A few weeks ago I almost had my Southern gentleman’s card revoked. Blame it on stress, irresponsibility, a hangover, or blame it on one of the many signs that I may, indeed, be losing my mind. But for the first time in my life I did something I never thought I would do.
I ran out of grits.
This isn’t one of those things one gets over easily. The disappointment in oneself could force one into hiding, but here I am foolishly laying my integrity on the line for all to see. For the entirety of my adult life I have vowed to never let an onion go to waste and to never run out of grits. When this nightmare finally happened, the weight of the situation set me off spiraling into thoughts of a world without grits, how they got here and why anyone would go without them.
They’re cheap. They are easy to prepare. They go with any meal at any time of day. If you don’t monkey with them too much, grits are a relatively healthy way to fill your belly. Most importantly they are delicious. Once you’ve had the right grits they are irreplaceable.
I’m reminded of the time when my parents were dating, my mom traveled to Minnesota with my dad’s family to visit his relatives on my grandfather’s side. Keep in mind, these are fantastic people with that Garrison Keillor-esque sense of humor, but the conversation as I am told went like this:
“Darryl, what does Karen like for breakfast?” asked my Yankee kinfolk.
“Well, she likes grits and things like that,” said my future dad.
“We have cream of wheat.”
“What’s that?” my father replied, not skeptical enough.
“It’s kind of like grits.”
There are few ways to boil the blood of a 5-foot-2 kind-hearted woman from the Free State of Jones, but this was about as well received by my young mother as the time my dad talked her into riding the Zipper at the South Mississippi Fair. One of these events was the first time he ever heard her curse. The other was the second.
Thankfully it wasn’t enough of an offense to ruin their courtship. A few short years later I came along and learned the words to every Elvis song by age 3. Or so I thought. When the King would finale with “My Way,” I’d curl my lip and sing along flawlessly until the line, “Regrets…I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.” It made much more sense, and my tender ears believed, that the word “regrets” was actually “grits.” I won’t divulge the age at which I realized my error.
The point I am trying to make is that grits were an important part of my upbringing. But don’t get the idea that I’m some weirdo who eats them every day. I take a few days off a month.
So where did they come from? The history of grits traces back to Native Americans and their many preparations of corn. Some of you may think grits only come from hominy (alkali-treated corn), but more often straight corn is the base. The color of the kernel dictates the color of the grits.
I personally don’t care if it’s hominy or not. I usually choose white grits over yellow, but mainly because that’s how I choose cornmeal. I’ll eat any of those. But I don’t go for instant grits. I can’t stand the individual packs similar to oatmeal. Some of these have different flavors like butter or fake bacon. Gross.
That being said, I have a couple of options such as quick or whole kernel. Whole kernel grits need to be brought to a boil and then simmered for about 20 minutes. This will make a fine pot of breakfast heaven, but I generally purchase quick grits. This is not to be confused with the horrible abomination that is instant grits. Quick grits can be yellow or white but the hull and the germ are removed and therefore take only about 5 to 6 minutes to prepare.
Straight grits (whole kernel or quick) are cooked at a 4-to-1 ratio of water to grits, brought to a boil and simmered. To dress them up, the first step is to add butter and cheese. I do this at the end of the cooking, when the liquid is absorbed, and I add a good bit of heavy cream or whole milk equal to or less than the amount of dry grits. This makes the dish creamier and the cheese melts so much better.
Proper cheese is a disputed topic. Really it could be whatever suits your fancy. Shredded cheddar changes the color of white grits as does the Kraft single. Smoked gouda is one of the best cheeses for grits. My personal favorite is to find a really creamy havarti and not overdo it. I have never had good results with Swiss, mozzarella or flavored goat cheese. I’d also avoid any of those delicious chalky cheeses that beckon for wine. Whatever you are using, grate your own. Don’t buy pre-shredded cheese.
I’m the kind of Waffle House customer that orders grits smothered, covered, chunked, diced and peppered. Smothered with onions, covered with cheese, chunked with ham, diced with tomatoes and peppered with jalapeños, it is an attention-getter for something as simple as grits. At home I don’t stray far from this preparation, as I love bell pepper, onion, garlic and green onion sausage softened in a little oil for a topping.
The past decade or so has seen a rise in the popularity of shrimp and grits. Of course I am cool with that, happily seeing grits on more menus than ever. But the problem is that shrimp and grits used to be a meal of the poor. It was a cheap fix. For $30 a bowl in some restaurants, I’ll pass. But it certainly raises the status.
Keep your cream of wheat, oatmeal and porridge. Grits are the true American food!