The Glory of Grits: An American Renaissance

(Published on April 13, 2015 on Paste)

Grits don’t get their due in the culinary world. Many international cuisines have something similar to grits, like porridge or polenta, but grits are so ingrained in the culture of the American South, it’s on menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Growing up in Middle Georgia, I was exposed to grits at an early age, but it wasn’t until graduate school in New York that I really learned to love them. It’s all in how they’re prepared.

Good grits are like a great steak: you can have the greatest product, but if you botch the execution, then good luck trying to salvage the flavor.

Grits have experienced a resurgence as of late, and it’s because of people like chef-of-the-moment Sean Brock and millers like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and the Freeman family in Bullock County, Georgia. Ubiquitous in the South, grits are popping up all over the country because a new crop of great chefs have left the South and headed to major areas where grits may not be popular, or even heard of.

But grits aren’t just a Southern staple, no matter how hard us Southerners really like to say they are. John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, says that grits are not relegated to the South only, but instead are a national dish that everyone enjoys.

“Grits are an American dish,” he said. “They’re ground corn, and what’s more American than corn?”

The most well-known grits dish would probably be shrimp and grits, a Lowcountry specialty that has many iterations both in the South and all over the country. When I worked in Charleston, South Carolina, I wrote a blog for the Post and Courier about finding the best shrimp and grits in the city, and in a not very scientific but equally delicious taste test, Hominy Grill won out because it was just a plain bowl of grilled shrimp and really nice grits, with no overly zealous sprinkling of cheese or gravy. To me, Brock’s Husk version of shrimp and grits had good flavor, but too much going on in the bowl.

And that’s the thing about grits: they don’t need anything special to make them notable. All you need are good grits — like Anson Mills, Freeman’s or Geechee Boy , cold water, a good saucepan and delicious, delicious butter. The grits themselves need to be the star, so you shouldn’t skimp on the main product.

Sure, you can buy the grocery store version with a particular grains magnate on the box, but those are, as Edge says, “De-germinated, Romer mill [industrial-grade grain mills] grits that cooked up to the consistency of gruel, or library paste that didn’t taste like anything. They were a conveyance for flavors, like butter or cheese.”

Not only do they not taste like anything except the flavors you put into them, they don’t taste like corn, which is what grits are and should taste like. And that’s how many people see grits, just as a vehicle for other flavors. But oh how magical they can be on their own.

That’s why Anson Mills and Geechee Boy Mill are so important, because they mill corns that are old world. By that, I mean they cultivate heirloom corn that has nearly disappeared in America. This corn is then ground using stone mills, not factory machines, to achieve the perfect consistency that preserves the integrity and the flavor of the corn.

That is the most important thing about grits, and while you don’t need to buy heirloom corn, stone ground grits that have not been extensively processed are ideal because they still contain that rich and nutty corn flavor. The corn doesn’t contain the additives that most grocery store grits, or “quick” grits, contain to be shelf-stable, and therefore they retain their corn flavor that grit lovers, well, love.

If you can’t find anything except those boxed varieties, there are several places on the Internet that sell and ship the real McCoy right to your doorstep, and if I can plug one company, order from Freeman’s Mill out of Bulloch County. They’re about an hour from my home in Savannah, and they are absolutely delicious. I’m partial to the yellow corn grits, not because they offer any difference in flavor, but I prefer the yellow color because they just remind me of corn.

If you can’t find any, or simply don’t want to look, then any of those quick or instant grits will do the trick — just know you’re not really experiencing grits the way they should be experienced.

One of my favorite dishes to eat is shrimp and grits, but that’s not my favorite way to serve grits. I like them simple and not adorned by too many other things, just salt, pepper, butter and a couple of fried eggs over the top. It’s not the sexiest dish in the world, but hot damn if it isn’t delicious.

To start, I soak my grits overnight, very much like Brock describes in Heritage. I, however, don’t use spring water to do it because I’m a journalist and don’t make celebrity chef kind of money, so tap will do. I soak my grits for at least eight hours, and this does a couple of things. First, it softens the grits so they don’t take as long to cook, and second, it separates the grits from the chaff so that I can scoop them out and they won’t screw up the cooking process. The chaff is the outer husk of the grits, and no matter how much you soak them, they don’t soften. If they get into your grits, they will not cook and ruin the consistency of your dish.

Cooking grits is an exercise in patience, and that may be why my girlfriend isn’t a huge fan of them. You know how those New Yorkers are. Brock wrote in his gorgeous cookbook Heritage that when he was coming up in the culinary world, every time he or anyone in the kitchen passed a pot of grits cooking on the stove, they were always told to give it a stir. I’m a firm believer that grits should never be left unattended because they can go from perfect to burnt in the blink of an eye. Just give them an extra stir.

Brock cooks his grits with a bay leaf, and many cooks and chefs alike cook their grits in milk or stock, but that’s not how I operate. I cook the grits in the same water they soaked in, minus the husks and chaff, because that water is full of pure corn flavor. Why are you going to leave that out?

Depending on the grits, they can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to cook, and I know that sounds like a long time, but trust me, they’re worth it. I start by cranking up the heat on high to get a nice rolling boil on the water, and then turn it down to medium-low to make sure they bubble but don’t scorch the grits on the bottom of the pot. You constantly want to stir while the water boils to make sure nothing sticks.

I put pads of butter in as I go, and it helps me gauge how creamy I want the grits to be. At the end I taste, add salt and pepper and then add just a touch more butter, because I’m southern and I love me some butter. You can add cheese, and in some cases cheese is a good thing, but if you’re having real, authentic grits for the first time, skip the cheese and just go all in on the real thing.

Grits are experiencing a resurgence thanks to people like Brock and Roberts, and to the tireless work of Edge and other academics exposing more and more people to southern food culture. Like anything, grits cooked with integrity and care can be a life-changing experience, and you might just find a new favorite food in something as simple as stone ground corn grits.

Nic Bell is a graduate of the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. His work has appeared in The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina. Nic is currently working as a digital executive producer at a Savannah television station. Follow him on Twitter at @bell_hop.