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by C. Jeanette Tyson


     
     On 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.     
    
The Cape Fear 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?

    
Besides, 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 North Carolina and realize the heights to which this humble grain can climb.

     Crook’s Corner is tucked at the far end of Franklin Street , the main drag through Chapel Hill .  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.
    
In his book Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking, he claimed the recipes of the true South as descendant of those from Western Europe, Africa 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 Franklin Street , 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.
    
The Tar Heel Cooler caught my eye: Rebel Yell Kentucky 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 rose from Chile . 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.
    
We 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 and grits.
     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 Carolina 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 or pe-can.
    
If 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. 
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C. Jeanette Tyson intends to smuggle a few boxes of grits back into Texas. Just to see what could happen.

      

I I I I I I I  

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