* Southern food is not typically fancy, but that does not mean it's not good.

Bill Smith, Crook's Corner's head chef, recently returned to cooking Southern food. He says he is delighted to be serving the eastern North Carolina food that he grew up cooking and eating. ``I didn't even appreciate it at the time,'' he says of his great-grandmother's cooking.

But what makes a dish Southern?

``So many different traditions and cooking styles prevail throughout this area,'' writes former Crook's Corner head chef Bill Neal in the introduction to his 1989 revised edition of ``Bill Neal's Southern Cooking'' (University of North Carolina Press).

``[It] seems outlandish to consider Louisiana Cajun and refined Maryland plantation cooking in the same context.... But in one context, that of southern history, it all fits: this confluence of three cultures - Western European, African, and Native American - meeting, clashing, and ultimately melding into one unique identity, one hybrid society, which was changed forever by civil war in the 1860s.''

Mr. Smith elaborates, ``Pork is really the cornerstone of southern cooking.'' The food is very fresh or it's ``cleverly preserved'' because people still have gardens, he says. ``It has a seasonality to it too. I think that's quite rare in the United States today.''

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