for more informal dining, spread out on a newspaper covered picnic table and eaten with hands rather than utensils.
Shrimp and grits, another one-pot dish, is traditionally served for breakfast. Retired New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton in her book, 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die, says no one does it better than the Hominy Grill in Charleston, SC. “It’s the best I’ve ever had, with just enough spiciness combined with the freshness of the shrimp.” She calls it “Surf and Turf Southern Style.” This Charleston favorite is slowly making its way into Georgia. Chops & Hops has a version of Charleston Shrimp and Grits that should not be missed. However, Chops & Hops brings the flavor profile up a notch by creating a wonderful Seafood & Grits dish that includes scallops, 2 chipotle cheddar grit cakes, grilled asparagus, bacon and tomato confetti with a mouthwatering white wine dijon cream sauce. It was all I could do not to order another dish “To-Go.” Other restaurants, such as Big Kev’s BBQ in Madison, Georgia bring a little bit of the Lowcountry to Georgia residents. Big Kev’s fried catfish platter is just like something you would find along the famous market in downtown Charleston. The only thing that is missing at Big Kev’s is the salt water air rushing past your face. However, Big Kev’s BBQ replaces the salt water air with some great Blues music and a perfect comfortable atmosphere.
Perhaps the most famous one-pot dish is Brunswick stew. Brunswick, Georgia and Brunswick, Virginia both lay claim to the original recipe; however, it is Brunswick, Georgia that proudly displays a twenty-five gallon iron pot that bears a plaque stating it was the pot in which the favorite southern stew was first cooked in 1898. Originally, wild game such as squirrel or rabbit was used by the Southeastern Indians but today the wild game is more often replaced with chicken, pork or beef, or a combination of all three. The meat is mixed with corn, tomatoes and onions, and then lima beans and potatoes are commonly added.
Rice, introduced in the late 17th century is a staple of Low Country cuisine. The cultivation thrived due to slave labor, but ended after the Civil War. It has reemerged in the last 20 years as integral to Low Country cuisine. Pilau, or “Perloo” a southern staple, particularly in South Carolina is one of the oldest rice dishes. There are many variations but the most common is to use chicken as the meat with vegetables and rice and then serve as either a side or main dish. Rice Pudding, made with cooked rice, milk, sugar, eggs, and cinnamon is another favorite Low Country rice dish served as a dessert.
What is happening in some parts of Georgia is the addition of Northern style seafood. For example, walk into a seafood restaurant and see if the menu features “Maryland-Style Crab Cakes.” Or if the menu doesn’t say it, order the crab cake and see if the crabcake practically falls apart when you touch it with your fork. If it does then that’s Maryland-Style. Georgia is also seeing the increased use of Old Bay Seasoning with its seafood or eating french fries with malt vinegar–another common practice North of the Mason Dixon Line.
Further inland, The Upper Coastal Plain, covering the central and southwestern portions of the state, the combination of sand and clay provides a fertile environment to produce the three P’s of some of Georgia’s most well-known agricultural products: peaches, peanuts, and pecans.
The history of the Georgia peach industry began in St. Augustine, Florida where peaches were originally planted. Franciscan monks introduced them to St. Simons and Cumberland Islands in 1571 and by the mid-1700s peaches were being cultivated by the Cherokee Indians. In the early 1800s Macon County was beginning to stake its claim to be the fruit center of Georgia, but it was Samuel H. Rumph that would turn peach production into a major product of the agricultural economy. In 1870 he planted several varieties of peach trees from seeds that came from his grandfather’s peach orchard on the family’s plantation. One tree bore a clear seeded, yellow flesh peach with a red cheek. He named it after his wife, Clara Elberta Moore and the Elberta peach was born, followed by the softer Georgia Belle and the Hiley Belle. Georgia now produces more than 40 commercial varieties of peaches most of which were bred from the Elberta peach.
food is a beautiful
“They’re worth the wait,” says Mimi Sheraton of Georgia peaches which have a short growing season from June to early July. “They’re orangery and juicy, and they’re not only sweet, but have enough of an acidic tang to keep them interesting,” so it is no surprise that peaches show up on nearly every summer menu with many chefs using them in very creative ways as toppings, in salsas and salads and desserts such as cobblers, pies and ice cream.
Speaking of Georgia Peaches, perhaps Georgia should abandon “The Peach State” and pick up “The Peanut State.” According to the Georgia Peanut Commission, Georgia produced 47% of the United States’ peanuts in 2014 and Georgia’s approximately 3,500 peanut farmers planted peanuts in more than 75 counties in Georgia making Georgia the number one peanut producing state in the country. Chances are, no matter where you buy your peanuts, here in Georgia or somewhere else, you are eating peanuts grown right here in…“The Peach State.” Peanut production in Georgia is concentrated in an area south of a line which runs from Columbus through Macon to Augusta. The sandy soil and subtropical climate of that region are the perfect combination for producing high-quality peanuts so it’s no surprise that peanuts show up on menus in restaurants all across the South. The versatile peanut has found its way into just about every recipe imaginable from peanut soup, to peanut butter, to salads and desserts. They’re even enjoyed as a standalone snack – salted, roasted, boiled or just plain. Boiled peanuts have been called the “Southern Snack Food.” They are an acquired taste, but for some Southerners they are addictive. They are only available May through November and during the season you will see roadside stands all over the South offering freshly boiled peanuts. In addition, all you need to do is walk over to your local gas station and chances are, you will find boiled peanuts just waiting for you. Many customers may be turned off by “gas station food” but often, these boiled peanuts are cooked in crock-pots and are certainly worth a try. There is an interesting tale of combing peanuts with a bottle of Coca Cola. According to John Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance (an organization that documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South) as early as the 1920s, packaged, already shelled peanuts made their way into country stores and gas stations where Coke was being sold. The story goes that when people would buy a pack of peanuts and a Coke, they would dump the peanuts into the bottle, drink the Coke, then eat the peanuts. This practice isn’t common now but they taste wonderful.
One of the best places to enjoy the roadside flavor of peanuts as well as other treats is Fred’s Famous Peanuts. Fred Jenkins and his wife, Diane, started selling boiled peanuts in front of their Helen, Georgia home almost 30 years ago. The roadside peanut stand was so popular that they built “Fred Famous Peanuts” next door to their home. They boast that they have “The Best Peanuts in the Mountains.” Along with the original boiled peanuts they have a Cajun fried version, fried and Cajun fried peanuts, salted and roasted peanuts, homemade peanut and pecan brittle as well as a selection of beef jerky, jellies, jams, preserves, and pickles.
If the name “The Peanut State” doesn’t appeal to you then how about “The Pecan State”? Georgia is the nation’s largest pecan producing state with the industry centered in the Southwest part of the state near Albany. Like peanuts, they are eaten right out of the shell and can be smoked, toasted or roasted, but commonly used in pies, candies, cookies, salads and other dishes. Pecans are used in one of the South’s favorite confections, pralines. Pralines were first made in France in the 18th century and it is believed that pralines were brought from France by Ursuline nuns to New Orleans in 1727. In the 19th century, New Orleans chefs substituted pecans for the almonds used in the French recipe and added cream to thicken the confection. The new recipe has become known throughout the South as pecan pralines, pecan candy and pecan patties.
Francis Mayes, in her novel Under the Tuscan Sun wrote, “The only kitchen item I usually bring to Italy is plastic wrap. This time, however, I have brought one bag of Georgia pecans and a can of cane syrup, because pecan pie is a necessary ingredient of Christmas.” Even in Italy pecan pie is a staple at Christmas. The origins of the traditional recipe that is a favorite at Thanksgiving and Christmas are not known, but some believe it was the French again that invented pecan pie soon after being introduced to the pecan nut by Native Americans.
Before I-16 was constructed, Vidalia, Georgia was at the crossroads of some of the most important north-south highways. It wasn’t long before word got out about the tasty sweet onions grown locally known as the Glennville sweet onion which was named for a city about 35 miles southeast of Vidalia. The Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain began selling the Vidalia onions in their regional supermarkets and in the 1970s there was an effort to promote the onions nationally. In the 1980s a farmer’s group advertised that consumers should look for the yellow tag on a bag of “true” Vidalia onions which led to confusion about what constituted a Glennville or Vidalia onion. As a result of several meetings, growers settled on the Vidalia name and in 1986 the Georgia legislature passed The Vidalia Onion Act that defined 20 counties in which Vidalia onions could be grown and thus the greatest agricultural success story in Georgia’s history was created.
What is it about the Vidalia onion that has made the varieties so popular? It is a result of the low amount of sulfur in the soil which makes the onions unusually sweet and mild. As a result, Vidalia onions have developed an international reputation as the “world’s sweetest onion.” They’re also low on tear causing pyruvic acid. And it is the mild, sweet taste that makes it a good choice for a wide variety of recipes where other onions might be overpowering in taste which is why they are much better suited to use as side dishes. They can be grilled, baked, stuffed or eaten by themselves. Some traditional Southern recipes that work well with Vidalia onions are Sweet Onion Relish, Onion Rings, Grilled Onion Salad, Mustard Greens and Sweet-Onion Sauté, Sweet Onion Dip, Cucumber and Sweet-Onion Salad, and they are a sweet compliment to refrigerated cucumber pickles. You will also see Vidalia onions used in pies, soups, soufflés, and casseroles. One of the most popular ways to eat Vidalia onions in the South is to cut out a hole of a whole, peeled onion and fill the cavity with butter, salt and pepper, wrap it in foil and bake at 350 for 35 minutes. Some people have been known to add a bouillon cube to create the flavor of French Onion Soup. To a Southerner, the first April harvest of Vidalia onions is a sure sign of spring.
Georgia’s second largest geographical region is the Piedmont and home to most of Georgia’s population and what has come to be known as the “New South.” Atlanta is the cultural and culinary center of the Piedmont region as well as the South, but it hasn’t always been so. Atlanta struggled for many years to find its culinary identity, but a new culinary identity is emerging that is rooted in traditional Southern food and African-American cuisine with a variety of ethnic flavors thrown in. It has become a melting pot, not just of people, but of cuisine as well. Krista Reese, dining editor and author of two Atlanta cookbooks says “Atlanta is different. Atlanta is a port city, an airport city, a crossroads. It has an interesting mix of cultures.”
Southern cuisine used to mean “meat and three,” but Atlanta has become a city associated with a new Southern food aesthetic. And like many other cities, there is a renewed interest in farm to table and sustainable cuisine. However, Judith Winfrey, President of PeachDish, an online meal ordering service that uses regional and seasonal sourced ingredients, says “What I would love to happen is that we no longer have to use the label ‘farm-to-table’. It would be amazing if there was an understanding in the chef/restaurant community, that in order to sustain what we do and provide the public with good food, sourcing locally from farms and producers is a necessity.”
From a demographic standpoint, Atlanta has many different neighborhoods and, as a result, “pockets” of restaurants have evolved each with its own culinary personality. Start with downtown where there are more than 300 dining options within walking distance, then move up to Midtown where there are some of the trendiest restaurants in the city. Westside, the city’s meatpacking district, has become a “DD” destination – dining and design. The neighborhood is home to one of Atlanta’s most famous and celebrated restaurants, Bacchanalia, owned by chefs Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison. Bacchanalia features a five-course Contemporary American seasonal menu featuring seasonal organic ingredients sourced from their Summerland farm. Buckhead, “the Beverly Hills of the East,” is where you’ll find some of the best high-end and fine dining. Beyond the city proper you’ll find much of the best ethnic food along Buford Highway: Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Mexican, Indian and Peruvian. The city of Decatur which used to be considered a suburb of Atlanta is now considered an “in-town neighborhood.” It is a “foodie heaven” and has been called Atlanta’s Berkeley. DeKalb County is quickly becoming the culinary “New York City” of Georgia. Did you know that you could eat at a different restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 1 year in New York City and never eat at the same place twice? DeKalb may not have that many places to eat but DeKalb does possess some world class culinary cuisine. In addition, you can find food ranging from Japanese to Italian to German to Chinese…you name it. No matter where you dine, one thing is for certain, you will always find perfect Southern Hospitality. Visitors are certainly familiar with Stone Mountain Park and there are a myriad of dining choices inside the park. However, take a trip outside of the park and experience everything that DeKalb has to offer. The Perimeter Mall is certainly a place to start for culinary. The Mall continues to adapt to the many changes of culinary cuisine and it is home to some world class eateries. If the Perimeter Mall is not for you then you need to walk across the street and land on “Park Place.” At the Park Place Shopping Center, you will find many upscale restaurants all serving only the best dishes from the best chefs.
The International Corridor runs across Buford Highway through the cities of Chamblee and Doraville and offers an amazing array of ethnic food. Visitors can enjoy fresh Asian and Latin American flavors from all over the world from small, take-out storefronts to exceptional full-service restaurants.
How and why does DeKalb possess such an up and coming culinary scene? Perhaps it is because of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts located in Tucker. Le Cordon Bleu is one of the top culinary schools in the world and produces chefs that go on to internships and jobs all over the world. Many of these top graduates make their home in or near DeKalb since the entire county has something for just about everyone. Yes, DeKalb’s website is not lying as it states, “Wherever you stay in DeKalb county, there are always excellent dining choices nearby.”
What is new in Georgia is the explosion of Craft Beers and Barbecue. Funny how these two things go together so well? The craft beer industry took a major hit during Prohibition since only a few microbreweries could survive. The most well known include Budweiser and Miller Brewing Company or as they are now known, MillerCoors. However, in recent years, probably because of the success of home brewer Jim Koch who left his corporate job to brew his Sam Adams Boston Lager full time, other homebrewers have decided to gather as many hops as possible. Here in Georgia, we all know of Sweetwater Brewing Company, based in Atlanta and more recently, Terrapin Brewing Co. These two breweries are not only available in this state but have become regional if not national beers. Athens’ own Southern Brewing Company is the newest beer on the block and is quickly becoming an Athens’ favorite. SBC (as they are locally known) harvests wild yeast from a variety of sources all in an effort to “see what the result would be” according to founder Brian Roth. The result is certainly positive. While working on our “Hog Wild” feature, many chefs and resturants requested SBC to use as ingredients or to pair a dish with. This obviously shows the success and future potential of SBC.
Barbecue is also gathering steam in Georgia. It used to be more associated with Texas or North Carolina but Georgia Barbecue is taking the nation by storm. Here in Athens, Pulaski Heights BBQ and owner Chuck Ramsey brings his style to BBQ. All you need to do is walk into the restaurant during lunch or dinner, inhale deeply and try not to order some perfect, juicy Brisket. Good luck.
Atlanta’s New South cuisine is a mix of popular Southern dishes and more modernized dishes that combine ethnic and Southern flavors. “We have Mexican chefs incorporating turnip greens and barbeque into their menus, and Asian chefs doing really great interesting things with okra. This really is the flavor of Atlanta, we’re Southern, but we’re also international,” says Susan Puckett, former food editor for The Atlanta-Journal Constitution and now cookbook author and blogger. She describes it as “ethnic Southern mashup.”
If traditional Southern comfort food is to your liking, Atlanta still has restaurants that feature traditional Southern comfort food such as fried chicken, pork chops, collard greens, fried green tomatoes, catfish, barbeque, pies and cobblers.
Another Southern metropolis that is causing a buzz in the culinary landscape is Nashville, Tennessee. Long known as the Country Music Capital, Nashville has become an “emerging culinary scene putting Nashville on the gastronomic radar,” according to Food Arts Magazine. Food and Wine has taken note of the “booing Music City food scene” and Conde Nast Traveler says, “There’s enough going on food-wise to warrant a trip solely for eating.” Nashville’s culinary landscape includes everything from Southern fare to haute cuisine. For traditional Southern fare no one does it better than the Loveless Café. The menu is teaming with country ham, grits, okra, chicken biscuits, catfish, fried pork chops as well as their famous breakfast menu.
One of Nashville’s most famous dishes whose popularity has spread beyond the South is Hot Chicken, as in spicy not temperature. Chicken (or fish) is prepared with a sauce of cayenne paste and fried. The best place to enjoy Hot Chicken is at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in East Nashville where they serve it “hot,” “medium,” or “extra hot.” Hot Chicken is listed as one of “50 Things to Eat in Nashville Before You Die.”
And finally, no article on Southern culinary landscapes would be complete without recognizing the contribution and impact of the late restaurateur and writer Bill Neal on southern cuisine and not just cuisine, but how people perceive Southern cuisine. The subject of a recent documentary produced by The Southern Foodways Alliance, Bill burst on the national culinary scene in the 1980s when he paired the unlikely combination of traditional Southern cooking with French cooking techniques. In 1985 New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne traveled to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, specifically to Crook’s Corner, a college town bistro, to pen a story on Bill and his culinary expertise. Crook’s Corner was one of two Chapel Hill restaurants, the other being La Residence, that Bill and his former wife, Moreton Neal, founded. Together they became a culinary tour de force that ignited a renaissance in Southern cuisine resulting in a newfound appreciation for Southern food.
To appreciate just how much Bill Neal impacted the way traditional Southern dishes are prepared and savored, consider Shrimp and Grits, the Lowcountry “breakfast shrimp” which consisted of those two ingredients and salt. It appeared on the Cook’s Corner menu in the mid-1980s. To the original Shrimp and Grits, Bill added bacon, scallions, garlic, mushrooms and seasoned with peanut oil, lemon juice, Tabasco sauce, salt and pepper and parsley. A new Southern tradition was born and to not find it on a traditional Southern menu is rare. He declared pimento cheese the “plate of the South.” If you’ve ever enjoyed hot pepper jelly and cream cheese on crackers as a hors d’oeuvre, you can thank Bill. He was known for his “Muddle,” a traditional thick Carolina fish stew and hoppin’ John.
What drew Craig Claiborne to Crook’s Corner was that many food experts at that time considered Bill Neal to be “the most talented young chef in the country.” Watching Bill in action in Crook’s Corner’s kitchen, Craig Claiborne left with the conviction that Southern food deserved respect. The legacy Bill imparted to Southern Cuisine is still evident in some of the most celebrated eating establishments across the South. Many of the chefs learned their skills under Bill’s tutelage: Ben and Karen Barker at Magnolia Grill in Durham, Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill in Charleston, John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, and Bill Smith who started his career at La Residence and succeeded Bill at Crook’s Corner. Bill Neal died in 1991 at the age of 41. In his short culinary career he almost single-handedly changed the Southern culinary landscape. Bill Neal understood that the culinary landscape in the South to be a confluence of cultures, history and geography, indigenous and nonindigenous food. Hugh Acheson observes that Southern food, despite its provincial image, has always been open to outside influences. “Let’s remember that Southern food is a beautiful hodgepodge to begin with, a puzzle of Gullah, spice route, Native American, European and the West Indies. It’s a food that welcomes cultures to the table.” And there is no better way than to get everyone at the table together than great food. It is something that we all have in common as people.