If you live in the South – or even just visited – you’ve tasted grits. The perfect comfort food, this dish of softened corn can come with shrimp, mushrooms, cheese, or simply butter and salt. What’s the history of grits? It’s older than you might think.
“Very white, faire, and well tasted”
Historians aren’t sure how long Native Americans had been eating corn, but we do now for sure they were eating soft, mashed maize back in the 16th-century. Explorers such as Walter Raleigh were checking out land for a new settlement, and ate with the local Muskogee tribe. One of the meals was, as one of Raleigh’s men described it, “a very white, faire, and well tasted” boiled maize. First, the chef would grind the hominy on a stone mill, and then pass it through screens. The most finely-ground part was used as meal, while the coarse bits were prepared in the boiled dish. By the time Europeans built settlements and settled in for the long-haul, they also started eating boiled corn, though they called it hominy grits, as a short version of the Native “rockahomine.” The “grits” part referred to the texture.
A Southern tradition
As the centuries passed, grits remained a popular meal, especially in the South and South Carolina. There, the descendants of West African slaves (known as the Gullah Geechee) made shrimp and grits, because most made their living as fishermen and used the ocean’s resources. Shrimp and grits became a very popular breakfast. It took a professional chef to put shrimp and grits on the map, however. In 1982, Bill Neal made cheese grits with cheddar and parmesan, and then succulent jumbo shrimp, bacon, and mushrooms. When famed critic Craig Claiborne showed up and tried the dish, he wrote about it, even publishing Neal’s recipe in 1985. Grits spread beyond the South.
Today, interest in grits is growing. This is partially because farmers are starting to grow heirloom corn varieties and professional chefs are putting their spin on the dish. Does this betray the spirit of grits, however? Throughout the history of grits, it has always been the food of everyday people. It was cheap and everybody knew how to make it. Does it belong on the menu of a restaurant too expensive for most people to go to?
Down to the nitty-gritty
So, what are grits, exactly? They are made from very starchy types of corn, like dent. To get its classic texture, it goes through a process of soaking in an alkali for several days, so the hard hull is removed. This gives you hominy. There’s also stone-ground, fast-cooking, and instant grits. When shopping for grits, be aware that stone-ground grits gives you a bigger bite, while really finely-ground grits turn out very smooth and mushy. What type you should get depends on the recipe and dish. For a traditional side dish, you probably want a coarse or medium grind. It takes 45 minutes to cook stone-ground grits. If you want something authentic and tastier, go with stone-ground. It takes more work and may be harder to find, but it’s worth it. Stone-ground grits are also more nutritious.
How should you serve grits? The history of grits is full of inspiration. There’s cheese and shrimp, of course, but other southern recipes use ingredients like steak and gravy. Grits are also used to make other dishes beyond their usual porridge-like form, such as grits cakes, casseroles, and so on. Butter is also a must, though you can cook grits in salted water, chicken stock, or even milk. For the sweeter side to grits, try adding berries, maple syrup, or other sliced stone fruit to a bowl of grits cooked in water or milk.
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