Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Reluctant Yankee at Crook's Corner

When we were growing up in New York, my mother, the transplanted southerner, did a good job of convincing me that as privileged and glamorous as things were “up North”, the real business of life was all happening down in North Carolina. She was never explicit about it, but I got the message.

Take for example, funerals. The funerals for each of my southern grandparents were memorable affairs. They took days. There were tons of relatives and food and stories. By contrast, when my “larger than life” Aunt Carol died up north, the poor old girl got an hour’s slot at the Frank Campbell funeral home on Madison Avenue. Well, that was all I needed to know about the difference between North and South. I am, I confess, a reluctant Yankee.

I am even a more reluctant Yankee when it gets down to food. New York food is fine in many ways. But everyone is in such a rush or on a diet. How come everyone eats at their desk? You usually get only one dessert with your meal. Nothing on your plate was grown, picked or prepared by someone you know.

Southern food, on the other hand, is mythic, defiant and endless. “We’ve raised it and grown it and now we are going to eat it – lots of it - right now!” That was the attitude I remember from my southern summers. I sure did love those platters full of fried chicken and country ham, the corn bread and biscuits, the butter and snap beans and field peas and fresh-picked corn and those glorious pies and cobblers. “Oh yes, I’ll have some of everything, thank you very much.”

And that is why, whenever I am in North Carolina, I love to visit the legendary Crook's Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill.

You’ll find Crook's Corner at the western end of Franklin Street, the main artery of Chapel Hill. It’s in a funny old building with hub cap siding and a pig on the roof. It doesn’t look like much from the outside. When the weather permits, you can choose between the 1950s interior or the outdoor patio. It’s the same choice you would face at any family reunion or church picnic. Inside = air conditioning and noisy southerners talking up a storm. Outside = fat indolent flies made drowsy by the heat. Take your pick.

I was there recently with my daughter and aunt, a mini YaYa Sisterhood convention. The conversation with our charming server went something like this:

“Are the tomatoes good this evening?”
“ Yes Mam.”
“What about those figs with country ham?”
“Yes Mam, they’re delicious.”
“And the jalapeno cheddar hushpuppies?”
“Well, everyone loves those. They’re very popular.”
“OK, we’ll have tomatoes and figs and hushpuppies and shrimp and grits and some crab cakes. Oh, and bring some okra too while you’re at it. By the way, are you married?”
“Yes Mam I am.”
“Too bad, I have a son who graduated from Chapel Hill. He lives in Charlotte now.”
“Yes, Mam”

The evening went on like that. Swatting flies, eating, trying to fix up our sons, and telling stories. The food was all wonderful and nostalgic but kind of expensive. With tip, we spent $112 which is pretty good when you consider how much we ate but pretty expensive when you consider we were eating tomatoes and okra and grits and hush puppies. Never mind. As the New York Times put it, “this is sacred ground for southern foodies.”


Crook’s Corner
610 W. Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC

1 comment:

  1. Crook's Corner is a bit expensive, but worth the price. The menu has its classics, like shrimp and grits, sprinkled with interesting experimental dishes that redefine "Southern" fare. The "West End" of Franklin Street in Chapel Hill has evolved into a smorgasbord that reflects the increasingly cosmopolitan populace of the "Research Triangle Park" region.