At sea with the new book from Crook's Corner's Bill Smith | Food Feature | Indy Week
Pin It

At sea with the new book from Crook's Corner's Bill Smith 

Chef Bill Smith

Photo by Alex Boerner

Chef Bill Smith

From my grandmother's house, we could walk to the river and often did," Bill Smith says. "We always had some family who lived down there. I can walk there from my mother's house today."

It is Labor Day, and Bill Smith is describing his hometown of New Bern while eyeing the action at the downtown Durham bar Alley Twenty Six. A collection of colleagues, some of the area's best chefs, prepare tastings of recipes taken from Smith's new book, Crabs & Oysters. Despite the hectic scene around him, Smith, 66, is calm, as it seems he always is. Maybe not when he's in the kitchen of his Chapel Hill institution, Crook's Corner, on a hot and busy night, but he even downplays that idea.

"You want people to have a good meal," he says, "but it's not a refugee crisis."

Smith speaks his mind in measured tones, punctuated by a laugh that comes from the gut. Get him going on politics, his travels or a favorite band (Smith co-founded the Cat's Cradle), and fury, joy and reverie come through—maybe not loud, but certainly clear.

This night, though, is all about the new book, his second, which is part of UNC Press' Savor the South series, a focused survey of southern cooking with titles like Shrimp, Okra and Sunday Dinners.

After you read Smith's contribution, it will be hard to imagine anyone else penning something called Crabs & Oysters. In his long career, first at La Residence and, since 1993, at Crook's Corner, his menus have almost always included one or the other. When crabs are in season, his social media feed (on Twitter, @Chulegre) essentially becomes a supply alert. And if you want to know exactly how a fried oyster should crunch, he's your guy. Smith is a two-time finalist for the James Beard Foundation's "Best Chef Southeast," a coveted culinary award. Crabs & Oysters, though, is a readable and intimate cookbook that doubles as memoir, as Smith draws inspiration from a childhood where both dishes were abundant.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner

"When we were growing up, crab was free food. You just went and caught them, and however many you had, that's how much you ate," he says. "If you got a lot, you made one thing; if you didn't, you made something else."

In New Bern, the waters once flowed much clearer, and the seafood was more essential to daily life. Today, the former colonial capital sprawls far beyond the confluence of the Trent and Neuse. The docks are full of sailboats and the occasional yacht. Tourists and the new convention center are the town's trade, while the recreational fishing fleet dwarfs what's left of the commercial boats.

This post-war transition had already started when William Bryan Smith Jr. was born into a family that called the river neighborhoods of New Bern home. Smith was the first of five siblings. He was named for his father, who was named for William Jennings Bryan, the firebrand populist and presidential candidate. The family was large and lively. In oyster season, they often gathered to feast.

"My father was a mailman, and he worked out of Pamlico County," Smith remembers. "People just gave him bushels of oysters all the time."

Smith grew up watching his mother, grandmother (a Cape Hatteras native) and aunts prepare meals. Blessed with an impeccable memory, especially when it involves food, he can recall events like his first oyster roast and meals from decades ago, right down to the ingredients. That includes his earliest adventure in cooking, a pineapple upside-down cake prepared over an open fire on a Boy Scout campout, and his first soft-shell crab, ordered by accident during an afternoon outing with family at a seafood spot in Sea Level in Carteret County.

"My Aunt Hi was sure I had meant deviled crabs, but I wouldn't change my order," he writes near the book's beginning. "To this day, soft-shell crabs are one of my favorite foods."

  • The chef talks about his love (and difficulty with) Crabs & Oysters

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Food Feature



Twitter Activity

Comments

We went here with friends one evening before the theatre. Best New Orleans food we have found in the Raleigh. …

by Dee Oberle on The Big Easy (Wake County)

Everything very unprofessional. They just want to charge you an "revolutionary fee" with all the service making pressure on you. …

by feullies on Blue Note Grill (Durham County)

Most Read

Most Recent Comments

Thanks mr.bell

by Sheissobad on Sankofa Farms Plants Seeds of Empowerment for Black Youth in Durham (Food Feature)

Thank you Mr. Bell, this program is a much needed blessing. You have given these children a little more hope …

by Diana Carter on Sankofa Farms Plants Seeds of Empowerment for Black Youth in Durham (Food Feature)

Mr. Bell, Thanks for being that Servant Leader that the NC Public Education System so desperately needs. For those of …

by Hawkins O'Neal on Sankofa Farms Plants Seeds of Empowerment for Black Youth in Durham (Food Feature)

Anyone who would eat a whole cup of cashews isn't doing it right. Eat a small handful, and you get …

by Ken Cory on No carbs? Go nuts with cashews (Food Feature)

There is literally no food on this planet that is worth a 90 minute wait.

by MichyMitch on Two Hundred Varieties of Brown Booze and Southern Cooking Shine Together at Whiskey Kitchen (Food Feature)

© 2017 Indy Week • 201 W. Main St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation