Sunday, April 6, 2014

Grits & Groceries: At the Crossroads with a Rooster (and Pig's Tail)

Sometimes the best home cooking is at the crossroads of nowhere in the most remote area of a county, and sometimes a well-chosen name may give the best clue that the food is authentic down home cookin’. At Saylors Crossroads (the intersection of S.C. highways 284 and 185), Grits & Groceries near Belton, S.C., has become a destination for food-inspired travelers.

Belton, founded by families of Irish descent and chartered in 1855, advertises itself as a community of “rolling hills, small ponds, and lakes.” I can attest to the scenery and remoteness because on my trip there from nearby Greenville (only 22 miles to the northeast) my GPS device lost its signal and I roamed more than 45 minutes out of the way.

In eastern Anderson County, Belton boasts a population of fewer than 5,000. However, Grits & Groceries has a clientele that clearly exceeds the local population because its owners serve excellent traditional Southern food. Heidi and Joe Trull (whom I’d met a few years earlier on a field trip conducted by Southern Foodways Alliance) operate the establishment in an old country store that once was also a post office and radio station. At Grits and Groceries, they combine Cajun, Creole, and Southern cooking traditions that feature locally grown organic produce and dairy products. In addition, Heidi and Joe’s own extensive garden provides seasonal vegetables for the menu.

Both Heidi and Joe have more than simple Southern cooking roots. After circuitous career paths through kitchens in the Carolinas and other parts of the South, both were lured to New Orleans where they eventually joined Emeril Lagasse’s Nola restaurant in the French Quarter. Joe, in fact, was Emeril’s pastry chef for ten years; Heidi had even owned and operated her own restaurant, Elizabeth’s, before joining Nola.

Before I arrived at Saylors Crossroads, I thought I would order Carolina shrimp gravy and grits ($10.00) but instead was immediately attracted by the pimento cheese sandwich ($5.50) at a neighboring table and ordered one for myself; it is true regional tradition. My wife chose French toast stuffed with cream cheese and fresh strawberries ($8.00) — the best French toast that either of us has tasted. In addition, we also shared an order of praline bacon ($4.00), an excellent treat that provided an appealing contrast to our primary choices. However, most memorable was a plate of pig’s tail (not routinely on the menu) that we shared with a trio also attending the Potlikker Film Festival, which Southern Foodways Alliance conducts around the South (that weekend Greenville was the venue). Although we wanted to try one of Joe’s special homemade desserts (pies and cakes), we couldn't eat more so we compensated by taking home a copy of Heidi and Joe’s cookbook.

With a rooster on the corner at Saylors Crossroads, Grits & Groceries, which offers heaping servings of “real food, done real good” (Heidi’s slogan also still used by Elizabeth’s), is hard to miss (when you’re on the right road). If you do head that way, arrive at least before 2 p.m., when they close — and before you travel, check out the directions on their website that might cut 45 minutes out of your driving time.

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