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True Grits

In the South, a good ol' country breakfast isn't complete unless it includes grits. It's a staple here, kind of like potatoes, rice, and pasta are in the rest of the world, and we think everybody else is downright foolish for preferring hash browns or home fries to a heaven-sent bowl of buttered grits. Celestine Sibley, the late Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, called grits "nature's finest gift to mankind." And Celestine always told it like it was.

Grits are simply crushed kernels of dried corn. A trendier cousin, polenta, is the same thing, just more finely ground and cleaned of all traces of flour. If you've had grits and thought they were bland and tasteless, you probably just didn't have them prepared right. They can be yellow or white (usually white), but the best are stone ground and are cooked for a long time (never instant), boiled with water and salt into a thick porridge and slathered with a big slab of real butter. If you want to expose yourself to ridicule -- and ruin your grits -- top them with sugar and milk, which is something akin to pouring gravy over a hot fudge sundae.

The beauty of grits is that they soak up flavors like a sponge, allowing them to travel easily from breakfast to dinner. Chicken broth or a little piece of country ham can transform a whole pot, and although many purists gnash their teeth at the thought, some folks cook their grits in milk or cream.

The best addition by far is a little cheese, which turns grits into the ultimate southern comfort food. Sharp cheddar has been traditional for years, especially in a cheese-grits casserole, but goat cheese added to grits transforms them into a tangy, creamy wonder -- a sinful and sophisticated enough dish to serve at a fancy dinner party.

Picnic Fare & Picnic Spots

There are plenty of opportunities to picnic in Atlanta, and loads of outdoor spots to spread your picnic blanket. Good bets include Centennial Olympic Park downtown, Piedmont Park in Midtown, Stone Mountain Park, and Grant Park. Here are some places that can help you round up a great picnic lunch:

Alon's Bakery, 1394 N. Highland Ave. NE (tel. 404/872-6000), has loads of delectable baked goods (some of the best pastries in town) and a variety of made-to-order sandwiches at reasonable prices. Try the garlic-roasted lamb or the Tuscany (goat cheese, arugula, roasted eggplant). There's also a selection of interesting, easily portable side dishes and salads.

The Mercantile, 1660 DeKalb Ave. (tel. 404/378-0096), in Candler Park is a specialty food store stocked to the brim with gourmet delicacies and homemade stocks and sauces. Their signature sandwiches, named for area neighborhoods, are perfect picnic fare and include the Kirkwood with bacon, avocado, watercress, onion and mayo, and the Inman with roasted eggplant, zucchini, and goat cheese on country loaf bread. Add to your basket from a selection of soups, cheeses, and wines.

Adjacent to the Corner Café, the upscale Buckhead Bread Company, 3070 Piedmont Rd. (tel. 404/240-1978), prepares unusual sandwiches to go, as well as authentic French pastries that taste as good as they look.

Outdoor Dining

Food always seems to taste better outdoors, and Atlanta's temperate climate makes alfresco dining possible 6 to 8 months out of the year. It's true that there are always some stifling midsummer days, but things usually cool off enough in the evening to make outdoor dining quite pleasant. Many of these places heat their patios during the winter, closing them only on the most frigid days. Here are a few prime spots:

Anis Café & Bistro: This tree-shaded spot outside a converted Buckhead bungalow is reminiscent of a terrace in the south of France. You can easily imagine you're in Provence here.

Canoe: Lovely gardens surround a covered terrace on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, creating a perfect setting. Wear your best Ralph Lauren outfit.

Fellini's Pizza: Have a beer or a slice of pizza, and watch the world sail down Peachtree Road.

French American Brasserie: Known to its friends as FAB, this downtown spot offers a great view of the city's skyline from its canopied rooftop seating area and bar.

George's Restaurant and Bar: There are only a few tables outside this plain neighborhood tavern, but it's in the heart of trendy Virginia-Highland, prime people-watching territory.

Horseradish Grill: If you're looking for a place to propose, this is it. A candlelit patio is set under ancient oaks and overlooks lovely Chastain Park.

Nava: Located at the busy intersection of Peachtree and West Paces Ferry roads, but comfortably set back from the street, the lovely brick terrace here is a great perch from which to watch all the Buckhead activity while enjoying $5 Patio Party cocktails and appetizers.

South City Kitchen: There's limited seating outside this converted Midtown house, but it's a perfect spot to watch the comings and goings of all the beautiful young people who dine here.

Warren City Club The Warren in popular Virginia-Highland has a delightful third-level garden terrace where guests can enjoy cocktails or a full meal.

Cheesecake Fit For A President

Sweet potatoes are a staple in many southern homes, and they find their way into recipes that never cease to surprise me. From sweet-potato casserole and sweet-potato pie to the popular sweet-potato biscuits served during brunch at the Horseradish Grill, this tasty tuber is very versatile. One Atlanta treat in particular does true justice to this spectacular spud: the sweet-potato cheesecake from Sweet Auburn Bread Company. The creation of Atlanta chef Sonya Jones, this sweet treat is known far and wide. In fact, former president Bill Clinton stopped by the market to try it for himself. Let's just say he didn't let any go to waste.

Trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, Jones grew up in the restaurant business watching every move her mother made around the kitchen. She fell in love with baking. After graduating from the CIA, she went on to share her culinary talents as a baking and pastry-chef instructor at a local technical college. Soon she had opened her own bakery and was turning out pound cakes, buttermilk and lemon chess pies, even cakes made from towers of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. But in 1998 her name became synonymous with the famed sweet-potato cheesecake. "I wanted to come up with something really southern and yet gourmet," she said of the smooth sweet pie resting atop a pound-cake crust. The cheesecake has been featured in numerous magazines and newspapers and even on the Food Network. Now her goods are available at Atlanta Whole Foods markets.

Formerly housed in the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, her bakery is now right at home at 234 Auburn Ave. NE, in the same neighborhood where she grew up and learned to love baking as a young girl. Retail hours are Monday through Friday from 7:30am to 5pm and Saturday from 8am to 3pm. Special orders may be placed by calling tel. 404/221-1157 or visiting the website at www.sweetauburnbread.com.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.