True Grits

“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.

Whither unSouthern?

 “Dr. Newman is a guest in our home. If I’m self-conscious, he’ll be ill at ease. I can’t allow that to happen. It would be… un-Southern.” –Blanche Devereaux, The Golden Girls

What does it mean to be Southern? Ask ten people, and you’ll get fifteen answers. The rules of engagement for being a “real” Southerner shift with the company and the conversation. For as long as I’ve been tuned into the conversation about Southern identity, it has been ill-defined, contradictory, and often unhelpful.

So I have largely abstained from the conversation. For most of my life, I have shied from my Southern background. It’s a footnote, an annoying detail, something I would apologize for if it weren’t for my belief in embracing one’s identity. My refusal to be Southern was itself ill-defined, contradictory, and unhelpful.

It wasn’t until I began entertaining the idea of refreshing my online writing perspective that I stumbled upon the idea of “unSouthern.” The word has been buried in the cedar chest of my working lexicon, owing to its usage in the Golden Girls episode “A Little Romance.” As quoted above by the self-absorbed Blanche Devereaux, one of our most famous but not exactly shining examples of Southern-ness, the word is a motivational tool. Blanche must rally herself from being uncomfortable with a visitor who’s “different” and lift herself to a higher ideal of gentility and graciousness.

Yes, it’s the trope of Southern hospitality. This trope is broadly interpreted as either (1) a superficial scam to cover up brutal indifference to widespread social inequality; or (2) an earnest neighborliness that allows Southerners to speak freely with strangers and offer them the food from their plates and the clothes from their backs, as needed or requested. Yet again, ill-defined, contradictory… and you know the rest.

I never gave the word “un-Southern” a second thought. But as I was riffing on blog discussion topics one evening a couple of weeks ago, the topic of grits came up. (If all goes as planned, that will be the topic of my next post. Exciting, right?) I started relating (to myself) the proper method for cooking and serving grits. I gave my input on the heated discussion about what accompaniments go with grits and which belong far, far away from them. Before I knew it, I had been brainstorming for a half hour. About ground-up corn.

In a moment of self-awareness, I asked myself, “Why are you so invested in this topic? You’re not even really Southern. You’re

[wait for it]

unSouthern!

In that moment, it hit home for me. And the idea for this place was born.

One of my favorite arguments in defense of mainstream pop culture is that the people who call themselves “alternative” or “indie” devote so much effort to avoiding or contradicting the conventions of the mainstream that they are often just as beholden to its rules as the rest of us, only in negative. I had done the same with my Southern identity. I spent so much time running away from it that it became as important to me as it was for Blanche.

There will be plenty of time for my navel-gazing in the posts ahead. I can offer plenty of examples of my shunning, running, avoiding, and generally plugging my ears and singing a monotone la-la-la whenever the notion of my being associated with the South arose.

At the same time, I am fluent in grits and fried chicken. I sometimes describe my ancestry as hillbilly on my dad’s side and redneck on my mom’s side. When I volunteer this information, or the places I grew up, as part of regular conversation, the primary reason I do so is to observe the listener’s incredulity. “Wow! I never would have known!” How those words fill me with pride.

UnSouthern is a way for me to continue to address both sides of the coin that is my regional heritage. I’m proud that my background lies in a region so culturally rich, but I’m also proud that I can look on much of it as a bemused outsider who was able to make his own rules about how to experience and explain life.

I escaped the gravity of things I label as Southern and undesirable — xenophobia and chewing tobacco, to name a couple.

I discarded some other regional-identified traits that are not inherently good or bad, like the drawl and the colorful word choices Southerners are known for, and replaced them with a drier approach to language that better suits my personality.

Anything I kept of my Southern identity, I did so because it’s just SO good to me (fried chicken again) or because I didn’t feel the effort to purge it was necessary. None of it remained purposely. (Except maybe “y’all”–but that’s a whole post unto itself.)

The point of this blog isn’t to excuse myself for rejecting my Southern identity. It isn’t to self-congratulate for reinventing myself as a regional free agent and world citizen after being raised in the hills of Tennessee. It also isn’t designed to provide the same tired riffs on Southern goofiness and unsophistication. It’s not even really about Southern-ness at all.

UnSouthern is a jump-off point, a way of orienting myself in the world. When I send a flaming political dagger to someone, it’s coming from the South. When I offer a pop culture theory, it’s all based on what I’ve seen and done here. When I give a heartfelt social critique, it’s as a Southern citizen who’s lived his entire existence based within a 300-mile stretch from Gamaliel, Kentucky, to Riverdale, Georgia.

As much as I want to run away from it, it’s literally where it all comes from. As far as I may stray from my Southern identity, it won’t go away.

And so it is here, in this space: tomorrow may be grits, but the day after could be Nordic art or The War on Christmas or Black Lives Matter. Southerners are known as a chatty people, and maybe I can channel that to my advantage as I navigate this space and describe the world from my perspective.

I hope y’all will join me.