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it’s hard to find a bad biscuit
by dirk cotton

It’s hard to find a bad biscuit in Chapel Hill, though I’ll admit I’m not sure why anyone would try. I told my lifelong friend Terry this and he said, “You’re a very lucky man.”

Terry appreciates a good biscuit.

Cars line up in the late morning at Sunrise Biscuits, just down the hill from my house, to buy biscuit sandwiches with ham, or sausage or bacon. Northbound traffic backs up into the right lane while they await their turn at the drive-in window and they back up in the center turn lane when they come from the direction of downtown.

I’ve seen a number of minor accidents caused by people pulling out of Sunrise into traffic, and more when people try to turn left in front of oncoming traffic from the center turn lane after waiting impatiently for someone to let them pull in front of the northbound line of waiting cars. Still others occasionally rear-end the line of cars in the right turn lane when they don’t expect stopped traffic right there after a blind curve.

On Saturday mornings, especially in the fall before a UNC football game and 60,000 fans are trying to get to Keenan Stadium, my wife and I warn each other to beware the “biscuit people”. Homecomers get their biscuit for old-time sake and pull out into traffic in a daze, probably induced by the best-tasting 900 calories you can hold in your hand sitting there on the seat next to them. If they’re lucky you hear screeching tires and, if not, crunching metal but, hey, they have their biscuit.

The biscuits at Breadmen’s are outstanding, too. Giant, warm, buttery blocks of ecstasy. Acme, one of my favorite restaurants in downtown Carrboro has a more expensive but perhaps even tastier biscuit and not the little round, wonderful biscuits like my grandmother made with a biscuit cutter, but giant, rectangular affairs. Order one split in half and covered with gravy and you won't need to eat again for a week.

Heck, even the biscuits from the buffet line at Weaver Street Market across the street from Acme are to die for.

No sir, you can’t find a bad biscuit in Chapel Hill.

You can’t find bad grits, either.

Acme serves a mean bowl of creamy, cheesy grits, as does 411 West, while nearby Panzanella serves a more coarse-ground dish with a texture that is different than anything else in town and delightful.

Flying Burrito makes the tastiest jalapeño grits you can imagine. Bill Smith over at Crook’s Corner, the restaurant where Bill Neal reinvented shrimp and grits, has raised grits to an art form, but more on Bill in a minute.

If the only grits you’ve ever eaten are the soupy spoonful’s you get at Huddle House or the local diner, then I can understand why might not like them, but I’ll let you in on a secret. If they’re hot with a melted pat of butter in the middle and lots of salt and pepper, they’re just fine with me.

No wonder Bon Appétit magazine named Chapel Hill the “Foodiest Small Town in America”. It’s a well-deserved accolade.

But Chapel Hill isn’t just about great food, it’s a town full of people who truly care about important things, like global warming (the Toyota Prius has long been a staple here), world peace (there’s a group with signs on the corner next to Whole Foods that is already protesting the next war), wealth inequality (Occupy Chapel Hill was welcomed here). . . and whether or not the Tar Heels can win another national basketball championship.

Last weekend was cataclysmic, with the men’s and women’s basketball teams losing their games by a combined 84 points, though both were nationally ranked. The real story, however, was Roy Williams walking off the floor with his star players in Tallahassee before the game ended and leaving his walk-ons on the floor.

Roy was concerned that FSU was about to rush the court after upsetting the Heels and the coach was concerned (legitimately) about the team’s safety.

Walk-ons are the non-scholarship players on college teams everywhere whose names you never hear. They get into the game in the final minute of a blowout and the public address announcers don’t seem to bother introducing them at that point. If the home team is on the good side of the blowout, the fans often cheer for these kids to at least score a basket.

Walk-ons don’t play for glory or a scholarship or a shot at a job in the NBA, they play to help the team in practice and because they truly love the sport. They are perfectly OK with that. These are the kids we should be cheering for.

But back to Tallahassee.

Roy left the walk-ons on the floor to play the final 14 seconds prompting one columnist to write, “What we really learned at FSU is that walk-ons are expendable.”

Now, Roy later claimed he expected the walk-ons to leave, too, and that he simply didn’t know they were still on the floor. On the other hand, if he had been the last one to head for cover instead of the first, he would have known where they were.

I got on a private jet in San Diego once and the captain turned around to say, "I'm supposed to give you a safety talk and show you how to use the emergency hatch, but this is a small plane. If there's a problem, just go where I go because I'm gonna be the first one off this thing!" I assumed he was joking.

While I don’t see how you fault a coach for trying to protect his team from an obvious danger and leaving before the game ended, I do think he could’ve assumed more responsibility. I wanted to tell him that I understood him leaving a burning building and making sure his wife and kids were with him, but it might’ve been nice to leave the door open for the dog and the cat, too.

Just sayin’.

As a Kentucky fan living in Chapel Hill, you might think I would be happy to see a rival lose and to be completely honest, most often I am, but seeing an outstanding team like the Heels get completely trounced by an unranked opponent left me with a queasy notion—if it can happen to them, it could happen to us.

I had a flashback to a scene from that excellent HBO Series, Rome, when the Romans had conquered a king in Gaul and brought him back to Rome in a cage to be publicly hung. Caesar approached the cage to see a beaten, bedraggled man in rags. The former king looked up at Caesar and said something like, “It isn’t that far from where you stand to where I sit.”

The gloriously dressed and impeccable Caesar replied quietly, “Don’t I know it.”

It’s hard to find bad biscuits or grits here and it’s also hard to find mediocre writers (present company excluded). My wife gave me a copy of a paperback entitled 27 Views of Chapel Hill for Christmas. It’s a compilation of 27 short stories and poems by local writers about Chapel Hill. I didn’t expect a lot from it, but it’s a winner. The biggest surprise is who the authors are.

The aforementioned Bill Smith, the chef at Crooks Corner, wrote one of the stories, actually a collection of blog posts. His stories and recipes appear in his books, Seasoned in the South and A Year in the Kitchen (and on the Road). The James Beard Awards named Smith in the final four for Best Chef Southeast ("final four" having particular resonance around here) and the James Beard Foundation nominated Crook's Corner a Best Restaurant in the U.S.

I’ve read Bill’s stories and his blog and the man can seriously write. I see him mornings tooling around Chapel Hill and Carrboro on his one-speed bike with three wire baskets, which he will fill with the best produce he can find at the groceries and farmers markets, or with wild blackberries and honeysuckle from along the bike trail by the railroad track to serve in his restaurant.

I recently learned that Bill was also a founder of Cats Cradle, the music venue in Carborro where my son loved to hang out in high school.

Bill isn’t the only fine-writing chef in town, though. Chef-Owner Kevin Callaghan at Acme sends out emails to promote his business and they often contains stories about himself that are as delightful as his cooking. This may be the only business that sends me promotional emails that I actually can’t wait to receive.

Mildred Edna Cotton Council, know around here as Mama Dip, is a fine writer in her own right. She runs Mama Dip’s Kitchen and has been serving up traditional southern cooking, what she calls “dump cooking” because she doesn’t measure, for over thirty years. Her description in 27 Views of how she started her business is touching and inspiring.

These people can write and cook. I’d be happy if I could just write and eat.

My son ran into a gentleman in a UK t-shirt at the Durham Target last Saturday. Since there aren’t that many UK fans around here, Cary struck up a conversation. Turns out he has a friend who is also from Kentucky and grew up in Madisonville. Cary thought he remembered Madisonville from my past, so he passed along my contact information.

Turns out that Joe Porter, a Duke English professor, grew up in Madisonville a few years before I lived there. Joe wrote a collection called The Kentucky Stories, which I plan read as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

I sent Joe two of my shorts stories set in Madisonville, embarrassed to send my scribblings to a Pulitzer Prize nominee but eager to build my credibility as a kid who grew up for a while in Madisonville. He gleaned from my stories that he went to the same elementary and junior high schools I did. In fact, we lived on the same block.

I’ll admit I felt flattered when Joe called them “fine stories of my youth”.

Like bad biscuits and bad grits, it’s hard to find a mediocre writer around here, but if you are one, there is no end to the encouragement. Fortunately for me, I write because I love it and I find great pleasure in not needing to impress anyone else but me.

The chefs and the writers around here are amazing people. I haven’t met one who didn’t tell me how well I wrote, or that I write fine stories, or some such.

I know in my heart, though, that I’m a walk-on.

And like walk-ons everywhere, I’m perfectly OK with that.


Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 Internet company who loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write. Everything else he does is just for fun. A computer programmer-cum-marketing executive-cum-financial planner who now wants to be a writer, he apparently can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He and his family moved to The Southern Part of Heaven in 2005 and couldn't be happier with that decision.

more about dirk cotton


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