Home Around Town Chef Bill Smith Talks 50 Years of Acceptance in Chapel Hill

Chef Bill Smith Talks 50 Years of Acceptance in Chapel Hill

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When I was growing up in eastern North Carolina, Chapel Hill was always of interest to people like me, who were euphemistically referred to as unusual. In high school, we would come here to see cool shows and to shop at Chez Kemp, probably North Carolina’s first head shop. It was there among the incense and dayglow body paint that I purchased my copy of “Rubber Soul.” Those were the days, but so are these. Take our music today, for instance. There is an audience for everything here and rest assured that if you look, you will find every kind of music being made. It may be down an alley or in some basement studio, but it’s here.

When I first moved here in 1967, there was a phrase you sometimes heard. People were called “Chapel Hill crazy.” That meant that they were unusual but not dangerous in any way. They wouldn’t be loose on the streets of, say Burgaw or Dunn, but we were fine with them here. This widespread attitude of tolerance and acceptance makes our part of the world a special place to live. Where else could you, in a commercial on a local radio station, hear a real estate company brag about its nondiscriminatory bathroom policy?

For most of the time that I’ve lived here, Chapel Hill hasn’t had an official gay bar – not because people might disapprove and not because there aren’t any citizens from that group living among us. It’s because we don’t really need one. Most people here could care less about things like that. Any bar can be a gay bar.

We have a long tradition here of being daring and forward-looking and flourishing because of it. We see the new and the unknown as interesting rather than threatening. We welcome strangers and we are better for it. I am forever grateful to the Inter-Faith Council for helping to settle refugees in our community. They’ve been doing this for years. Mia Bu Lam and Huong Nguyen came from Vietnam. They were helped by that group and they worked in my kitchen for years. Besides being good friends, they taught me about all kinds of things like valor, respect and my own good fortune. Today that same agency helps Karen people from Burma come here. More than just the people join our community – I noticed a new Burmese grocery store in Carrboro recently. Now we can explore a new cuisine and add it to our menu that already includes Mexico, India, Thailand, Ethiopia, Vietnam, China, Italy and France.

There have always been people here ready to try to right wrongs. From the Quaker Ladies who stood in front of the Post Office in the late sixties to EmPOWERment, Inc. that works for affordable housing today, there are always citizens ready to fight the good fight. We defend our public school system. We vote to spend tax money on libraries and public transportation. We have progressive policies in place to guide our municipalities in dealing with the needs of all of our citizens. There is a famous story about the late North Carolina senator Jesse Helms. When the idea to open the state zoo came up, he supposedly said something to the effect of why spend all of that money when we can just build a fence around Chapel Hill. I’ve always taken that as a compliment.

Once, years ago, a pride parade was to be held in Chapel Hill. Although I was more or less out, I still felt a little nervous about marching down the main street of my town. I found myself walking beside friends, a straight couple pushing their newborn in a stroller. I guess I hadn’t expected something like this, and I blurted out, “What are you guys doing here?” They looked puzzled and answered, “Why wouldn’t we be here?” That’s my town.

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Bill Smith is a cookbook author and chef of the acclaimed Crook’s Corner. He is a 50-year resident of Chapel Hill and a former owner of Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro.