Food, Feeding, and Sociality in the South: The Troubling Case of “The Grit”

I find that it’s a common mistake we make, to assume that the foods with which we are familiar are also familiar to everyone.  This misapprehension of ubiquity can be the root of some rather interesting encounters at grocery stores and out in the world in general.  I did go on at some length about the differences in Southern cuisine, last time we visited this thread.  However, I think I can say without being too far wrong, that even if a person who was raised in the South doesn’t care to eat them or has never touched them with a ten foot pole, they know what is meant by grits.  Just as familiar are greens, though we’ll get into the different types of green, when and why you eat them, and what their respective nutritive content is in another segment.

First, let’s talk grits.  And by that, I am not referring to the humorous–and sometimes bawdy–acronym of G.R.I.T.S., which stands for Girls Raised in the South.  Rather, grits are a staple food that originated with the indigenous peoples of the Southeast and are still consumed today.  They are a product made of ground corn, coarser than cornmeal, but eaten in a similar fashion.  Now, you folks from the North and Midwest may be familiar with them as a hot cereal, typically eaten sweet, the way oatmeal or Cream of Wheat is prepared. That, much like sweet cornbread, is a thing not done on Southern tables, as a matter of course.  Let us, for a moment, ignore the massive influxes of people from the North and Midwest during several points in the past two hundred years, bringing their table manners and their particular food customs with them.

No, grits are a savory affair, hereabouts.  They may be eaten plain with salt and pepper, they may be dressed up with sausage and cheese, or they may provide the binder for a breakfast casserole.  When I moved out to Albuquerque, I had trouble getting people to understand what I was asking for.  It’s not that I have a thick Southern accent that twists and bends my words–stuffing a few extra syllables in there for added linguistic insulation against the possibility that someone might actually understand my meaning.  I hardly have any accent at all, unless I’m sassing someone, telling someone not to sass me, or recounting a story about the South, which likely involves sassing in some way.

They do eat ground corn in the Southwest, in the form of mush or stuffed inside other foods and food wrappers.  But grits are not a part of their cultural consciousness.  They present the corn on their tables in a different way.  Which is fine.  It was fascinating to eat blue corn mush with red chili and venison.  But it wasn’t home.  And what I missed most, besides the humidity and the trees, was the food and food themes with which I’d grown up.  I didn’t blame them for looking at me strangely when I spoke of grits.  It was something that didn’t translate–just as some phrases in other languages have no direct translation.  It was simply one of those things.

Anyway, a poor grocery clerk actually asked me, “What’s a grit?” When I explained to him what they were, and that they were always plural–grits, never a single grit, which would be like having half a pair of pants–he led me to to the cereal isle to some piddling excuse for grits, gathering dust all alone on a bottom shelf.  I saw to my ultimate horror that they were “Quick Grits.”  Dear god, preserve me from quick grits.  They taste about like you’d imagine shit and sawdust would taste, based on contextual evidence.  For those of you who have never had anything else, I can imagine this might be confusing.

Real grits are stone ground and they could be compared to quick grits much as you might compare brown rice to white and steel-cut oats to the rolled variety.  They take a lot longer to cook, and require some constant attention, because the last thing you want are clumpy grits.  As well, you’ve got to wash them before you cook them, kind of like you do with Gunpowder green tea.  The chaff will float to the surface and the ground bits of corn will sink to the bottom.  If you’ve never had properly made grits, I don’t wonder that you can’t imagine how good they are when well-prepared.  But you’ll just have to find out for yourself what Deep South Polenta is.  My work here is done.

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5 thoughts on “Food, Feeding, and Sociality in the South: The Troubling Case of “The Grit”

    1. I have had the Supper Truck’s interpretation. Sadly, I did not have the chance to sample those at Vick’s before leaving Albuquerque. My consolation is that I’ve returned to the Source, and can now find traditional grits in a number of places.

  1. I am an Easterner by birth and a Midwesterner at present, but I spent six years living in Tennessee, during which time I learned that grits was a three-syllable word. I found myself a cookbook at the time by Courtney Parker called How to Eat Like a Southerner (and Live to Tell the Tale) with lighter versions of traditional southern food. I don’t remember the recipes being that great, but the stories and her style of writing were wonderful. I still remember her talking about Northerners in New York making fun of grits while they toyed with their couscous at fancy Manhattan restaurants. My favorite recipe remains one I found on Epicurious: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Folly-Island-Shrimp-and-Grits-787.

    1. Hey there, Paula! It’s great to see you this side of twitter. Thanks for reading and your wonderful comment, which I’ll address better later. At the moment I’m all in knots about Byronic Heroes! So, the best I can do is wiggle my linguistic toes at you.

    2. Hey there, Paula! It’s great to see you this side of twitter. Thanks for reading and your wonderful comment, which I’ll address better later. At the moment I’m all in knots about Byronic Heroes! So, the best I can do is wiggle my linguistic toes at you.

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