Tag Archives: PBS “A Chef’s Life”

Ferry Boats Sink

Chef Bill Smith, a legendary chef, of Crook’s Corner, a legendary restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has a museum-quality collection of vintage tee-shirts from mid-to late-20th Century rock bands reaching into the 21st Century (www.crookscorner.com). While making plans to attend a dinner prepared by Smith at the Alabama Chanin Factory’s “Friends of the Café” series, I considered wearing one of my own vintage tee-shirts, collected from years as an undergraduate volunteer for the University Program Council’s series of concerts and events at the University of Alabama.

I had settled on my most cherished tee-shirt (and one of the few that still fits) – the simple black tee from Joni Mitchell’s 1976 concert tour appearance in Tuscaloosa – but I chickened out at the last minute and opted instead for my college professor drag of open-collar dress shirt with jacket and slacks.

I was not the only one considering the tee-shirt gesture. John T. Edge, director of Southern Foodways Alliance, revealed the concert tee under his jacket during his virtuosic introduction of Bill Smith and Alabama Chanin’s inaugural Project Threadways Symposium (www.alabamachanin.com/project-threadways), which kicked off in Florence that night (www.southernfoodways.org).

John T. Edge, whose prodigious knowledge of southern foodways and culture is always impressive, tied together the Shoals music and textile culture, Smith’s food, and Alabama Chanin’s Project Threadways, in inspired fashion. Project Threadways, an Alabama Chanin outreach and research initiative, collects information specific to the Southern textile industry – which was a major player in the Shoals prior to NAFTA. In addition, Project Threadways explores the Shoals and the broader Southern community through oral histories and other relevant research.

I was only able to make it to Bill Smith’s opening night feast at the Factory but visitors from throughout the country joined the locals and regulars for an event that explored the ongoing pull and mystique of the Shoals.


Chef Bill Smith’s recipes often exalt the contributions of talented immigrants who have worked in his kitchen over the years. He cherishes his relationships with Crook’s Corner co-workers from Vietnam, China, the former Soviet republics, Central America, Mexico, and elsewhere. His recipes reflect the international flavors he’s learned in his kitchens from employees from throughout the world. He even, he writes, had a period when he employed “rockers” in need of employment between gigs. He learned from all of them.

“I realize that everyone in the world cannot come here to live in the United States, but it’s hard to imagine that the people who complain so loudly about immigration have had much experience with new immigrants. Getting to know people from all these places has been one of the great privileges of my life.”

I don’t often sport bumper stickers but this past winter I was compelled to order a bold bumper sticker that simply reads “FAKE CRISIS.”

I think Bill Smith would agree.


For those who haven’t had the pleasure of dining at Crook’s Corner (and that includes me), Bill Smith might be familiar from his regular appearances with Chef Vivian Howard in the PBS documentary series “A Chef’s Life,” where he memorably shared his preparations of persimmon pudding, corned ham, and – my favorite – his father’s family recipe for sunchoke relish.

Bill Smith, who retired from Crook’s Corner in January 2019,  absorbs all of the foodways of his Southern culture and his family, including his Southern grandmother’s “mean Yankee German” grandparents, to create his food. He also honors the traditions of Crook’s Corner founding chef Bill Neal, who preceded Smith and is credited with making shrimp and grits a Southern staple.

The food Smith served in Florence last week was real food – humble and authentic, quietly sophisticated, honest, and finessed without showing off. It was a suitable accompaniment to lively conversation punctuated by occasional gasps at the deliciousness of the bites being savored. Many of the recipes are featured in, or variations of, recipes in Smith’s essential book, Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook’s Corner and from Home (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006), a cherished touchstone for many cooks of the South and beyond.

Seasoned in the South has an introduction by author Lee Smith, one of the South’s most authentic voices. Bill Smith’s recipes and menus follow and honor each season’s harvest with evocative intervals such as “An Outdoor Supper after the Last Outing of the Season”; “Snowed In”; “A Christmas Eve Supper after Midnight Mass”; and “Big Picnic on the Fourth of July.” His “New Year’s Day” menu is very similar, amazingly, to the one I served to guests at my own house for many years in many places.

Smith’s Florence dinner was superb from the moment we walked into the Alabama Chanin Factory. Passed appetizers were circulating and each was a treat. The bread that accompanied three of the pass-arounds was delicious, but a little too chewy to accommodate conversation; that glitch, however, did not distract much from the fine and distinct flavors.

Alabama Chanin’s Anne Ryan Cavin curates the beverages for the Factory dinners and always presents with a unique and impeccable taste. For the Smith dinner, she selected local options from Florence’s Singin’ River brewery, a Sangria, two Spanish wines, and a Prosecco for dessert.

My first taste of the evening was a chicken liver mousse with onion jam. I love well-prepared chicken liver to begin with and Smith professes an affinity for “guts,” so that first bite was an automatic hit. I have my own strong affinity for pimento cheese, which my mother often served on celery when I was a kid, and I take pride in the pimento cheese I make myself; Chef Smith’s pass-around pimento cheese appetizer was perfectly spiced, as was the hot pepper jelly that followed. The fourth appetizer, unencumbered by the bread, was a very plucky and fulfilling deviled egg.

As the guests were seated, the first course was unexpectedly simple and superb. A white bean and turnip green soup arrived in a clear broth. Startling in its simplicity, the soup was magnificent. Before that initial bliss faded, a mixed salad second course was served with local spring greens coated with a subtle Crook’s house dressing.

 

The third course was a generous platter of braised pork shank with posole (hominy soup), chayote (a squash), and Salsa Ranchera. The plate’s flavors, distinctly Latinx, had the familiar sense of a Sunday dinner at any family table. Our table happily accepted seconds.

I suspect that the most talked-about dish of the night was the dessert course – “Atlantic Beach Pie” with freshly whipped cream. This dessert apparently sprang from Smith’s eastern North Carolina region’s conviction that one must never eat dessert after a seafood meal. The exception, it seems, was lemon meringue (or any citrus-based) pie. Our meal did not include seafood, but Atlantic Beach Pie is probably Crook’s Corner’s most revered dessert. Regardless of its evolution, the pie was a hit. Smith’s original adaptation used a saltine cracker crust but his published and Florence versions used more buttery Ritz crackers.

There is a kindness and decency that emanates from Bill Smith. These qualities are evident in his dishes and in his comments at the end of the meal. There was a serene tranquility while the chef interacted with guests at the conclusion of the evening. It moved me.


In the 1990s I was working at a theatre on Galveston Island, Texas. Because the thought of living in Texas had always been anathema to me, I was fond of telling folks that I lived “on an island off the coast of Texas.”

Crossing Galveston Bay with a good and trusted friend on a ferry one day, I was worried about the theatrical show I was currently directing. I had the usual problems – inexperienced cast, imperfect set, inadequate budget. I was stating – for neither the first nor the last time – my stress as a director.

“I want a low-pressure job,” I said. “Maybe I should be a ferry boat captain, going back and forth across the bay all day.”

My friend was silent for a while. Finally, he took a deep and significant breath and said, “Well, y’know, ferry boats sink sometimes.”

More recently, friends have told me I should have pursued a career in the culinary industry. They note that I seem to be comfortable with food culture and I like to cook when I have the opportunity. But I think – given my temperament – that I might spend my kitchen time worrying that I might have inadvertently poisoned a diner.

It’s too late to worry about what my culinary career might entail; it was probably a bad idea to begin with.

That thought provides even more incentive to admire and extol the fearless cuisine of Chef Bill Smith.

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Vivian Howard and the Lowly Butter Bean

.IMG_1853  I learned a lot about food and cooking In the early years of the Food Network when there were real chefs like Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse, Jacques Pepin and Sara Moulton, and  Julia Child reruns. And Alton Brown (before he became a cartoon character). Then the programming started getting dumbed down with the likes of Paula Deen and Rachael Ray and an irritating cavalcade of competition shows. I’m sure there is an evolving Food Network target demographic and I’m sure I’m no longer part of it. For me, Food Network jumped the shark with “Cupcake Wars.” Its competition show “Chopped” is one of the most joyless hours on television. Spare me the image of a prissy, sneering “Chopped” judge like Alex Guarnaschelli sniffing haughtily at a plate of ingredients no sane cook would ever willingly combine or of Scott Conant going into a bitchy snit because a cook used red onions. I love red onions. And I like them raw.

The devolution of the Food Network is why I am such a fan of the PBS show “A Chef’s Life.” In each 30-minute episode I actually learn something about food and cooking. “A Chef’s Life” focuses on chef Vivian Howard and her fine dining restaurant called The Chef and the Farmer in the small North Carolina town of Kinston. Howard and her husband Ben Knight have put Kinston on the culinary map. Both did their time in New York City restaurants but, as Howard says at the start of an episode that focuses on her cooking a meal at the James Beard House in New York, “They say that if you can make it in New York City you can make it anywhere. But I think that if you can make it in Kinston, North Carolina, you can make it anywhere.”

I haven’t made the pilgrimage to Kinston but I did have the pleasure of eating a Vivian Howard meal last summer at a Friends of the Cafe  event at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence. It was an amazing and creative meal and an all-around special evening. At the end of the evening we diners all stood and sang “You Are My Sunshine” to Chef Howard.

“A Chef’s Life,” the series, is also a special kind of food show. In each episode Vivian Howard explores a traditional Southern food by going to the farmers and purveyors and cooks and learning the traditional methods for the ingredient. She then adapts what she learns into a special dish for the restaurant that is inspired by and pays homage to the ingredient and tradition she has researched and shared with her audience.

I recently saw an episode of “A Chef’s Life” in which the featured food was butter beans, which are just baby green lima beans. I grew up eating butter beans, usually in a succotash, but they have never been a favorite. Vivian Howard was using them to create a “butter bean burger” as a vegetarian option for the Boiler Room, an oyster bar / burger joint she and Ben opened in an alley around the corner from The Chef and the Farmer. Based on the show, I get the impression that butter beans are quite popular in Kinston.

The butter bean burger looked delicious and, for perhaps the only time in my life, I started craving butter beans. When I was at Pepper Place farmers market on Independence Day morning and saw fresh shelled butter beans I grabbed a couple of bags. Later that day, as we discussed the menu for dinner on the 4th, Mother declared that she wasn’t in the mood for barbecue, Dad was sick and not eating, and I didn’t care what we ate, really. So we ended up having steak and fresh vegetables.

When I offered to cook some of the butter beans I had just bought, Mother said that she had never been a fan of butter beans and passed so I drove home on Sunday with two bags of butter beans to play with.

As delicious as the butter bean burgers had looked, I wasn’t ready to make that kind of commitment to my Sunday dinner so when it was time to prepare the meal I poured a bag of the plump little beans into a sauce pan, covered them with chicken broth,  and added a pat of butter. I decided I would keep it simple to reacquaint myself with the beans in their simplest form since it has probably been at least twenty years since I ate butter beans. I kept the beans on low heat while I prepared the rest of the meal and then, just before I removed the beans from the heat, I seasoned with just some salt, freshly ground pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. No more doctoring was necessary.

The beans were tender and juicy with a fresh and mellow taste and just a bit of firmness left in the almost mushy bite. They were a perfect accompaniment to my steak and simple salad.

I might become a fan of butter beans yet.IMG_1854