They didn’t expect us at that Waffle House.
There were seven of us, brown-faced, black-haired, and distinctly foreign, though my brother and I spoke English as American kids did, with a liberal peppering of words like “cool,” “awesome,” and the occasional Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-inspired “radical.”
It was 1990 and cultural diversity had barely crept into rural Alabama. Six yards of Indian-spun silk wrapped my grandmother’s tiny frame while the rest of the Waffle House’s guests wore denim and flannel.
We ordered uncertainly. We understood omelets, waffles, and toast but could not decipher “grits.” A prominent part of the menu, listed as a side dish on half of the orders, we asked our waitress whether grits were vegetarian and she nodded at us, assuming possibly that we had lost our minds.
Long after the pecan waffles were eaten, the grits remained in a cracked ceramic bowl at the corner of the table. The white translucent slop could have been used in horror movies as a stand-in for dissected and boiled brains. Hesitantly, I dug my fork into the sticky goo.
One bite was enough. The grits straddled the unpleasant textures of mushy, lumpy, and grainy, while simultaneously lacking any real flavor. Neither butter nor salt improved them and I swore grits off at nine years old. I could not understand these Southerners and their fascination with the world’s worst food.
Some 500 years ago, Sir Walter Raleigh landed in present-day Virginia with an expedition crew to document the produce and peoples of the Americas. Raleigh’s second-in-command raved about the foods and vegetables the hospitable natives presented. Of these, Raleigh and his crew particularly appreciated the preparation of corn, which was described as “very white, faire and well tasted.” Today, we call that dish hominy.
Forget about apple pie; hominy is the original American food. Three thousand years ago, in approximately 1500 B.C., Guatemalan tribes prepared hominy by soaking corn kernels in an alkaline mixture of wood ash and water that made a natural lye. The caustic lye ate away the exterior skin of the corn, in a process known as nixtamalization, leaving the soft, plump interior behind.
For nearly 2,500 years, hominy remained an essential Native American food. Corn was so critical to tribal cuisine that many tribes called corn maize, meaning “that which sustains life.” Hominy was a versatile and nutritious food because the nixtamalization process added niacin to the corn and helped balance essential amino acids in the body. Often, the tribes ate hominy “as is”, carrying it with them on nomadic voyages, or using it as an ingredient in dishes like posole stew.
Hominy was also ground into small particles of meal, which was baked into cornbread, pounded into tortillas, and boiled with water or milk into what we call hominy grits. The word “grits” has disputed origins: some believe that coarse ground cornmeal was called grits after the metal “grates” that Native Americans used to shred the corn kernels; others claim that grits comes from the word “grist,” meaning ground grain; still others say that grits came from the “gritty” texture of the coarse cornmeal preparation.
Regardless of the origin of the word, in the next century, corn became “more pretious than silver” to the colonists. When British families landed in Virginia, the Native Americans served hominy to the Jamestown settlers. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to grow and prepare corn, helping them survive the hard early years. Lewis and Clark carried almost 26 bushels of hominy, described as “lyed corn,” with them on their explorations across the country. For a very long time, hominy grits sustained the fledgling American colony.
In the early 1900s, a disease named pellagra reached epidemic proportions in the American South. Pellagra caused gruesome skin lesions, hair loss, nerve damage, aggression, and eventually dementia and death. Pellagra victims were often branded as “lepers” and socially isolated, quarantined, or even refused admission in local hospitals. Between 1902 to 1945, three million cases of pellagra were diagnosed in the South; of those, 100,000 people died. Doctors observed that pellagra sufferers tended to be poor and subsist on a corn-based diet. Puzzled, they prescribed a litany of unhelpful treatments, from doses of arsenic and quinine to partial appendectomy and static electric shock therapy.
The solution, however, lay in the diet of the Southern poor. Between the time of early colonization to the Civil War, corn and hominy transformed from being America’s most prized food into poverty cuisine. As the colonists gained wealth and acquired slaves, Americans “drew boundaries between what the slavers and the slaves ate in the South,” explains soul food scholar Adrian Miller.
Slaves’ weekly rations consisted of cornmeal, pork, and molasses or occasionally sweet potatoes, while the plantation owners ate imported wheat bread and meats. Cornmeal and grits, in particular, were the most important part of the slaves’ daily diet because corn was a cheap and filling source of food. In the antebellum South, 10 acres of corn would be planted for each slave owned in a plantation. Anna Miller, a former slave, once said, “White flour, we don’ know what dat tastes like. Just know what it looks like.”
As cornmeal and corn became a poverty food, the practice of nixtamalization and making hominy waned. Nixtamalization is a long process: corn must be picked and shucked while damp, clean wood ash is left to rot. The rotten ash is mixed with water to create a mud. The shucked corn and mud mixture boil over a fire and, when the hulls begin to fall apart, the pot is removed from the heat. Finally, the corn kernels must be rinsed repeatedly until the eyes and hull are completely removed and only the soft white interior remains.
Simply put, the nixtamalization process was too labor intensive for those with limited free time and resources. Instead, slaves — and, in the post Civil War-era, sharecroppers and Southern white families who had lost their wealth — ate yellow grits, or dried corn ground into a coarse meal and boiled with water into a porridge-like consistency. Yellow grits became an essential part of the daily diet after the Civil War, while the nixtamalized hominy lost favor.
It was this lack of nixtamalization that led to pellagra. Nixtamalization adds niacin to the corn. Niacin deficiency causes pellagra. Because poor Southerners had stopped making hominy and, instead, were simply eating ground cornmeal as cornbread and grits for the majority of their daily meals, they developed pellagra. Once doctors realized the problem, they began insisting that patients eat more diverse foods, including dried yeast, which was high in niacin. Niacin-enriched breads became readily available during World War II, ending the pellagra epidemic in 1945.
It also reduced Southerners’ dependence on grits.
The area south of the Mason-Dixon line is today known as the Grits Belt, with 75% of grits consumption in the United States located in the swath of states between Texas and North Carolina. It’s the frequent butt of Southern jokes: women dub themselves GRITS (Girls Raised in the South) and Joe Pesci’s character in My Cousin Vinny famously cross-examined a witness on his grits cooking methodology. As Joe Pesci pestered him, the witness grew affronted, responding, “No self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits.”
But, despite the pop culture acceptance of grits as a Southern essential, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, grits consumption has steadily decreased over the last century, with hominy now barely registering as a consumed grain. In 1909, 4.5 pounds of hominy and grits were consumed per capita in the United States; in 1997, 2.6 pounds of hominy and grits were consumed per capita and the numbers continue to dwindle.
The consumption is largely racially and socioeconomically divided. A 1986 study found that low-income families were five times more likely to eat grits than their wealthier neighbors. A 2000 study by The New York Times found that grits appeared in only 11% of white families’ homes, whereas 51% of black families had grits in their kitchens.
At the same time, there is now a resurgence in interest in antebellum grits. It’s been many years since I first tasted those lumpy instant grits at that Waffle House. In the intervening span, I’ve come to love America’s first food.
At its heart, grits are a simple food, made strictly by boiling coarse cornmeal, water, and salt together, requiring high quality ingredients, patience, and a dab hand at the stove to avoid lumps, graininess, and uneven textures. It is this that I believe separates the grits lovers from the grits haters: those who do not like grits simply have not had them cooked properly, as I had not at that Waffle House.
I cook grits with milk, water, and salt, over very low heat for almost half an hour, stirring frequently until the cornmeal achieves a thick yet loose consistency. I like my grits liberally sprinkled with hard cheese, which melts through, leaving a pleasant cheesy aftertaste, though I know others who like their grits with cheddar or even Kraft American cheese. Salt and pepper are a necessity, as is the correct proportion of butter, since excess butter leaves the grits greasy, while not enough butter lessens the flavor profile.
But, the real key, of course, is the cornmeal itself. I prefer slow cooked grains, which catapult the sweet corn flavor to better heights, leaving behind the cardboard atrocity of instant grits. And, if I have a choice, I choose grits from Red Mule Grits, located in Athens, Georgia.
Red Mule Grits is the brainchild of the lovely Tim and Alice Mills. On one hot Georgia afternoon, Tim and Alice were out in their kitchen garden picking beans when Tim heard a “distinct voice” telling him that he needed to build an “alternative work source.” Tim conceived the idea of a grist mill run by mule power, rather than electricity or water, and began the work of creating the mill, though he had never designed a mill before. Tim tinkered with parts in his spare time, rummaging in junkyards and garage sales, and designed the mill based on trial and error.
Today, the design is the same that he built fifteen years ago. The rear axle of a truck is firmly stuck into the ground in their front yard. A long metal shaft is connected to the axle and Tim harnesses Luke to that shaft. Luke is a beautiful chestnut mule with a gentle face and broad shoulders on a 1,250-pound frame. He has the strength of a draft horse and is the power behind Red Mule Grits’ gristmill.
Luke plods slowly around in a circle under a spreading oak tree, turning a metal shaft that enters a small wooden shed. Inside the shed, Tim pours dried organic corn into a metal funnel. The dried corn pushes through two rotating steel grinders and then drops into a screened cylinder. The ground corn filters between different buckets, depending on the size of the grind. The finely ground corn is sold as cornmeal or the cheekily named Polenta de Georgia, while the coarse ground meal sells as grits.
It’s the grits that have made Tim and Alice’s two-person-and-one-donkey shop famous. James Beard Award winning restaurateur Hugh Acheson began using their grits at his Five and Ten restaurant in Athens, Georgia, and continues to use their grits in his Atlanta-based restaurants. Many of Atlanta’s gourmet restaurants use Red Mule Grits, and Alice and Tim ship their grits to restaurants in Chicago, California, and Florida. Chef Shane Touhy of the now-closed Dogwood Restaurant explained why he used Red Mule Grits, “The grits have a light grind, almost feathery, but still have the bite you want in grits . . . . Even cooking them the way I do with heavy cream and butter, the grits still have an almost whipped and airy quality to them.”
Red Mule Grits uses no preservatives or alkaline in their product. The ingredient list is refreshingly minimal. They use one ingredient and one ingredient only in their grits: high quality organic corn.
I asked Alice why chefs love their grits and she replied, “We grind to order. There is a definite difference in the freshness of that product when you’re grinding it then rather than grinding and putting it away and pulling it out as needed . . . . We grind when the restaurant calls.” Because they grind in small batches and do not use large stones which slightly heat the corn, the corn retains its nutritional value and full sweet flavor during the grind.
Three years back, to keep up with increasing demand, Tim and Alice doubled their production capacity by buying a second black mule named Chet. Last year, they ground 50 tons of corn and added several Georgia school systems, as well as more high-end restaurants, to their customer list.
Nearly every chef who uses Red Mule Grits makes one dish: shrimp and grits. Initially a simple breakfast dish eaten by Lowcountry fishermen, shrimp and grits has now been elevated to “one of the archetypal dishes of Southern cuisine,” says Southern writer Robert Moss. Moss believes that Bill Neal of the famed Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was the one who launched shrimp and grits into high society, leading The New York Times and Food & Wine to profile the restaurant and its bestselling dish. Today, any restaurant that aspires to Southern cuisine must serve shrimp and grits.
Chef Sammy Davis Jr. (and, yes, that is his real name) at Sweet Auburn Seafood serves some of the best shrimp and grits in Atlanta. His shrimp and grits combine Lowcountry cream sauce, chicken sausage, and melted tomatoes on top of cheese grits that are cooked slowly with milk. The grits are creamy, savory, and immensely satisfying, marrying the delicate texture of the cornmeal with salty Parmesan and pepper. The chef frequently gets messages and e-mails from guests who thank him for converting them from grits-haters to grits-lovers. I have seen people at his restaurant furtively sticking their fingers into the bowls to ensure that they get the very last licks.
I asked him about the secret to his grits and he laughed. “We do a lot of work to the grits to make them great,” he said. “A lot of Southern chefs focus on the sauce when they’re making shrimp and grits, but I think that’s a mistake. The grits have to be excellent because that’s the base of the dish.” It’s a valid point and one that should not be forgotten: grits have always been at the base of American cuisine.
1 cup milk (can be skim, lowfat, or whole)
2 cups water
1/2 cup stone ground/mule ground grits (I like Red Mule Grits and Anson Mill Grits best)
1 tablespoon of butter
Bring milk and water to a simmer and immediately reduce the heat to medium-low so that the milk does not scorch the bottom of the pan. Slowly pour grits into the milk and water and carefully stir until completely incorporated. Keep heat on low and stir frequently to prevent sticking and lumps. Cook grits for about 30 to 45 minutes, until they reach your preferred texture. Add water if you want your grits thinner but note that the texture will thicken up slightly once you take it off the stove. Generously season with salt and and place pats of butter on top.
About Akila McConnell
Akila McConnell's mind (and waistline) expands as she travels and eats her way around the world. She is based in Atlanta, Georgia, where she's currently eating sweet fuzzy peaches and running Atlanta Food Walks food tours that focus on the history and anthropology of Southern food. You can find her food and travel writing at The Road Forks and About.com Food Travel, as well as numerous magazines and websites.