DINING IN NORTH CAROLINA

It’s been five years since we moved to North Carolina from New Jersey and I’m still learning important new things about myself. This morning, I learned I don’t like cheese on my grits.
Most aspects of life here are easy to accept. Compared to New Jersey, the winters are warm, traffic is almost non-existent, and taxes are comically low. Food, however, is challenging. One of the best aspects of life in the land of the Soprano’s was availability of excellent Italian food. The only difficulty was determining WHICH restaurant to choose. In North Carolina, “Italian food” is largely confined to the defrosted fare found in mall-based chain restaurants.
Lately, after dining experiences ranging from dismal to mediocre that require a longer drive, we confine our Italian sorties to the place closest to our home with an authentic, old-world Italian name; we ignore the fact that it is actually run by two young, Brazilian sisters. As to pizza, we now make it ourselves.
Bagels also are better in New Jersey. Every town in the Garden State has at least one shop worthy of visiting on a sleepy Sunday morning. And you can count on a selection of whitefish salad and cheeses and cream cheese to go with the bagels. Not so in Dixie. Again, there’s a chain store in a shopping mall that stands in for a bagel shop; I wouldn’t want to be the first customer in a month to order a schmeer.
North Carolina is proud of its “barbecue.” Apparently, it competes with most other southern states for the designation as “the best.” Our local variety is vinegar-based, as opposed to the tomato-based type found in Texas and elsewhere. I’m not qualified to judge. I’ve eaten a couple of sandwiches. They were okay.
North Carolina cuisine also features something called “hush puppies,” which I’d grown up thinking were casual shoes worn by people with sore feet. Instead, hush puppies here are fried, finger-sized filets of dough, seasoned with varied amounts of sugar, sometimes including onions. Barbecue and seafood establishments are equally likely to place a plastic container of hush puppies on the table in lieu of the delicious Italian bread I crave. Though not inclined to “watch my weight,” I’ve never eaten a hush puppy without thinking: “What a waste of calories!”

Back to today: I awoke with an urge to go out for breakfast. In New Jersey, we would have debated which of several corner restaurants or diners fit the bill, all of which were within a five minute drive from our home. In Chapel Hill, our selection is between two places twenty minutes away: either the pancake place of esteemed reputation among the college crowd, or the elegant restaurant attached to “Southern Seasons,” the local gourmet shop.
Dismayed by the dry, indifferently-served pancakes in our last foray for pancakes, we opted for glamour. First, let me state clearly I intend no disrespect to Southern Seasons. The store is beautifully appointed and well stocked with every kitchen utensil and ingredient known to man; it’s a fine culinary establishment. Their restaurant, “The Weathervane,” is lovely inside and includes a flower-bedecked patio for outside dining. Because the inside air conditioning created a temperature akin to the South Pole to our just-back-from-Costa Rica bodies, we opted to sit outdoors.
The menu contained the usual selection of high-end breakfast fare, such as: eggs Benedict, smoked salmon and fruit and cheese selection du jour. Each ingredient’s organic and free trade bonafides are listed. As the one who suggested this treat instead of a bowl of cereal at home, I didn’t complain aloud about the prices, though the thought crossed my mind: “$12.95 for pancakes!? Are they made with truffles?” Hmmmm, possibly.
I ordered scrambled eggs with bacon, a biscuit and grits, a respectable southern meal. Grits, oddly, are the southern taste most readily enjoyed by me. Though derived from corn, they remind me of the cream of wheat my mother served when I was young. Compared to collard greens or black-eyed peas, for instance, I find grits to be the most accessible southern staple.
Our server was a local native, full of good cheer and “how y’all doin’ this mornin’?”
“Y’all want some cheese with those grits?” she asked. “Got pepper jack.”
Pepper in my grits sounded like a bridge too far, but I was persuaded by her good cheer to include aged Scottish cheddar. After all, The Weathervane is not the Waffle House, where grits require fake maple syrup for flavor.
“Are you sure you’ll like that?” asked my wife, Katie.
“How bad can it be?” I said. “I like grits, and I like cheddar cheese.”

Alas, when the plate arrived, I found the two tastes too divergent for my palate. The grits were bland and creamy; the cheese vibrant, salty and firm. “Yuck,” I said, after one bite.
Fortunately, the eggs were tasty, the bacon crisp and the biscuit fine. When the bill came, I learned that our server had succeeded in “up-selling” me a couple dollars on the cheese. I didn’t blame her; live and learn, y’all. Most of me is happy to have moved to North Carolina; only my stomach has some misgivings.

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