Dinner From Dixie

A Chapel Hill, N.C., restaurant celebrates grits, hush puppies, and hoppin' john

CROOK'S Corner restaurant has a definite sense of history: It traces its building back 50 years and its recipes to past generations.

But a pig statue poised above the door, peculiar wooden-animal creations perched on its roof, and a dozen or so shiny hubcaps hanging from the wall quickly belie any adage that history and decorum must go hand-in-hand.

The menu boldly announces that this restaurant has an unmistakable sense of geography as well. Where else but in the South would hush puppies, cold fried chicken, hoppin' john (a black-eyed peas and rice dish), corn bread, and collard greens represent an upscale restaurant's cuisine?

And don't forget the grits. Bill Neal, Crook's Corner's head chef until his death three years ago, dedicated his third cookbook, ``Good Old Grits Cookbook'' (Workman Press, 1991), entirely to hominy. He wrote in its introduction: ``On every breakfast plate in the South there always appears a little white mound of food. Sometimes it's ignored. Sometimes insulted. But without it, the sun wouldn't come up, the crops wouldn't grow, and most of us would lose our drawl. It's grits.''

Maybe Neal exaggerated the centrality of ``this simple bowl of boiled corn'' to Southern cuisine, but grits, in particular the Shrimp and Grits entree created by Neal (See recipe), has become a dish known in circles far outside Chapel Hill and has bolstered Crook's Corner's reputation along with it.

``You've got people who've heard of the place from other people,'' says Bill Smith, the current head chef, ``and they order Shrimp and Grits.'' The restaurant, which seats an average of about 150 a night, sells more than 10,000 plates of Shrimp and Grits a year, he says.

Opened by Neal and Eugene Hamer in 1982, Crook's Corner has a history as rich as its food. Rachel Crook in the 1940s operated the town's first launderette, and sold cloth, fish, and boxes of pecans that came from her plantation in Alabama. She made her home and store out of what some say was a remodeled gas station and others, a chicken house. Today, the restaurant is run out of this same brick building still situated at the edge of Chapel Hill. Mr. Hamer says everybody started saying, `` `let's go down to Mrs. Crook's corner,' and it got shortened to Crook's corner,'' giving the restaurant its name.

In 1951, Crook was mysteriously murdered. The property changed hands a number of times, serving as a taxi stand and pool hall and falling into a state of disrepair. In 1978, it became a barbecue joint. ``Most small towns, especially in the South, have a barbecue house,'' says Hamer, who is now sole owner of the restaurant. ``And Chapel Hill was missing one.''

Neal shifted the cuisine away from barbecue and hamburgers, though ``North Carolina hickory-smoked, pit-cooked, pork barbecue served with slaw on a toasted roll'' is still listed proudly on the menu.

And though Neal with his cookbooks and dedication to Southeastern recipes set the quirky tone and down-to-earth menu, the four chefs who have followed in his footsteps have added imprints of their own. ``We maintain a creative menu,'' Hamer says. He says that the image of the place is ``whatever people who work here bring in. That's what I think the whole thing is about; it's like a living, breathing entity.''

Head chef at Crook's Corner for the last year, Mr. Smith had no trouble cooking up Southern fare even though he had spent his last five years as head chef at a local French restaurant. Smith is from an old town in eastern North Carolina where, he says, everybody in his family went to his great-grandmother's house for ``dinner,'' the big midday meal, every day. ``That's one of my fondest memories growing up.''

The dishes Smith creates daily come from his childhood, he says. ``I've had to tap into it and sort of stir it up. It's things I remember from church picnics,'' he muses. ``We were never allowed to eat yellow corn; that was for cows.... There were big fights over who made the best butter.''

Summer Southern cooking is especially rewarding because of the variety of fresh produce he has to choose from. ``Right now, we're really sitting pretty,'' he says. ``[We're getting vegetables] right out of the fields. They're never more than a day old.''

This is ``big-time tomato season,'' he says. Lots of fresh herbs are available right now, and crab is in season as well. He says he likes to focus on cold dishes in the summer because that is what is appetizing to people in North Carolina's heat.

``Good food isn't hard to cook,'' he says. ``And it's ever-changing.'' What is hard, he says, is staying enthusiastic for his customers night after night. ``Every time you do it, it has to be opening night,'' Smith says. ``That's how it is in the theater, and that's how it is in the restaurant business.''

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