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.
"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."