Joe Pesci’s very funny line from My Cousin Vinny is a concise summary of the state of knowledge of my neighboring Northeasterners with regard to this delicious Southern staple. The same people who will wait in line at a fancy New York restaurant to be served some hot chef’s latest polenta dish will cringe at the thought of being served grits. It sounds so common, grits. Our family owns a country inn in Newtown, Connecticut, and we can sell polenta by the ladlefuls, but can’t give grits away. It has led us to this realization about the difference between polenta and grits: about $7.95.
So, Joe, what is a grit? It’s ground, dried corn. Sometimes it’s old-fashioned stone-ground. Sometimes it’s new-fangled machine ground. But, real grits is just corn. Corn meal is the finer particles of the grind from the kernel’s core. Grits is the coarser particles from the whole kernel. (Polenta can be either if you put Parmigiano Reggiano on it.) Sometimes it’s hominy grits. This means the corn kernels have been processed in lye to remove the outer coating of the kernel. Then the kernels are dried and ground. Sometimes the corn is heirloom. This means it looks kind of funky and grows inefficiently and is supposed to taste better because the integrity hasn’t been bred out of it and it costs more. Sometimes it is organic which means it has been fed with animal waste products and not nasty chemicals, and it is supposed to be better for you and it costs more. If your grits is neither, I guess that means it was grown in giant fields by huge corporations using chemical bombs that bulk up the corn and kill the pesky critters which would eat it. It is not supposed to taste as good or be as good for you but it costs less.
I didn’t always love grits. I adored my mother but she was a crappy cook. She was a waitress and she worked too hard around food to waste her time at home cooking it. She loved simple grits and adhered to the Edna Lewis philosophy that grits is better left alone. She would buy it in a big-company box, cook it in water and add salt, pepper and margarine. Her preparation was a little too Spartan for me. One night I talked my father into letting me add chocolate milk to my bowl of grits. He agreed as long as I ate the whole bowl. If you know anything about aversion therapy you will understand that it took me many years to suppress the gag reflex that would allow me to eat grits again.
My favorite wife made me do it. We were married when we were both eighteen. We didn’t have a lot of money to waste on trivial stuff like food and we didn’t know much about cooking it anyway. But, that girl was from New Orleans and she could cook some mean red beans and rice and whip up some tasty grits, her. So, I had to eat them again or starve.
Here are some things you need to know about grits. If you treat it right, it is incredibly tasty all by itself. This morning I fixed myself a bowl of cheese grits, poached a fresh farm egg in chicken broth I made last night and fried a piece of good smoked ham in a little butter with just a touch of Madeira on the finish. I plopped the soft egg into a well I made in the grits and ate the ham on the side. It was so good I wanted applause but my wife is in Seattle and no one was there to cheer for me, so I just turned up the sound on the Vern Gosdin song I was listening to. Yes, she is the same favorite wife after lo these many years, but she may not last. The cute but partly crazy person has decided to become a gluten-free vegan. I told her at this stage of our lives I would rather her be a virgin than a vegan because I would at least have someone to eat with. The good news about grits: it is a perfect gluten-free vegan food.
Grits is versatile. It is a food palette that will accommodate a wide range of culinary endeavors. I recently made my newly vegan roommate a dinner of grits with a wild mushroom ragout and on another night a mess of collard greens with grits dumplings. I scored big points. Last night while she was gone I made myself some seriously un-vegan cheese grits. I cooked a big Berkshire pork chop from a local farm and made a little pan-gravy with the drippings, some butter and cream, diced Vidalia onion, jalapeño, and Granny Smith apple and deglazed the pan with 1926 vintage Calvados. (Hey, it was all I had!) I placed the pork chop artfully on the grits and ate the whole damn thing all by myself. I know this because the grits and pork chop were all gone this morning. So were the rest of the Calvados and a large measure of Pappy Van Winkle’s that I often sip delicately while cooking. I think dinner was really good, but truthfully; who the hell knows?
Try cooking with grits yourself. Use it in place of mashed potatoes for dinner or oatmeal for breakfast. Look up good recipes for low-country shrimp and grits or New Orleans grillades and grits or try grits with Edna Lewis’s spectacular tomato gravy. Heaven awaits.
I have included a couple of my recipes that are easy and quite palatable. Here are a couple of things I have learned. Cook your grits in chicken broth instead of water. This adds a huge measure of depth and complexity, which in wine geek speak means it tastes better. I played around with some organic grits I got at Whole Foods. Like many items I buy there, it costs more but wasn’t particularly better. I also bought a box of hominy “Quick Grits” (not instant) from Quaker. I slightly preferred the organic grits, but the Quaker was not bad. Last year I bought a case of stone-ground grits from Atkinson’s Mill in North Carolina. They were absolutely spectacular, tasting almost like fresh corn. Other good grits are available on-line from Anson Mills in South Carolina and Louisiana Pride Grist Mill from my home state. Several more are available quickly from Amazon.com. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the foodie establishment I tell you that I make my basic cheese grits with Velveeta. In my hometown it was the only product sold in the local cheese store. Like the Cheez Whiz on Philly cheesesteaks, it just seems right to me. But, by all means, explore your inner cheesemonger and load your grits up with Époisses or Roquefort or Limburger or Robiola or whatever your little old heart desires. That’s part of the beauty of grits. It will accommodate you.
(By the way, where I come from grits can be singular or plural, even in the same sentence. I use singular here because my fancy New York editors made me choose one or the other.)
(Ryder is a long-time publishing executive who eats and drinks with enthusiasm. He consults for two Connecticut restaurants, The Inn at Newtown and The Cookhouse in New Milford, both of which are owned by his son.)