Oct 04., 2016 / Recipes & Food
I really enjoy traditional breakfast food although often I prefer it not at the normal breakfast time. I like it in the evening, at the dinner/supper time, or for an occasional weekend brunch…eggs, sausage, bacon, ham…and of course, grits. Many people do not know that grits are simply ground corn, not fine enough for making cornbread as you do with cornmeal, but fine for quick cooking for a cheap, stick to your ribs kind of dish. Which brings up a grammar question: should we say “grits are” or “grits is” since a person would never eat one grit. I’m sticking with “grits are”. Is it singular, is it plural? Just cook ’em and eat ’em and don’t worry about it!
Grits were a mainstay on many a southern table for years. They belong to that class of foods that some people would call “peasant food”. Now, that term does not bother me, in fact I relish it and I’m very thankful for my blue-collar raising. I’ve eaten peasant food in many places around the world and its always been the tastiest of cuisines. It’s usually simple dishes made from simple ingredients by simple people. Grit have always been cheap, too. Sure you can jazz them up with exotic ingredients but there are not too many things that you just put in water in cook and be done.
My mother cooked grits most mornings and she would serve them up hot and well buttered. Occasionally she would cook an egg in mine and once in a while they might include a little country ham red-eye gravy. Toast always accompanied grits unless it was a really early morning when we were going to travel, which required a much heartier breakfast, at least that is what my mother said. On those occasions, biscuits were always in order along with eggs and bacon or some good country sausage. On those days grits played a little less prominent role but they were always necessary.
It wasn’t until 1967 that I learned that not everyone is familiar with grits. When I entered the Navy that year I was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Base, not far from Chicago, for boot camp. A few days in they served grits at the chow hall for breakfast. I guess they did that to make us Southern boys feel better since by then we definitely needed some encouragement. At that point, it seemed a significant part of everyone’s job description was to be mean to us and they were really good at it.
When grits were served the first time in boot camp, I quickly learned that people, who were not used to grits, did not have a clue as to what should be done with them. It was interesting to hear questions that asked what this was and the most prominent answers were Cream of Wheat and farina. Actually, Cream of Wheat is a brand name of farina. You cook it similar to grits, but it is made from wheat while grits are made from corn. I gave instruction to those fellows regarding what they needed to do in order to enjoy their grits. Some of them complied while others decided to forego this mostly Southern delicacy.
At our house grits, always received a generous amount of butter and salt, maybe some pepper. Even though my mother stirred in the butter while the grits were cooking, each portion of grits received a healthy pat in the center of the puddle in the middle of the plate. You can eat grits from a bowl and some people prefer that, but usually they are very hot when they come from the pot so when they are on a plate they cool to a manageable mouth temperature more quickly. I learned that if you take your spoon and eat from the outside in, you will fare well more quickly.
Occasionally mama would stir in some cheese before they were done and that was quite awesome, especially if we were not having any breakfast meat. Grits are very bland but also very filling…. a stick to your ribs kind of food. However, you have to make them “dance” and butter, salt, ham gravy, and cheese can all do that. They are like a blank sheet of paper that is just crying out to be written upon. So yesterday I made grits and they were very good so I made them again today, along with toast.
The toast at our house was not from a toaster. Slices of bread were spread with soft butter, placed on a cookie sheet, and stuck under the broiler for a few seconds. It was crisp, buttery, and perfect alongside grits. I still prefer toast made that way today. I don’t think there was even a toaster in our house until I left home. I think someone found out that my mother did not have a toaster, felt sorry for her, and gave her one for a birthday or Christmas present. Of course, she continued to make toast the old way but that shiny appliance looked nice sitting on the counter.
Grits are a favorite dish in the South. I have a friend who calls grits “Georgia Ice Cream” because they are so well loved in his home state. My wife is originally from Buffalo but loves grits as well as a few other specialties I have introduced her to…in particular, Eastern North Carolina Barbecue, which I will address on another day. I tell her that she was cut out to be a country girl, just sewed up wrong.
Of course, grits have become a little more upscale to some these days as chefs around New Orleans, Oxford, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee have found other things to serve with them. They are kind of like rice in that lots of stuff can be added to them. I’ve had shrimp and grits and it’s certainly a delicious dish. I just don’t ever want to lose the traditional essence of grits. It’s a Southern staple that can be made tasty while being filling and inexpensive. Grits have helped fill the belly of many a farmer that has set out in the field shortly after dawn. If you think about it, we owe a lot to grits.