I got an eerie feeling reading the snippets of prose in between the collections of recipes in the book Remembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes from a Life in Cooking by Moreton Neal. It could just be envy, but I think I felt an almost kindred connection.
Here’s a quick recap: Bill meets Moreton at Duke in 1967. They cook together in the dorms. Get married their senior year. Do graduate school while catering. Have children. Open La Résidence (originally at Fearrington Village in Chatham County). Move La Résidence to its current location in Chapel Hill on Rosemary Street. Get divorced in 1982. Bill starts Crook’s Corner. Begins publishing cookbooks on Southern cooking. Becomes nationally known after Craig Claiborne features Crook’s Corner in the New York Times. He dies in 1991.
My first impression was, wow, how is it that I know nothing about this person who has apparently left such an indelible mark on Chapel Hill and regional Southern cuisine? Why isn’t Chapel Hill History a graduation requirement for all UNC students?
I expected some explanation in the book about why he died so young, but there is none. It is mostly recipes, providing little biography to fill in the blanks. Even Wikipedia comes up empty. Finally I discovered (in an Interview with Moreton Neal and the News and Observer’s “Tribute to a Visionary Chef”) that he died of AIDS. It took my breath away.
It is impressive how much Bill and Moreton accomplished so early in their lives. I see gangly teenagers in the book’s photos, not the professional and commanding chefs you’d expect.
It made me think about the twists and turns of my own life. How my interest has shifted from cooking to sculpture to web development to journalism. I wonder whether I adjust my focus too frequently, influenced by factors like money or material comfort or the interests of colleagues. Clearly what I know and have read about Bill Neal is a gross simplification of the actual person. But his passion for Southern cuisine makes me wish I had a more single-minded, intense focus in my life. Instead of a what sometimes feels like a hobby elevated to day job.