Growing up in Atlanta in a family where the father did the cooking, I never realized that grits were a southern dish.

My parents were born and raised in southwest Virginia, went to college and got married in Tennessee, and “moved away from there” as young parents, before I came along…to Indiana, Texas, Massachusetts, Missouri and finally, Georgia.

But everywhere they lived, la cuisine chez nous was distinctly southern. Tomato Gravy, or Sausage Gravy, and Buttermilk Biscuits, made from scratch. Apple Butter. Country Ham and Red Eye Gravy. Potato Cakes. Chicken and Dumplings. Cornbread. Sweet Tea. Fried Green Tomatoes. Sweet Potato Casserole. Sometimes, Breakfast for Dinner.

And Grits.

I married a Yankee who had never heard of them, and whose talents as a chef  (later on) rivaled surpassed my father’s. Mon mari grew up in a big family where the mom had a weekly dinner menu: Monday was hamburgers, Tuesday was spaghetti, Wednesday was hot dogs, Thursday was chicken, and Friday was grilled cheese and tomato soup.

So, when he was in college in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and his uncle sent him the cookbook  Fearless Cooking for Men, he decided to learn to cook.

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With simple, tasty recipes, the world of cooking opened up to him. He enjoyed the benefits of making dinner in his dorm room and off-campus apartment: it was cheaper than going out, and convenient on the weekend, with his weekday-only student meal plan.

And it was a great way to a woman’s my heart.

Over the years, he’s evolved into a gourmet chef. His cookbook library has grown to include a variety of cuisines, including all of Julia Child’s recipes – she’s a favorite, and we both love la cuisine française. He’s also become acquainted with southern dishes, and introduced me to “northern” ones and their accoutrements.

Creamed Onions. Turnips. String Beans. “Southern” Fried Chicken (I always thought it was just Fried Chicken, but they add a qualifier.) Corn Fritters. Rolls (in place of biscuits, and store-bought). Ketchup on Scrambled Eggs.

I’ve adopted that last one, and for family birthday meals, “Southern” Fried Chicken and Corn Fritters are a tradition, but at least I don’t put maple syrup on mine. The rest of the above dishes are just, well, not me. At my urging, my husband has tasted grits, but he doesn’t love them and has never cooked them (even though they’re great with butter*).

Which brings me to the title of this post: another name for Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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I didn’t hear the Southern Part of Heaven** described that way until I met him, just after I turned eighteen. But “a pat o’ butter in a sea o’ grits” seemed perfect: if North Carolina (my second favorite state) is the grits, then yes, Chapel Hill is the pat of butter in the middle, dressing it up and making that tasty, buttery difference.

Other than my first Christmas break, the next summer, and ten months in the south of France – the experience on which my novel MAKE THAT DEUX is drawn –  I spent as much time as I could in Chapel Hill between 1977 and 1981. My year in France was wonderful, but the tradeoff was missing a year in Chapel Hill and UNC, the most beautiful college campus in le monde

My daughter just found out she’s been accepted there as a freshman this fall, and she’s thrilled to be a Tar Heel. I’m not sure if she likes grits as much as I do, but I know she’s a big fan of butter.

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* See my post of October 3, 2012: What would Julia do? Faire la cuisine française.

** also known as a little slice of heaven…

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