Thinking about Bill Neal

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.

Update: The comments on this post are some of the most wonderful and heartfelt I’ve ever received, from people who knew and worked with Bill to people who felt a bond with him through his cookbooks. Ten years after posting these musings, I received a comment with a link to a wonderful and touching video produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance: They Came For Shrimp & Grits: The Life & Work of Bill Neal. It fills in a few more details about his life and legacy.



I am currently reading this book as well, wondering why he died so young. A Google search brought your blog to my attention, and now I know. Neal was truely a gifted, visionary chef.

i wish i knew more. definitely check out moreton neal and bill smith on the state of things for some more details.


I, too, am reading the Moreton Neal book and did the same search as the poster above. Thank you for providing the answer to why he died — I had already guessed as much, but this ties up a few loose ends (not all, by any means).

might be worth spending some time digging through the microfiche at UNC to find out more.


Well, it’s March 27, 2006 and I am 39 and moved to The South at 18 to go to college. Around my 19th birthday, an old girlfriend passed Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking to me as an essential education in what makes the South the South. Whenever I’ve had a taste for something southern I’ve had at a local meat and three, I’ve turned to Bill for advice on how to make it happen in my kitchen. Tonite, it was “how do I get these turnip greens tasting just right to go with this Brisket that’s been in the oven all day?” I paused over the picture of young Bill Neal on the cover, read his bio on the dustjacket, and found myself wondering what’s Bill Neal up to these days? Is Crook’s Corner still around? And I Googled “Bill Neal” and just went limp in the heart when the first item in my websearch was called “Remembering Bill Neal.” I feel such a loss. Bill Neal has been a friend in the kitchen for 20 years, a member of my family. His heartfelt writing and his hearty recipes have made me feel his presence alongside me many times as I struggled to get my fried chicken, or somesuch southern, “just right.” Bill, I never knew you, but I’ll miss you.

–Keith Newcomb // Nashville, Tennessee

Paul Wiester

I worked with Bill In the early Eighties. If there is something you wish to know about him, you have but to ask. I know Gene also. His children used to hang out in front of my restaurant, at least the oldest, Matty, in Chapel Hill.


I have been devouring everything the Bill wrote and admire the thorough research, the unerring pursuit of quality, his love for the spirit of food, his love for his children, and the continuing love of his ex-wife in her tribute. I keep Moreton Neal’s book with me at all times. It is always by the door to be saved in case of a fire along with my wife, my dog, and my guitar.

Jim, you know I’ve never laid hands on one of his cookbooks. I really should. Thanks for stopping by.


I’d like to link to your Bill Neal page but don’t have a trackback address. What is it?

Ann, I’ve disabled trackbacks due to their attractiveness to spammers. If you’re like to link to this post, you can do so directly by creating a link to:


Okay I used the address you gave me, but how do you link to my page?

I’ve put in a link in the text and I’m trying to create a sidebar with a link to your page.

Umm, you’re more than welcome to add a link in the comments here manually. Just pasting in a URL (assuming the destination isn’t spammy) will automagically turn it into a link to the destination. Btw, your URL that you’ve been signing your comments with is unreachable…


I worked at Crooks Corner during my graduate work at UNC 1985-1987, Started washing dishes, and ended up prepping, salad station, bussing, cashiering, and ultimately a very short stint on the line, before I sadly had to leave. I worked with both Bill and Gene, and learned a lot from them both, as well as from the fellow employees. My interest and (I might say) decent cooking started from that job. My autographed copy of Southern Cooking, does not stay shelved for posterity, but is well stained, especially on the page for Chicken and Green Dumplings. p.s. My favorite Bill Neal quote, (regarding amount of sauce) “I don’t want them swimming in it…”

Andy, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I don’t have Southern Cooking, but I think it’s time I pick up a copy and try out that recipe.

Will Moore

Bill was my uncle, recently i’ve been trying to find out some more about his life…i googled his name and found some blogs and articles…it’s so nice to see everyone remembering him and enjoying his food! bless you all.

Will, totally. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It seems your uncle left quite the mark on American cuisine, at a time when it was finally waking up from it’s post-war, industrialized, mechanized slumber.

Kay Nelsen

I don’t even know if this blog is active anymore, but I’m planning on purchasing Bill’s cookbooks. I grew up in the west – on southern cooking. My dad having been from Mississippi and my mom lovingly learning how to cook these foods from his relatives. It makes me sad that Mr. Neal passed so early on. I would have loved to meet him, and perhaps I can – in a way – by cooking the recipes from his cookbooks.

Cenda Price

We recently stumbled on the “Biscuits…” cookbook & were tickled to see so many variations on spoonbead, tea cakes and the like. The prose reads like poetry, of the recipes, many are simple and (for me) therefore less intimidating. Thanks, Bill. I am thinking Christmas presents here… clp

Gayle Keresey

Here is an excellent video that will tell you a little more about his personal life. I got the link from Facebook. I hope you can watch it.

Gayle, that video is wonderful, and fills in a few more details about his life and untimely death. Thank you for sharing.


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