“Grits, all right?” –Sophia Petrillo (half-heartedly feigning a Southern accent), The Golden Girls
There’s no greater signifier of Southern-ness than grits. The humble ground corn foodstuff emerged as the focal point of a brainstorming session that birthed the unSouthern site a couple of weeks ago, and it has been quite a journey. As I learned, having a mystical grit experience can reveal hidden truths.
When I was a kid, I only knew grits as a flavorless, runny breakfast also-ran that I tolerated but hardly enjoyed. As an adult, my palate matured, and I began to appreciate them. In retrospect, too, some of the cooks and diners of my childhood were not as skilled at preparing this delicacy as one would hope. All Southerners are not good cooks.
After a couple of culinary hajjes to New Orleans and Charleston, I understood how transcendent grits could be. But I also discovered I could do it myself. Although I am no chef or foodie, I am a Good Grit Cook.
There’s two keys to making delicious grits: follow the directions, and flavor to taste. That’s it. The same guidelines you would use for a microwave dinner, really. As a linear, by-the-book person, the possibility that I was eating bad grits throughout the first half of my life because someone wouldn’t read the package infuriates me.
The correct water to grits ratio is 4:1. Boil the four parts water, add the one part grits, and stir and scrape like crazy until they reach the consistency you like. I use a spade-like tool with a flat edge to scrape the bottom of the pan so nothing sticks. The heat needs to be low, partly to keep the grits from sticking and burning, but mainly to avoid the spatter when they bubble over. No one wants an Al Green experience. (Google “Al Green grits” if you need some background.)
If I were a foodie, I’d use the fresh-milled grits that take an hour to cook. As it happens, I use quick grits that are readily available at the supermarket. The package recommends around 15 minutes cooking time. However, I have never had crunchy grits, so for me it’s the consistency of the grits, not counting the minutes, that is important. I like grits thick and firm, the same way I like oatmeal. Hot slimy grains are not the breakfasts of champions.
As for how to season, that’s the fun part, because some folks will fight you over what to add to your grits.
My personal preference: first, I pop in a chicken bouillon cube when adding the grits to the boiling water. (Full disclosure: I stole that trick from my housemate Damon.) Then, when the grits are finished cooking, I fold in shredded cheese in the pan. Before digging in, I add hot sauce and black pepper. (See pic above.) Yum.
But there are other opinions on how to season and cook grits. For purists, butter and salt are the best options for seasoning. I’m ok with that.
It’s hard to go wrong with cheese, but I don’t think it’s cute to throw a whole slice of American cheese over a bowl of runny grits and call it cheese grits. That’s bogus. (Looking at you, Waffle House.)
A local Atlanta chain, The Flying Biscuit, serves an iteration known as Creamy, Dreamy Grits. Their magic ingredient: heavy cream. Lots of heavy cream. I’m not sure that they even use water. I can enjoy a couple of bites, but by the third dairy-drenched bite, I’m wishing I had ordered the hash browns. Blech.
Dairy, though, does not seem to be the sticking point for most people. Tennessee folks, at least where I grew up, are fine adding sugar to their grits. When I told my partner about this practice, he almost re-enacted a scene from The Exorcist. I’m not sure which one, but none of the options were pleasant.
My partner is from the Charleston, South Carolina, area, and sweet grits are a sacrilege to him. As a kid, I added honey, and sometimes sugar, to my grits, the same way I might add honey to a biscuit. The way he explains it, adding sugar to grits is like adding it to pasta or mashed potatoes. I still don’t get the aversion, but that analogy helps.
Another analogy also helps. Although I do hope you rustle up a mean batch of grits next weekend using my suggestions, the reason I linger over the preparation and garnishing of a Southern breakfast food has more to do with the analogy than with cooking tips.
I found grits bland and without substance in my younger years. I grew up with them because I was forced to. Upon reflection, and with the right modifications, I have come to regard them as a treasured and beloved food. Borrowing ingredients and hearing perspectives from loved ones who have different backgrounds has given this pedestrian dish new life and savoriness. Grits are transformed into something I don’t just tolerate–I cherish.
Not everything I post here will be as obvious in its Southernness, or as mawkish in its presentation, but it’s important for me to give credit where credit is due. Grits led me here, and they are emblematic of a heritage that I have avoided as distasteful, but also realize I need to embrace to move forward.