The pair of primly dressed couples tucked beneath umbrellas and inside heavy coats on a jarringly windy, cold, and soaked night in early May pay little mind to the man shuffling across Franklin Street in the rain. He holds a four-liter pitcher half stuffed with honeysuckles. Undeterred, his Merge Records hoodie and Human Rights Campaign hat drenched, he keeps his eyes locked on the restaurant ahead.
The satisfied couples are leaving Crook's Corner, the institution of classic Southern cuisine that has straddled the Carrboro-Chapel Hill divide for nearly four decades. The man they overlooked was responsible for their meal. It's Bill Smith, the restaurant's baby-faced and legendary head chef. He has little time to talk; this evening, he has been on an urgent mission to keep this season's customers satisfied.
"People get really infantile about this stuff," he says, laughing. "I need to have a surplus if I put it on the menu, or I'm in trouble."
Honeysuckle in hand, Smith sneaks through the kitchen's back door, puts the pitcher down, and retrieves—exactly, as he's picked two quarts of blossoms—ten and two-thirds cups of chilled water. He pours it into the pitcher, drops two white saucers on top to push the blooms to the bottom, wraps it all in plastic, and wedges it into a sliver of empty shelf space in the kitchen's walk-in cooler. Tomorrow he will add simple syrup, a little lemon juice, and a touch of cinnamon so small that Smith can't even measure it. Just in time for Mother's Day, it will become the prized possession of springtime in Orange County, on the menu only as long as the weather abides: "Bill Smith's Honeysuckle Sorbet."
An hour earlier, standing in a grove alongside an abandoned railroad track, Smith leaned into a thicket of green leaves and white and yellow honeysuckle flowers and plucked. In spite of the rain and chill, he worked leisurely, stopping every few minutes to take a sip from a PBR can, lifted from the bar at Crook's and toted through town in a pitcher of ice.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
"Honeysuckle season gets me out of the kitchen. I get to come out here and drink a beer by myself," says Smith, grinning over his shoulder. "It's like my break."
In the dozen years since Smith pioneered his honeysuckle sorbet, based on a centuries-old Sicilian recipe for "jasmine ice" and his own trial and error, he has taught his employees and their spouses how to pick the flowers. He pays them fifteen dollars for eight softly packed cups. This year, though, thanks to spells of cold and wet springtime weather, he's been largely on his own, forced to forage in thin patches that aren't booming with the typical blooms.
He pops them off one by one, shaking away detritus before plopping them into the pitcher. He explains the variations in the different bunches, pointing out faint pink stripes on some and saying it's essential to nab the yellow, pollinated blooms before they wither away, biological function completed. He inspects one bush that straddles a fence and scoffs.
"That's the bad kind. Those are the blooms that just clump together. No matter what you do, you end up picking too many leaves," he says, returning to a preferred cluster across the tracks. Now he smiles. "Hey, I told you I knew a lot about this stuff."
The reputation of Crook's hinges on heavy foods—cheese-covered artichokes and exquisite French fries, Hoppin' John and shrimp and grits, steaks and deviled eggs. Eating Smith's sorbet, though, feels like ingesting frozen air—infinitely light and pleasant, the sweet essence of the scent lingering on the tongue, as if you're walking through a golden glade of honeysuckle and breathing more deeply than you ever have.
Smith has often thought about trying to preserve this essence for use later in the year, or even consulting with a perfumer about how best to do so. One year, he froze some for a New Year's Eve party. When he opened the container, it had essentially turned into a hard block of sugar water.
He's come to appreciate that what's here today may be gone tomorrow—which is why, unless it's pouring, you'll find him on the Carrboro-Chapel Hill line, his face buried in the blossoms until he shuffles back across Franklin Street, pitcher in hand.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Soaking for Sweets"