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Ode to Grits

Sometimes a place calls you.
Sometimes it even wakes you up for breakfast...
The South is that kind of place for me.
No matter where I have lived, be it New York, Indiana, Pennsylvania or Transylvania, sometimes I wake at 3 or 4 in the morning with something gnawing at my insides.
I hear the siren’s drawl and I know it is time to drive South for Breakfast.

The very first time I crossed the fabled Mason Dixon line I experienced something akin to a homecoming.
I exclaimed to anyone who would listen “I should have been BORN here!”
Why I would say that was anyone’s guess. I had no connection to the south.
In fact, I hadn’t even planned to cross the line.
Once across that line, however, I fell under its sultry spell.

I had left the early stirrings of autumn up north with the first chill nights
and the brightly painted leaves high up in the trees.
As I drove south, I watched the hardwoods slowly give way to long-needled pines and day surrender to night.
I drove on, savoring the surprise the morning light would bring.
I rolled down the car window and was enveloped in the sweet humid warmth
of the place.

Jasmine! Heavenly torrid scent of jasmine.
Enough to undo anyone’s prim and proper underpinnings.
No one is able to withstand the effect of night blooming jasmine on one’s brain.
One is immediately rendered limp and languid.

But what has that got to do with breakfast?

Disoriented by the magic of this unaccustomed energy, I was feeling
slightly deranged and off-course.
I felt as though I had snuck across a foreign border into another country.
The very atmosphere was different.
I felt that I was suddenly a foreigner. Would I be recognized?
Of course I would be. There was no hope of blending in.

I always take the back roads if I can. I like the nooks and crannies of the world.
I found myself in someone’s backwoods hidey-hole.
I was hunting a particular kind of eatery….something with a gravel parking lot
and an assortment of beat-up cars and trucks.
Not much of a sign because everyone already knew the place.
A place with a jukebox and worn tile floors.
Rounding another bend in the road, I spied what I was looking for.
A paint-peeled sign announced ‘Homemade Biscuits and Red-eye Gravy’.
Bingo! I was home!

The hard part was walking into a place like this as a stranger.
I was already sorry that I'd worn my new blue jeans. This would never do!
All eyes turned except for ‘old yeller’, the ancient dog sprawled near the kitchen, who briefly sniffed the air as I stepped gingerly around him.

I always hate this part. But it is a necessary hazing if one is to obtain the goods…namely, a real old-fashioned breakfast in the South.
It was funny, feeling overdressed in my jeans and t-shirt. The problem was,
of course, that they fit and were clean and tidy.
I’ll never get it right, I thought.
Nevertheless, I made my way to a booth amid the stares of the locals.
The waitress whirled into view with a well-worn menu and a pot of coffee.
Sizing me up and not quite sure she liked what she saw, she splashed coffee
into my cup, fished creamers from her pocket and left me alone with the breakfast specials.
Gradually, the locals returned to their affairs.

Scanning the menu, I wanted one of everything. Homemade biscuits, eggs fresh from a farm, 3 kinds of ham, pork chops,
thick cut bacon and grits, wonderful grits.
Now grits are one of my favorite foods…don’t ask me why. They just are.
But they are a subject in themselves. For instance: how does one eat them?
What are the proper accompaniments?
I glanced furtively around the room to see how the other diners fixed their grits.
Salt, pepper, and cheese at table 3. Butter and salt in the corner booth.
Someone else poured milk on their grits and then added a wedge of butter.
Maple syrup was liberally poured over another bowl. Ok, I’m getting some ideas here...
I artfully carved out little parcels and begin experimenting.
While those variations were tasty enough, nothing made my heart sing
until I merged salt, lots of pepper, a dash of butter and a heaping spoonful
of white sugar. Perfection!
My fellow diners were aghast at my selection.

Breakfast in the South is a kind of haute cuisine that must be savored slowly.
Each biscuit maker reigns supreme in her locale, as does each butcher.

I breakfasted happily,for hours, nibbling bits of biscuit with butter and honey, savoring in turn, salty country ham, hunks of bacon with thick rinds, sausage patties with lots of red pepper, fried and stewed apples, bites of egg fried in drippings, and red eye gravy, whatever that was derived from.
I breakfasted till nearly suppertime.

On another foray, I found a restaurant on the edge of a lake that was best reached by boat!
Tied up to the dock was everything from a beat up bass boat, to jet skis flanked by rather nice houseboats.
Everybody’s favorite hangout! I clambered onto the walkway and headed up to the old barn-sided eatery
and sidled onto one of the long wooden benches with dark plank tables. The place was jam-packed
with the kind of big jovial folks who took their eating seriously.
I was fixing to become one of them.
Breakfast was served from sun-up until the food ran out around three in the afternoon.
It was buffet style with eggs prepared to order. I swear there were 10 kinds of meat… polish sausage, meat loaf, scrapple, plus anything else that could be invented from pork, several kinds of savory potatoes and trimmings...and the best cheesy grits on the planet!
The waitress, who looked suspiciously like Patsy Cline, made sure everyone was well looked after and then went on to confirm my suspicions when she took a microphone and belted out a pretty good rendition of ‘Have You Ever Been Lonely?”
As I was taking in this scene, I looked up just in time to see Elvis delivering my plate of sunny side up eggs.
Remember the part about crossing the border into a foreign country?
Well this was surely it! The maps just do not reflect the facts.
It wasn’t long before Elvis took to the stage himself gyrations and all to ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog’.
The hip-grinding was a lot to take in on top of the amazing artery-hardening breakfast and the diverse crowd of yacht owners
mingled with the local farmers n' such. But-would I do it again? Oh yeah!

Sunday, June 29, 2008 8:46 am