These days, when you drive through the endless piney woods of low-country Georgia and South Carolina, you will see fields of corn, and not so much cotton. And, if you’re lucky when you stop for breakfast, there will be grits on the menu. Not just any old grits, not instant, God forbid, but the real deal: stone-ground little bitty bits of corn flecked with chaff and germ.
People who grew up with grits remember them like they remember the faces of their loved ones.
Take what Lawrence McIver has to say in Shout Because You’re Free: The African-American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia (by Art Rosenbaum and Johann S. Buis, 1998, p. 87 – 88):
“ … and my mama would cook a pot of grits or what they have. … We bring that back to the house, she back them crabs, take off all them back, take off the “dead man,” break off the foots, and then she take them … and put ‘em in the pot, and she cut up onions over them crabs, or garlic or something like that—she could cook—and make a gravy, put it over our grits, and then we would go to the field, go to work.”
And some people even think that grits are so sacred to the Southern diet that rules almost as stern as the Ten Commandments apply to grits:
I. Thou shalt not put syrup on thy Grits
II. Thou shalt not eat thy Grits with a spoon or knife
III. Thou shalt not eat Cream of Wheat and call it Grits, for this is blasphemy
IV. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors Grits
V. Thou shalt use only Salt, Butter and red eye gravy as toppings for thy Grits
VI. Thou shalt not eat Instant Grits
VII. Thou shalt not put ketchup on thy Grits
VIII. Thou shalt not put margarine on thy Grits
IX. Thou shalt not eat toast with thy Grits, only biscuits made from scratch
X. Thou shalt eat grits on the Sabbath for this is manna from heaven
But, contrary to what a lot of pundits say, grits ain’t groceries for lots of people, as the old song goes. In other words, “There is no such thing as a neat little grits Maginot Line,” according to Southern culinary expert Damon Lee Fowler, in “Fried Chicken and Grits” (2003).
There’s a long history behind grits. It all has to do with the New World and corn and migration, of course.
Early explorers and settlers remarked on this new, strange food. Columbus first mentioned corn in his journals in 1492. One of Sir Walter Raleigh’s men, Arthur Barlowe, singled out corn after he ate some in 1584 and called it “very white, faire, and well tasted.” Barlowe also commented on boiled corn or hominy. Later, Thomas Hariot mentioned corn in his 1588 book, A Briefe & True Report of the New Found Land in Virginia. The first recipe written in English for hominy grits appeared in John Smith’s hand in 1629: “Their servants commonly feed upon Milke Homini, which is bruised Indian corne pounded, and boiled thicke, and milke for the sauce.” In making that comment in The True Travells, Adventures, and Observations of Captain John Smith (1629), Smith remembered something that took place 22 years before.
So hungrily did the early visitors to the Americas take to corn that it soon fed millions of enslaved Africans, many who treated it like the stiff millet porridges of West Africa or the fufu made from yams and other starchy tuberous vegetables. Shaped under slavery and solidified by sharecropping system and infernal poverty, black foodways incorporated corn in many variations. As black cooks cooked for white families, their food and foodways merged and formed part of both diets.
Betty Fussell in The Story of Corn (2004), shared an anecdote demonstrating the amazing interconnectedness of so many foods: “A favorite Southern dish was hog and hominy, a colonized version of the universal Indian dish described by William Biggs when he was captured by the Kickapoos in 1788: adopted by the tribe, Biggs was given an Indian bride who made a wedding dish of ‘hominy, beat in a mortar, as white as snow, handsome as I ever saw, and very well cooked. She fried some dried meat, pounded very fine in a mortar, in oil, and sprinkled it with sugar.’ Gentrified, the dish became New Orleans’ grillades and grits (pounded smothered steak, fried with onion, tomato and served with grits on the side) and Charleston’s grits and liver pudding, a favorite Sunday-night supper of calf’s liver with grits on the side.”
Of course, Southerners in urban areas along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico preferred white corn, which is closer to the type originally eaten by Native Americans. Settlers prepared their hominy grits by soaking them in lye, made from running water through the ashes of hardwoods used in regular cooking. The settlers hulled their corn after cracking and pounding their corn in the hollowed log mortars and wooden pestles they called interchangeably “hominy blocks” and “samp mills.” This hankering for white corn might be due to the European preference for white bread products.
Are grits just a more primitive version of polenta, a hot item in upper-crust restaurants these days, especially Italian restaurants? Not really. Read the labels on the package in the health food store: more likely than not you’ll see “Corn Grits (Polenta).”
So exactly what are grits?
Very probably the word comes from the Anglo-Saxon words grytt for bran and greot for ground, which melded into “grist.” Grits measure 0.6 to 1.2 mm across. Big hominy usually signified lye-treated dent corn, while small hominy was what we know as hominy grits, or better said in Charleston, South Carolina, just plain “grits.”
A bit of digging through cookbooks reveals something quite surprising, and yet obvious, given the spread of corn around the world: in the south of France, and not just Provence, cornmeal mush warms the stomachs of more than geese. Recall for a moment the practice of gavage that foie-gras-producing geese undergo in the last weeks of their lives, when they’re stuffed with a corn-mash mixture and their livers expand to the size of small footballs.
Gascon cooks serve forth escaoutoun, also called armottes. Other regional words include las pous in Périgord, remotes and milhas in Languedoc, cruchade in Landes, broye in Béarn, and millas in general.
Using a Southern U.S. term, here’s a “gussied-up” version of what is basically cheese grits, from French chef Hélène Darroze, as written up by Florence Fabricant in The New York Times in 2003:
ESCAOUTOUN WITH BASQUE CHEESE AND WILD MUSHROOMS
Time: 45 minutes
1 tablespoon duck fat or unsalted butter
2 ounces pancetta, chopped
1 pound fresh wild mushrooms: chanterelles, oysters, trompettes de mort, porcini or hedgehogs, trimmed and cleaned
Leaves from 2 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of Espelette pepper or hot paprika
1 3/4 cup (about 10 ounces) coarse white corn flour or stone-ground white cornmeal
3 cups cold chicken stock, approximately
4 ounces mascarpone
3 ounces firm French or Basque sheep’s milk cheese, grated
4 ounces crème fraîche
Freshly ground white pepper
1/2 cup concentrated chicken stock or chicken jus
1. Heat duck fat or butter in a large skillet. Add pancetta and cook until starting to color. Add mushrooms and sauté until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Fold in parsley, and season with salt, black pepper and Espelette pepper [a pepper grown in Basque country]. Remove from heat.
2. Whisk corn flour with cold stock in a heavy 3-quart saucepan. Bring to a slow simmer and cook, beating constantly with a wooden spoon, about 20 minutes, until the consistency of mashed potatoes. Mixture should come away from bottom of pan. Over very low heat, fold in the mascarpone, grated sheep’s milk cheese, crème fraîche and salt and white pepper to taste. Add a little more chicken stock if escaoutoun is too stiff.
3. Reheat mushrooms and adjust seasonings. Moisten with concentrated stock or jus. To serve, spoon escaoutoun onto individual plates. Spoon mushrooms on top.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings as first course or side dish.
For more grits recipes, see the following cookbooks:
101 Things to Do with Grits, by Harriss Cottingham (2006)
Glorious Grits, by Susan McEwen McIntosh (2009)
Gone with the Grits, by Diane Pfeifer (1991)
Good Old Grits Cookbook, by Bill Neal & David Perry (1991)
Nathalie Dupree’s Shrimp and Grits Cookbook, by Nathalie Dupree (2006)
© 2011 C. Bertelsen