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Southern Living with True Grit

I’ve been asked to write something on the subject of “Southern Living” for what’s been titled The She Writes Southern Writers 4th of July Countdown Blog Tour. Phew, that’s a southern fried mouthful. But hey, here in the south we’re used to chewing on some real gritty morsels. And speaking of grits, let’s consider the southern love affair with that oh-so-misunderstood food group, the grit. It’s a group because it’s always referred to as grits (plural) and because it’s always accompanied by other foods. Which makes it a group. Grits and gravy, grits and eggs, grits and pancakes, grits and peanut butter, grits and foie gras.

Oh no, that just slipped out of my Mastering The Art of French Cooking and into my cholesterol busting Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible. In her food bible, Paula Deen has some great grits recipes by the way. Of course Paula Deen does not hit you over the head with her grits. They do not, in fact, show up until chapter two, recipe number 97, Eggs Baked with Grits and Ham. But they do make a second appearance in chapter three, recipe number 149, Grillades and Grits and again in chapter ten they appear as recipes 233 through 235 inclusive under Original Grits, Cheese Grits, and Cheesy Tomato Grits.

In addition to grits, Paula Deen just loves cheese – with just about anything. Hey ya’ll try a tasty Cheddar, Pepper Jelly and Pecan Cheese Ball, or as a starter perhaps a Dr. Pepper Pecans Cheese Straw at recipe numbers 20 and 22 respectively.
Now for the grits uninitiated, it’s time to clarify just what the grits are. And here we turn not to Ms. Deen, although she is certainly the current doyenne of the full on fat fest that has always been synonymous with southern cooking, but rather to our friend Messrs. Wikipedia who explain grits thusly:
“Grits (also sometimes called sofkee or sofkey from the Muskogee word) (I hate to double parenthesize but who ever heard of SOFKEE?) are a food of Native American origin common in the Southern United States and mainly eaten at breakfast. They consist of coarsely ground corn, or sometimes alkali-treated corn (hominy). Grits are similar to other thick maize-based porridges from around the world, such as polenta, or the thinner farina.

Grits are usually prepared by adding one part grits to two-to-three parts boiling water, sometimes seasoned with salt or sugar. They are usually cooked for 5–10 minutes for “quick” grits or 20 or more minutes for whole kernel grits, or until the water is absorbed and the grits become a porridge-like consistency.”

Did you movie fans note the precise timing required when cooking grits in this invaluable scientific type Wiki document? If so you will no doubt be reminded of the scene in My Cousin Vinny where Vinny vanquishes the prosecution with his cross examination of the grits cook who, Hollywood surprise-wise, turns out to be a real boon to the defense. So you see how grits turned into an American instrument for good and a cultural icon all without the fanfare and self promotion normally associated with becoming a legend.

I will add one interesting note from my extensively gritty research. Folk wisdom contends that dry grits, scattered near foraging ants, can be used as a pesticide by causing the ants to ‘explode’ as the grits expand inside them. Hmmmm. Food for thought, diet-wise. For more detailed info on grits please see wikipedia.org/wiki/Grits.

Now in case you were thinking that grits couldn’t possibly reach any higher level of notoriety, I’m here to tell you that you would be dead on wrong. Yes, you heard it here first (I hope). Welcome to The National Grits Festival. Yes. True. With pictures from past years, even. Giant tubs of grits. With people slopping around inside like babies in a kiddie pool. This is G rated folks so don’t go clickin’ around thinkin’ you can get off on grits. They are not that kinda food group. And shame on y’all’s for thinkin’ such a thang.

Now in its 27th incarnation, this year’s grits festival was held on April 13, 14, and 15 in St. George, SC. Past year’s recipes read like a glitzy who’s who of the grits world, including but not limited to Deep Fried Grits-n-Cheese, Low Country Shrimp & Cheese Grits, Fried Grits Cakes with Sausage, The Green Valley Spa’s Shrimp & Grits, and Gooey Butter Grits Cheese Cake. Yum, where’s my ladle?

With all that cheese and bacon and ham and deep fried whatever, I’m sure you’re thinking that for a healthy heart diet these grits are just about the worst food in our galaxy. And how wrong you would be. I would not be touting the value of grits as a southern staple if I did not feel perfectly righteous in my zeal for this misunderstood grain – is it a grain? Let’s see. According to our good neighbors at LivingStrong.com, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has grits as a low-fat, cholesterol-free food. Grits can be used as a breakfast or as a dinner entrée (replacing those other boring old entrées like salmon, pasta, or – gasp – tournedos). Grits are also a good source of fiber and full of many vitamins and minerals, namely iron, thiamine, folic acid, and niacin. Again, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database, grits have only 0.5 g of fat per quarter cup serving and are not a major source of saturated, trans, polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats.

Which leaves unanswered the question of whether grits are (is?) a grain. So let’s see what popcorn.org has to say (remember grits come from corn). And I quote: Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal grain is a grain product.

So that’s it. Grits are a grain. And if you don’t add sugar, butter, cream, cheese, bacon, ham, foie gras, or ice cream, and you don’t fry or do anything but boil your grits, you’re looking at a healthy food product that will provide you with good nutritional value. And if you add all that other stuff, grits will still provide you with good nutritional value and a lot of fat – and a calorie overload that would have sunk the Titanic before it ever reached the iceberg. But hey, who’s counting? This is Southern Living at its cholesterol-packed zenith.

One final word about grits comes down to pronunciation. In the north, grits – in the extremely rare situation that you find them offered on a menu – is a one syllable word. In the south, however, if you don’t order greee-itz, you’re likely to get a blank stare and a befuddled “What’s thayat y’all want, hon?” from your diner attendee.

Feel free to share this post with friends, or enemies, either one. And tell Paula Deen “Hey” for me when you see her.

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15 Comments

  1. July 3, 2012

    Loved your post !
    We are definitely all about grits here in the South !!! :)

  2. July 3, 2012

    Thanks for the lighthearted read this morning. I enjoyed it thoroughly. As a lover of grits, I particularly liked the nutritional adage at the end. Yay for grits being a health food! My family and I quote Vinny quite a lot; we’ve seen that movie numerous times. I laughed when I read your reference and could hear Vinny say, “”Sure, sure I heard of grits, I just actually never seen a grit before.”

    Still laughing.

    Emily

  3. July 3, 2012

    Laura, I’m lovin’ it, and cravin’ some grits. Seriously, I grew up on the stuff; it was a staple in our household along with eggs and sausage and bacon . . . you name it; all considered the wrong things these days, although bacon does seem to be making a comeback. We have a friend who cooks his grits with heavy cream. Yes, an artery-buster for sure, but they are fine.

    Thanks for this funny, enjoyable posts about one of our quirkier Southernisms a lot of folks outside the region just don’t “get.”

  4. July 3, 2012

    The world needs more explanations of grits because there are way too many uninitiated people out there. When I was a freshman in college in North Carolina, another freshman who was from New York, turned to me as we passed French toast in the cafeteria offerings and asked, “Is that a grit?” Thanks, Laura, for such a delightful, informative piece.

  5. July 3, 2012

    Too funny! Grits are definitely one syllable for me. I still can’t wrap my head around how to cook them properly. Tried making them like oatmeal, but they left something to be desired. Hubby loves them, but he knows he has to cook ‘em. Just not my thing. Maybe I should get a copy of Deen’s cookbook…

  6. July 3, 2012

    Love your history of grits and the foody humor. I remember being served grits as a child when we moved to the south the first time. It wasn’t exactly a hit. :-p However, later in life, I discovered that I like them, fixed fat free at home, and there are an astonishing number of tasty ways to do that too.

    I especially enjoyed your movie references. I had no idea grits were so famous!

  7. July 3, 2012

    Thanks for this delightful expose on grits! I LOVE grits, cooked with a little salt and just a little butter. Ah, I can taste them now!

  8. July 3, 2012

    Ha! Laura, I love it!
    I’m more of your cream of wheat (farina!) kind of gal, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I’ve come to appreciate cheesy grits.

    Thank you for being part of the tour and instructing (reminding) people about the misunderstood grit. :D

  9. July 3, 2012

    Hysterical! You’ve got me craving “Shrimp and Grits Without the Shrimp” which was one of my Aunt Maude’s special recipes.

  10. laura
    July 3, 2012

    You guys are all too funny. In a gritsy sorta way.

    We should run a contest for the best Grits and [fill in the food] Without The [filled in food] a la Kim’s Aunt Maude.

  11. July 3, 2012

    Wellllllll …. being a southern California girl, recently transplanted in Texas, I think I’ll pass on the grits, thank you. (Y’all can ‘bless my heart’ to absolve me)
    Although, now I’m wondering if they’ll work on those gosh-durn fireants too.
    However …. those Dr. Pepper Pecans Cheese Straws … those sound yummy. I’ll take a Dr. Pepper anything anyday (preferably Dublin Dr. Pepper thank you). Am I forgiven for passing on the grits?

  12. laura
    July 3, 2012

    @Trisha — idn’t she precious??? Bless her heart.

  13. July 4, 2012

    What a fun read about a truly great southern staple. Well done. I will have to tell on my southern self here. As I matured into the means that allowed me to experience life outside my Alabama upbringing, I found myself in a nice ‘Little Italy’ establishment. When asked about the primo course I enquired about the makeup of parmesan polenta and, though still unsure how it would taste, I ordered it. Preparing for the secondo the waiter asked what I thought of the polenta. I told him next time someone that talks like I do asks about parmesan polenta, just say, “cheese grits.”

  14. laura
    July 4, 2012

    @ Homer: parmesan polenta must come from southern Italy.

  15. July 9, 2012

    Laura,
    I love, love your discourse on grits. I love them as a southern girl but grits are served just about everywhere that serves breakfast in California. It’s either the southern influence or the demand or they know the benefits. I love shrimp n’ grits, cheese grits and just plain grits with butter. This was wonderful.

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