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.

grits

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

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Cornmeal: Perhaps America’s Most Traditional Food

No other food exemplifies America and its plentiful bounty like corn. This is the second in a series of articles that explores the history and culinary uses of this versatile grain.

Thousands of years before Europeans first landed on the shores of the New World, corn had become a staple food of Native Americans. Among the many ways they used corn, one of the most important was grinding it into a coarse meal which was then used to make pone, a flat bread baked in ashes, drinks such as Atole, and Chicha, and a indian-pudding-athick cereal known simply as corn mush or Indian mush. Later, early British Colonists adapted their traditional “hasty pudding” into a corn version called Indian pudding, a dessert still very popular in New England.

When the Europeans first came to America, the Native Americans not only taught them how to grow corn, but how to grind and prepare it as well. Much of today’s Southern cuisine stems from recipes learned from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek, including those that incorporated cornmeal.

metate1Originally the Indians ground their corn by hand using mortars and pestles. Still used today by many culinarians, a mortar is a bowl, usually made of stone, wood, or other hard material, designed to hold whatever substance is to be ground (in this case dried corn). The pestle is a heavy, blunt, club-like stick or another stone used to do the crushing. Mortars and pestles constructed by Native Americans were as varied as the tribes who used them. The Caddo and Cherokee fashioned their mortars out of thick tree trunks and used a heavy stick about the size of a baseball bat to pound the corn. Some of the Southwestern Tribes used large rocks with a natural depression for the matate (mortar) and a smaller stone tool for the mano (pestle).

The first American gristmill (corn mill) on record was built in 1634 in the colony of New Amsterdam (what is now New York), although the Virginia Company records made reference to a water-powered mill being constructed in 1621 in present day North Carolina.

imgresMuch like a community barn raising, the local farmers and villagers usually helped the miller construct these mills to ensure a facility within one day’s travel from their farms in which to have their corn (and sometimes other grains) ground into meal or flour. In lieu of a monetary fee for his services, the miller received a small percentage of the finished product called the “miller’s toll.” This “toll” was then sold or traded by the miller for goods he and his family might need.

The gristmills also became social centers–a gathering place to catch the latest gossip with friends and neighboring farmers as they waited for their corn and grain to be ground. Newspapers would post their latest issue on the side of the mill, and children would play or swim and fish in the millpond.

imgresIn 1850, more than one hundred thousand such mills dotted American’s countryside. But by the century’s end the efficiency of steam had replaced many of the water-powered mills. And by the early 1900s, these small independent stone-grinding mills could no longer compete with the heavy steel and iron rollers of the larger, more efficient gas–and electric–powered mills.

Today, there are less than one thousand gristmills across the country. While many of these have been restored as tourist attractions and for other uses, a few others, such as Jenny Grist Mill, build in 1636 by John Jenney, still operate.

Both Native Americans and European colonists recognized the many uses of cornmeal, as well as the nourishment and energy its provided. Here is a brief description of some of the foods, past and present, made possible by cornmeal.

Indian Muffins: This recipe from The Kentucky Housewife, a 1839 cookbook compiled by Mrs. Lettice Bryan, is one of seventeen bread, cake, and pudding recipes using Indian corn meal, and the closest to today’s classic cornbread.

Beat five eggs light, stir them into a quart of milk with a small handful of flour and a tea-spoonful of salt; then stir in as much fine Indian meal as will make a tolerably thick batter. Having buttered some little scolloped muffin pans, place them in an oven that is moderately heated, put in each a small ladleful of the batter and bake them a nice brown; then take them from the pans, arrange them neatly in a plate, lay on the top of each a slice of firm butter, and eat them warm.

Anadama Bread: As the story goes, a New England sea captain’s wife, Anna, was well known for this sweet, cornmeal and molasses bread. Upon her death he had put on her tombstone, “Anna was a lovely bride, but Anna, damn’er, up and died.” Thus the recipe’s name.

In a bowl, whisk together one-quarter ounce of dry yeast and two cups of warm water; let stand about ten minutes, until frothy. Beat in the three-quarter cup of cornmeal, half cup dark molasses, six tablespoons soft butter and one teaspoon salt. Slowly add five and one-half cups bread flour and continue to beat until a moderately stiff dough forms. Turn dough out onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic.

Place dough into a large bowl, coating all sides with oil. Cover with damp towel and let rise until doubled in size. Punch dough down, divide in half, cover and let rest for ten minutes. Shape into two balls, place each in a buttered round baking pan and flatten. Cover and let rise until almost doubled in size. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes in a preheated 375 degree oven. Remove from pans and serve.

cornponeCorn Pone: This traditional Southern dish is, simply speaking, cornbread without the eggs or milk. Also sometimes referred to as “hoecakes” or “Johnnycakes,” corn pones are fried in fat in an iron pan over an open fire, pancake style.

Corn Meal Dumplings: Another traditional Southern dish similar to a hush puppy that has been dropped into boiling chicken or turnip greens liquid to cook, rather than being fried.

Cornmeal Mush: Also called grits in the American South, where they may be served for breakfast, brunch, lunch, or the evening meal; with just butter and cream, or any number of toppings.

Hush PuppiesHush Puppies: Popular during the Civil War, these fried balls of cornmeal are said to have gotten their name from Southern soldiers who tossed them to their dogs to keep them from barking.

So from Americas Native Tribes to its early colonists and European settlers, corn and cornmeal have had a very important role in shaping the foods we enjoy today, especially the ever popular Southern and Southwestern cuisines. In the next issue of our series on corn, we’ll explore how corn oil has influenced our culinary world.

Make Em: Atole, Creamy Grits Casserole, Maverick Shrimp & Grits, Corn Pone, Hush Puppies, Homesteaders Cornbread