One of the things that I get asked fairly often is, “How can you eat grits?” More often than not, it’s Richard, asking after I’ve snuggled into the couch with a bowl of cheese grits on a weekday night when I’ve had an intense craving for comfort food. Other times, though, it’s people that are actually from Texas — people that I expect not only to enjoy but to celebrate grits — but who are either repulsed by grits or simply unfamiliar with them. These people confuse me.
Grits were an integral part of my childhood and they remain a huge part of my cultural identity. My mother would make grits for me on cold mornings before I headed off to the bus stop for school. They will stick with a child’s stomach all day, making lunchtime a mere social gathering as food isn’t yet a necessity. I remember her serving them to me on our old, wooden breakfast table with a huge pat of butter and some cream poured on top. I would slowly swirl the grits until all of the ingredients were emulsified into the warm, creamy breakfast cereal and then gulp it down with relish.
Every church potluck included at least three different types of grits dishes: regular grits, grits with sausage, grits with shrimp, grits with cheese, runny grits, thick grits, etc. In fact, it’s a running joke that you can’t have a Church of Christ potluck without grits.
When we did a holiday buffet in middle school, I insisted on bringing cheese grits, much to the chagrin of my mostly foreign schoolmates. No one except my English teacher, a down-home Southern belle, touched them. But she and I ate nearly the entire dish.
And as an adult, when it’s my turn to bring breakfast for our breakfast club at The Day Job, I always bring grits. I consider it my mission in life to turn as many people onto grits as possible. I’m pleased to report that I’m doing much better these days than my failed attempt in middle school.
Why grits? Why eat something that has the visual consistency of wallpaper glue (as Richard so lovingly puts it)? Why do I have such strong feelings for what is, essentially, corn porridge?
Because, in addition to its nutritional properties (which are many), grits are “…an inexpensive, simple, and thoroughly digestible food [and] 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.” This beautiful quote was published The Charleston News and Courier in a 1952 article about grits, and I’m happy to say that not much has changed since then. Grits don’t recognize racial and socioeconomic barriers, they can be served at any meal, they are incredibly versatile, can incorporate any number of ingredients, are wholesome and full of nutrients, can be served sweet or salty or savory and — most importantly — they give you a warm, comforted feeling that transcends the stomach and fills the soul.
Grits can be prepared very poorly, and I realize that this is what turns people off upon their initial introduction to the food. Not prepared correctly, they are a tasteless, runny sludge with grainy bits of hominy that are unappetizing to even the hungriest Southerner. Unfortunately, this is what most people get when they order grits in a Waffle House or Denny’s or any other breakfast chain across America.
To taste grits done correctly, I recommend Ouisie’s Table here in Houston, where their kitchen is renowned for its Shrimp and Cheese Grits. It’s an inspired concoction of thick, creamy grits with spicy shrimp, mushrooms, bacon and scallions. And it’s served as a dinner entree — not as a breakfast food. However, if you’re not able to drop everything and head over to Ouisie’s Table, here are some tips for whipping up an excellent batch of grits at home:
- Use real, stone-ground grits if at all possible. Instant grits will inevitably lead to the nasty, runny mess described above. Here’s an excellent site for “real” grits: Falls Mill, based out of Tennessee.
- No matter what your recipe says, don’t cook the grits down with only water. You need to use at least half milk, half water. For truly rich grits, use all milk.
- Grits are like risotto: you must stir, stir, stir and then stir some more. Don’t stop stirring!
- Use real butter. This means no margarine, no I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, no cheap-o supermarket brand butter. Use good butter or go home. No exceptions.
- If you like your grits salty, use koshering salt. Regular table salt is too small to hold up to the coarse granules of corn and you’ll end up oversalting. Koshering salt allows you the right amount of control.
- If you like your grits sweet…well, I frankly don’t have much use for you. Sorry. But I’m sure there are other websites that can assist you in ruining a perfectly good meal.
If you want to learn more about grits, from people with a bit more journalistic background than I have, check out this excellent feature at NPR: Grits, Present at the Creation.
And if you’re ever feeling a little worn-down or world-weary, go have yourself a big bowl of grits, and tell me if you don’t feel better afterwards.