by C. Jeanette Tyson
July 4th I did something I don’t remember ever doing; that is,
I took a bit of a boat ride down the
Cape Fear River
. My grandfather never took me, though he could nearly have tossed a rock
into it from his breakfast table. My father never took me, though I can’t
blame him for this, any more than I can blame him for my poor choices in
men; why did I need someone else to talk to when I would always have him?
No, it was finally my brother who introduced me to the beauty that had
always been there.
is lined on either side with pine and oak and weeping willow that leans in
over the water, as if straining to create a canopy over your head. The
undergrowth is choked with ivy and grape vines. The denseness, combined with
the humidity, gives a cozy, wrapped feeling under the big blue skies; it
shuts out the rest of the world.
My brother, ever helpful, kept asking if I was inspired
yet and I replied the point was to think about nothing but the truth was, I
was thinking about how so many good things are right under our nose and we
never know. Then I began thinking about grits.
Did I lose you there, on that sharp left turn? I
apologize, but you couldn’t pay me to eat a catfish out of the
Cape Fear River
so how else was I supposed to get that fabulous moment into a food column?
I have taken grits for granted.
They were always there, a trusty vehicle for butter and salt. They could be
counted on to bind with fried eggs and sopped up easily with toast, or to
take some of the salty pucker out of country ham. They were there, clinging
tenaciously to the sides of the small pre-Teflon pan that soaked in the sink
all day, and I thought little about their possibilities.
Grits are the ground product of hominy, which is the
hulled product of corn and I implore you to turn in a few of those frequent
flier points so that you can travel to
and realize the heights to which this humble grain can climb.
Crook’s Corner is tucked at the far end of
, the main drag through
. It’s a low building with a
pig on top and a lush, leaning-in garden of its own along the path to the
front door. Bill Neal established his second restaurant in 1981. He’d
already made a name for himself with a restaurant called La Residence and
the newfangled idea of turning to local farms to fill his kitchen.
his book Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking, he claimed the recipes of
the true South as descendant of those from Western Europe,
and Native America. Enter the door and you will go back in time, not so much
to a homestyle cooking you might remember or might have heard of, but to a
preservation of culture that existed before the Civil War changed
everything, whipped up with vivid imagination.
The restaurant has the feel of an uptown diner inside
but as it was a fine summer night, we headed for the covered patio. Walls of
bamboo kept out noise from
, though the place is beyond the range of most marauding college students in
both distance and price. I opened the menu, eager to see what awaited.
Tar Heel Cooler caught my eye: Rebel Yell
bourbon, triple sec, fresh juice, simple syrup and soda. But I prefer my
bourbon straight and when revisiting one’s college days I think it best
not to get too deep in the syrup. Instead
I ordered a glass of Miquel Torres “Santa Digna”, a cabernet sauvignon
. With a bit more body and color than most, and perfectly chilled, I
couldn’t have been happier if my freshman stat professor had
given me the extra half point which would have put me on the dean’s
list. Not that I’m bitter.
began with a plate of jalapeno-cheddar hushpuppies served with cocktail
sauce. Now I could begin with the history lesson right here, how the
etymology of maize connotes the idea of universal mother who sustained life,
according to Neal. But what really impressed me was this bit of
observational menu-making. I mean, who hasn’t been out for seafood and
dipped their hushpuppies into the cocktail sauce. Brilliant.
The mango salad was tossed with mint, lime juice and
just enough cayenne to keep you on your toes. Light and delicious.
More wine, please.
And then finally, the dish that has been requested more
than ten thousand times every year since Craig Claiborne printed the recipe
in The New York Times nearly twenty years ago: Crook’s Corner Style shrimp
All I can say is, if Robert E. Lee had been able to
order this up for the boys, we might not have lost the damn war.
Just persuade your kids to put
on their list of college visits and come see for yourself.
I’m going to be in this neck of the woods for the
next three weeks. I’d like to get back to Crook’s Corner to try the
peach and pepper soup and the barbeque sandwich. I would also like to know
why there isn’t pecan pie on the menu.
And whether, once and for all, it’s pe-con
my brother ever builds himself a house along the Cape Fear, with a big porch
overlooking it, we can pour ourselves a bourbon and talk about this and
other important things in our collective history; what happened, what
should’ve happened, and various things of beauty that’ve been there, if
only someone had shown us.
Find out about
Crook’s Corner at 919-929-7643 or www.crookscorner.com.
Look for Remembering Bill Neal: Remembrances from La Residence, Crook’s
Corner and Home this fall.
C. Jeanette Tyson
intends to smuggle a few boxes of grits back into Texas. Just to see what could happen.