02 January 2009

Bill Neal's Southern Cooking

What can you say about Bill Neal? The boy could cook! More than that, his love of the South was infectious. He took that inexorable amalgam of history and culture, spirit and place, land and language threw it in an iron pot and produced amazing food. Amazing food is not that unusual in the South. Convincing the entire country of that notion was unusual and perhaps Bill Neal's greatest legacy. After his first bite of Neal's Shrimp and Grits, Craig Claiborne knew he was the real deal and waxed poetic in the New York Times.

Chess Pie is fave Southern dessert. I never knew why. I find it plain and too sweet, but Neal tells us that in Tennessee, the women make a half dozen of these pies and layer them one on top of the other creating a kind of layer cake pie. Now if I had seen that, I might have just been moved enough to make six or eight.

Chess Pie

1 recipe Pie Pastry
1 1/4 cups sugar
7 tablespoons butter at room temperature
3 large eggs
1 large lemon, zest finely grated and juice strained

Recommended equipment: An electric mixer, 9-inch pie pan.

Preheat oven to 325F

Beat the sugar, a pinch of salt, and butter together until light. Add the eggs one by one, beating well after each addition, then add the zest and juice of the lemon. Pour the mixture into the partially baked shell and cook about 35 minutes on the middle level of the oven until the custard is set. The top should be lightly browned but not puff.

If you make Chess Pies stacked like a big cake, send up a picture!!

Bill Neal died at 41. His early demise has perhaps prevented him from being a household name like an Alice Waters or Emeril Lagasse, but his stamp on Southern cuisine is unmistakable. Ironically, my favorite book is not a cookbook at all but a gardening book. Gardener's Latin: A Lexicon was nearly finished when Bill Neal died and showed that his love of food was rivaled by his love of language. In 2004, Moreton Neal wrote about her ex-husband in a memoir filled with recipes, Remembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes from a Life in Cooking.

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