A Pat o’ Butter in a Sea o’ Grits

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.


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.


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.


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

** also known as a little slice of heaven…

7 ways Football helps (me) avoid Writer’s Block

The Super Bowl is hours away, and although my beloved Atlanta Falcons aren’t in it (despite coming pretty close, after a FANTASTIC season), I can’t wait to watch le match (and, of course, les publicités – the ads). I haven’t decided whether I want the Ravens or the 49ers to win, and I’m sure both teams have been working very hard – physically and mentally – to prepare. I was also working hard – mentally – last week, adding over 3,000 words (about 12 pages), to my work-in-progress, a Suspense novel.


Writing a novel is nothing like playing football, but there are certain parallels. For example, as a writer, there are times when you might get stuck  not know what to write next  wonder if you should just toss the whole thing out  experience writer’s block. In football, I imagine, there are times when you aren’t sure what to do next  can’t get into the end zone  want to give up  are so far behind, coming back seems impossible.

I started to understand love the game of football about the same time I started writing my Romance novel, MAKE THAT DEUX. Though sometimes I’ve struggled to keep going as a writer, I don’t believe in writer’s block. At least, I try my best to avoid it. I think what I’ve learned about football has helped.

But before I tell you why, a (necessary) backstory. About a week ago, my husband and I were guests at a “hands-on” dinner party: The kind where each couple has gets to help with the cooking. As the evening began, five couples sat at the table drinking wine while Professional Chef Rosemary described the recipes and the process ahead. Each couple would choose a dish to prepare, and with the help of an assistant chef (and pre-measured ingredients), create a contribution to the meal.

Mon mari, being a wonderful cook and très intelligent, listened carefully. When the signal was given, he bolted over to the dessert station, pulling me along with whispered assurances that it would be the easiest dish. He also explained that it had the extra benefit of allowing the two of us time to relax and have another glass of vin while our his creation*  was in the oven.


Initially, I helped hovered stressfully around him, and soon our assistant realized it was him that she would be teaching  guiding standing by to watch. As they were discussing the pros and cons of metal versus plastic lemon juicers (she liked plastic), I slipped away. Relieved of duty, I hung out closeby, talking to the other husbands as their wives stirred and sautéed.

photo copy

The metal lemon juicer we have à la maison

We talked a little about football, and then one of the men told the others I was an author and had published a novel. We chatted about my book and then about the one I’m currently working on. When dinner was ready, we all sat down together to a delicious meal.

Afterward, I was asked to speak to the group for a few minutes about writing and answer some questions. One person said he would like to write a book too, and asked me how I overcome writer’s block. I said that if when I come to a point where I can’t continue a project, I work on something else: research, a blog post, marketing MAKE THAT DEUX, or just rereading (and revising) what I’ve written. Then, after a time (hopefully short), I know exactly what comes next in my novel.

Which brings me to football, and my list of ways that it helps me avoid writer’s block:

1. The objective is to advance the ball (or story). Sometimes you don’t get it very far, but if you can just keep making first downs, you’ll get there – and you don’t have to make a first down on every play. But if you give up, or if you’re three-and-out, you’ll have to punt. Not fun.

2. If you’re confused, take a time-out. Then get your head together and come back with a plan.

3. Be open to changing your strategy. Be flexible. What you thought would work may not. If something you’re doing doesn’t help advance the  ball  story, change it. There’s no reason to hold on to a plan that won’t work.

4. You have to work hard, and you can’t let up. You have to work at it, every day (and every play). Well, almost every day. You need some rest days.

5. Be ready to take advantage of opportunities. The unanticipated can happen. When it does, you have to be ready. If you work hard (see #4), you will be.

6. Be patient. Serendipity will find you. Sometimes you get an unexpected break. If you fumble, pick yourself up and keep trying.

7. Never lose sight of the goal. You want to succeed, no matter what is thrown at you (or away from you). Keep working, and it will happen. “Never, never, never give up!”

Go Falcons!

* “Gingerbread with Lemon Curd Cream” – it tasted much better than it sounds!

Fitting into un grille-pain (toaster), and Thanksgiving

Not long ago, a dear friend (let’s call her “Lisa”) sent me a kitchen/tea towel that fits me perfectly.

Lisa’s birthday is tomorrow, and I messed up and didn’t send her a gift (or even a card). So I wanted to wish her a bon anniversaire here…and tell her I miss her and am thinking of her this Thanksgiving.

We live thousands of miles apart, but many years ago, we were roommates in college. Back then, she didn’t cook either, but she does now. I discovered this a few years ago when she came to visit us and helped my husband with the cooking for our annual Christmas fête. I wasn’t amazed — many women people can, and do, cook. But Lisa went above and beyond the call of a special weekend guest, chopping, stirring, baking and assembling — and loving it. She also complimented my husband’s cooking abilities and asked him for recipes.

Which made him feel très apprécié.

Perhaps because he is such a great cook, early in our marriage he and I lived for many years without a toaster, or un grille-pain (but we did own a funky gadget that produced croque-monsieurs.) I guess we weren’t much into toasted bread or bagels back then (and I try to stay away from them now). We finally bought un grille-pain when frozen waffles became a preferred (and easy) breakfast item for our kids.

(Let me just stop here and say that, though the word grille-pain looks  painful — and I suppose it is, to the bread/pain — it sounds très cool en français.)

Last summer, when we were weekend guests in a French home in Lyon,* we noticed their grille-pain: it was so différent from any we had seen back in America. Made to toast pieces of French bread (baguettes) that have been sliced through the middle, not from the top, it was an interesting appliance, with its long shape and wide, long slots. My husband added it to the list of French cuisine products, ingredients, and customs (like a cheese plate after dinner) that he admired and wanted to acquire.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find one yet, but I may cherche (look for) one as a Christmas gift.

Back to cooking…

Since our wonderful American holiday Thanksgiving is just days away, mon mari et moi (well, more him than me) are planning the menu for Thursday. We will only have seven people at the table, but he will prepare plusieurs plats traditionnels. I will contribute two simple dishes: a sweet potato casserole and fresh cooked cranberries. I’ve done them almost every year for decades, but making them will still be a challenge.

Since they don’t fit into a toaster!

[In my new novel MAKE THAT DEUX, Jenny and her roommates are a little lonely at Thanksgiving. I won’t say what they do about it, but I will say that their solution isn’t ideal….and it doesn’t fit into un grille-pain…]

* for more, see my post Lyon and Beaujolais, with the French and a faux pas, 11-6-12

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