Grits: Cuisine of the South

My wife, Maria, just loooves grits. Normally this wouldn’t be such a revolution, but she’s a born and bred Italian New Yorker. And, New Yorker’s do not eat grits. They eat farina, that creamy, smooth, rather bland breakfast portage known by many of us as cream of wheat. My wife Maria was certainly no exception.


About three months into our relationship Maria and I decided to take a long weekend trip to the lower Ozarks in Arkansas, where we stayed at a lodge overlooking the White River. On our last morning while passing through a small village on the way home, we decided to stop for breakfast. As we browsed the menu, Maria disclosed that although she had heard about grits, she had never had them and was curious about their taste. So after some cajoling from me, she decided there would never be a better place to try them than at this tiny country restaurant. From that day on, she has developed an ever growing love for grits, unmatched by any born and bred Southerner that I know.

“Official State Food”

In the year 2002 Georgia made grits their state’s official prepared food. South Carolina’s Congress had passed a similar bill some 26 years prior, declaring:

“Whereas, throughout its history, the South has relished its grits, making them a symbol of its diet, its customs, its humor, and its hospitality, and whereas, every community in the State of South Carolina used to be the site of a grist mill and every local economy in the State used to be dependent on its product; and whereas, grits has been a part of the life of every South Carolinian of whatever race, background, gender, and income; and whereas, grits could very well play a vital role in the future of not only this State, but also the world, if as The Charleston News and Courier proclaimed in 1952: ‘An inexpensive, simple, and thoroughly digestible food, [grits] should be made popular throughout the world. Given enough of it, the inhabitants of planet Earth would have nothing to fight about. A man full of [grits] is a man of peace.’ “

So, exactly what are grits?

Grits are a thick, corn-based porridge of Native American origin, commonly served as a breakfast side dish in the American South. The word is derived from the Old English word “grytt,” meaning coarse meal. There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to grits–modern hominy grits and old fashioned corn grits.

Hominy grits are ground from hominy, one of the truly American foods, introduced to Sir Walter Raleigh and his men in 1584 by the Native Americans. Hominy is made from the kernels of dent corn (also referred to as field corn) that has been allowed to dry on the cob. It is then picked, cleaned, and soaked in an alkaline solution, causing the kernel’s skin to burst and the grain to expand to about twice its original size. The hominy is then dried, coarsely ground, and sifted to produce grits.

Hominy grits, also marketed as “quick grits” and “instant grits,” are available in U.S. supermarkets under various brand names. These grits are designed for fast cooking, typically five to seven minutes or less. Although hominy itself is available in both white and yellow varieties, depending on the color of corn used, hominy grits seem to come only in white.

However, a true lover of grits would never consider anything but long cooking, stone-ground corn grits. Unlike hominy grits which can have a rather bland, watery taste, corn grits (requiring 20 to 45 minutes to cook) provide the full corn flavor and creamy texture sought after by grit aficionados.

Corn grits begin with corn that has been dried to an average moisture content of about 17 percent. The kernels are first cleaned and screened to eliminate pieces of stalk, cob, dirt, seeds, burs and other field debris that may be mixed with the corn. The cleaned white stone ground corn gritscorn is then fed into the grinder where granite millstones weighing up to 1,500 pounds each are used to grind the dry kernels into a mixture of grits, meal, and cracked corn before being dropped into the sifter where it is separated. The first to be sifted is cornmeal, followed by grits, leaving only the cracked corn which is then recycled through the grinding operation to obtain more meal and grits. Typically the final yield per hundred pounds breaks down to 50 percent corn meal, 40 percent grits, and the rest a light bran used in producing a wide variety of products.

Historically white were the grits of choice in urban port cities of the south, while yellow corn grits were more predominant in the inland rural areas. Today, it is thought that white corn varieties have more mineral and floral nuances than the yellow varieties. Although available throughout the U.S., three-quarters of all grits are sold in the “grits belt,” an area below the Mason-Dixon line from Virginia to Texas.

grits and eggsIn the past, grits may have been considered by most as a side dish to be served alongside your morning eggs, but their popularity has grown in recent years as chefs throughout America rediscover heirloom foods and reinvent regional dishes of the past.

I hope that after reading this story you will give grits a try and grow to enjoy them, just as Maria did. They are one the great foods of the American South.

Buy Em: Adluh Stone Ground Corn Grits, Antebellum Coarse Grits, Palmetto Farms White Corn Stone Ground Grits

Make Em: Shrimp & Grits, Charleston-Style Grits, Smoked Gouda Cheese Grits

Coffee Snob

coffee 1Okay I admit it, the “best part of waking up” is not Folgers in my cup. It is not that I don’t like coffee, nor do I have anything against Folgers. Quite the contrary. Not only do I love coffee, but I am an official Starbuck’s Gold Card carrying coffee snob. And I rarely, if ever, buy anything but gourmet blends for my Keurig coffee maker—Starbucks, Peet’s, Seattle’s Best (purchased by Starbucks in 2003), and Melitta, to name my favorites. I also enjoy trying coffees blended by some of today’s new local/regional micro roasters such as Laughing Man, New York City and Cafeciteaux from Baton Rouge.

Popular legend has it that coffee was first discovered in 850 AD by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kadi, who noticed that his coffee bushgoats exhibited unnaturally energetic behavior after eating the berries of a certain bush. The intrigued Kadi decided to sample the berries himself. And after also experiencing a rush, he took some of the berries to the local monastery where after explaining their effects, the abbot declared them evil and tossed them into the fire. But the aroma of the burning coffee beans caught the attention of one of the young monks who fetched them from the fire and mixed them with water, producing a drink that kept him alert throughout the evening. After sharing his discovery with the other monks, word of the fragrant, energizing berry drink began to slowly travel throughout Ethiopia and beyond.

The first credible evidence of coffee as a drink first appeared in the Muslim monasteries around Yemen during the middle of the 15th century. It was here that coffee was first roasted and brewed much like it is today. According to the Islamic Sufi order, coffee was used to stay awake during religious rituals.

coffee-beansBy early in the next century coffee had spread throughout the entire Middle East, as well as northern Africa. Up to this point Arabia and Muslim Africa enjoyed a monopoly on the cultivation of coffee, thanks to laws that allowed roasted or baked beans to be exported but strictly forbid the export of fertile beans so that no one else could grow their own. However, in 1670 a Sufi named Baba Budan managed to smuggle seven fertile seeds (the number seven is considered by Muslim’s to be sacred) out of Yemen and plant them in Mysore, India. Those beans not only flourished but in fact are still producing today. For his efforts, Budan was made a saint and a region of India was named after him.

Because of robust trading between Venice, the Middle East and Northeast Africa, Italy was the first European country to be introduced to coffee. From there word quickly spread to the rest of Europe, Indonesia and America. Then in 1645, some 75 years after being first introduced, the first Venetian coffee house was opened in Rome, catering to travelers between Venice and the Ottomans.

It was Nathaniel Conopios, a Greek student attending Oxford, who is said to be the first person to have prepared and served coffee in England, as witnessed by another scholar, John Evelyn. Evelyn recorded the event in his diary in May of 1637:

“There came in my Time to the College one Nathaniel Conopios, out of Greece sent into England . . . and was the first that I ever saw drink Caffé, not heard of then in England, nor until many years after made a common entertainment all over the nation . . . .“

Although Conopios was soon expelled from the university, his tenure initiated the use of coffee among its students. Nonetheless England as a whole, like many other countries, was slow to embrace this relatively new beverage. It was 1650 before England’s first coffeehouse would open near the university. The popularity of this coffeehouse among Oxford’s intellectual community led to the establishment of the Oxford Coffee Club, which ultimately became the world-renowned scientific think tank, England’s Royal Society.

“Tipping Is Born

Sometime around 1668, not only had England’s coffee houses gained tremendous popularity and had become the place of choice for many meetings, they became overly crowded and customer service suffered. In an attempt to overcome the service issues coin boxes were conspicuously placed around with a sign stating: “To Insure Prompt Service.” T-I-P-S.

It was also about this time that coffee became more popular than beer as New York’s favorite breakfast beverage.

The late 1600s and early 1700s saw the British East India Company rise to become one of the world’s largest coffee importers, london coffeehousemarking England’s love for the new beverage. During this time as many as 3,000 coffeehouses popped up all over England (also called “penny universities,” because for a penny one could buy a cup of coffee and engage in stimulating conversation). But it would be 1652 before a Greek servant named Pasqua Rosee opened London’s first coffeehouse. By the early 1700s coffee’s popularity had soared and the number of London coffee houses exceeded 500.

After the British conquest of India and their tea business, the British decided to get out of the coffee business, leaving it to the larger Dutch and French trading companies. Doing so reduced coffee consumption in England in favor of tea which had become cheaper as well as an easier beverage to make.

It was actually the Dutch who are said to be the ones to end the Muslims’ monopoly of coffee, when in the late 1600s a Dutch Governor acquired and planted seedlings on the island of Batavia (now Jarkata). By 1704 the first coffee from those plants was harvested. Later, seedlings from these plants were brought as gifts to kings and dignitaries throughout Europe, including France’s King Louis XIV.

In 1723 a French Naval Officer named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, coffee_treeseedlings_1feeling that the climate in Martinique where he was stationed was perfect for growing coffee, went before King Louis XIV and asked for a cutting from one of the ten-year-old trees in the Royal Botanical Garden. After being denied his request, he successfully stole a cutting and promptly sailed it back to the Caribbean which rightfully proved to the ideal climate for growing coffee. Within three years coffee plantations spread throughout Martinique, St. Dominique and Guadeloupe, and the brash officer was forgiven for his transgressions. It was this one stolen coffee sprout from which all coffee trees in the Caribbean, South and Central America originated.

Four years later another theft of the French’s sacred coffee trees took place, this time by Brazilian Colonel Francisco de Melo Palheta, who with the help of the French Guiana Governor’s wife was able to get away with fresh coffee seedlings. It was these cuttings that allowed Brazil to become the world’s largest coffee empire.

Since first coming to American’s New Amsterdam (New York City) in the mid-1600s, coffee and coffeehouses (the first coffeehouse in America opened in Boston in October of 1676) have been responsible for a number of significant historic events:

  • 1773: Colonists met at the Green Dragon coffeehouse to plan the Boston Tea Party and the first steps toward independence.
  • 1790: Wealthy and influential men met at the Merchant’s Coffee House on New York’s Wall Street and for the first time bought and sold public stocks while having morning coffee.
  • 1972: Two dozen men met under a sycamore tree (also known by locals as a buttonwood tree) across the street from Merchant’s Coffee House to establish rules by which they would trade stocks. With these rules, known as the “Buttonwood Agreement,” the New York Stock Exchange was born. Later that year they moved to a room on the second floor of the Tontine Coffee House where it remained until 1817.

Other significant milestones in America’s coffee history include:

  • 1860: Instead of panning for gold nuggets in the hills and streams of the Sierras, James Folger stayed in San Francisco where he made his fortune by founding J. A. Folgers Coffee Company.
  • 1864: Jabez Burns of New York was granted a U.S. patent for his Burns coffee roaster.
  • 1865: James Nason received a patent for America’s first coffee percolator.
  • 1871: John Arbuckle invented a machine that efficiently roasted, ground and packaged his “Arbuckle Ariosa” coffee, making it the first mass-produced coffee. Arbuckle eventually became the largest importer of coffee in the world.
  • 1886: Joel Cheek named his coffee “Maxwell House” after the famous Nashville hotel. He also adopted President Theodore Roosevelt’s comment as his advertising slogan–“Good to the Last Drop.”
  • 1900: Hills Brothers became the first coffee packed in vacuum-sealed tins.
  • 1906: George Constant Louis Washington invented “instant coffee.” During the 1970s almost a third of all coffee consumed in the U.S. was instant coffee.

0950s coffeehouseBy the mid-1950s a modern generation of coffeehouses began a resurgence throughout America, but especially in San Francisco’s North Beach and New York’s Greenwich Village. Frequented by a segment of our society known as Beatniks. Made up of freethinking artists, musicians and poets, they provided a venue for philosophical and political discussions that challenged the status quo.

In 1966 a Dutch-American by the name of Alfred Peet opened Peet’s Coffee in Berkeley, California. Having learned the trade from his PeetsCoffee1father, who had a small coffee roasting business in the Netherlands, Alfred introduced America to the strong, deeply-roasted Arabica coffee that has become so popular today.

Three of Alfred Peet’s friends, Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker and Zev Siegl, wanted to learn coffee roasting and asked to work in his Berkeley store over the 1970 Christmas holiday. In March of 1971 the three formed a partnership and, with Alfred’s blessings, opened the first Starbucks in Seattle, Washington. Not only did they model themselves after the original Peet’s location, but they in fact bought their beans from Peet for their first year in business.

In 1979 Alfred Peet sold his coffee business to Sal Bonavita but stayed on as a consultant until 1984 when Baldwin and a group of investors bought the four Bay Area Peet’s locations. Three years later Baldwin and his group sold Starbucks to Howard Schultz in order to focus on growing Peet’s. Today Peet’s Coffee & Tea is a privately held subsidiary of Joh. A. Beckiser, a German holding company.

As previously mentioned, Starbucks began in 1971 essentially as a clone of Alfred Peet’s Berkeley operation, even buying and selling his beans in the beginning. The first Starbucks was located on Western Avenue in Seattle but was later moved to Pike Place Market in 1976 where it remains today. The name Starbucks was taken from the chief mate in the book Moby-Dick.

For the first five years, Starbucks sold only whole roasted beans. In fact, the only brewed coffee served in their store was free samples used to pique interest in their beans. By 1986 starbucks-beansStarbucks owned six stores in and around Seattle and had just begun selling brewed espresso. Real growth, and the beginning of what they are today, began in 1987 after a former employee and owner of Giornale coffee stores, Howard Schultz, bought Starbucks. Schultz quickly rebranded his eleven outlets as Starbucks and opened the company’s first locations outside of Seattle. Two years later the chain had grown to 46 stores across the Northwest and Midwest, and was roasting more than two million pounds of coffee.

Starbucks has continued expansion throughout the U.S. and other countries, purchasing regional brands including Seattle’s Best and Torrefazione Italia to name only a couple. Further growth occurred by venturing outside of coffee with the purchase of Teavana and Tazo teas, Ethos water and Fizzio handcrafted sodas. In 2009 Starbucks began selling salads, sandwiches and pastries produced by the La Boulange Bakery.

Today Starbucks stands as the largest coffeehouse in the world with almost 23,000 stores in 65 countries, including Canada, the U.K., Japan and China, and sales of more than 16 billion dollars.

My at home favorites are Starbucks Pike Roast and both Peet’s Domingo and Major Dickason’s, which are all medium-roast coffees. My wife likes Starbucks Veranda, a lighter blend which they call “blonde” roast.

latteWhen I visit my local Starbucks store (and that is quite often) my standard go-to morning drink is a Venti latté with an extra shot of espresso. But if it happens to be a hot spring or summer day, my choice is always a Trenta (yes, they now offer a 31-ounce size) Mocha Frappuccino, an icy-cold beverage Starbucks acquired in 1995 through the purchase of The Coffee Connection.

So there you have it, a brief history of the beverage most of us love and many cannot start their day without–coffee. As for myself, I drink coffee throughout the day. In fact, much of this story was written while having an inspiring latté at my local Starbucks. Think I’ll close my laptop and order another to go.