The south holds a soft spot in my heart. Georgia born and bred, I will one day be Georgia dead. We are loved by those who understand us and made fun of by those who don’t have a clue. They especially make fun of the foods we eat.
The easiest way to put some south in your mouth is to eat grits. I know that collard greens and turnip greens and fried cracklin’ are high up on the list of southern comfort foods, but grits hold first place in my mind.
Although there have been days when grits did not make their way to my plate, there has never (and I actually mean NEVER) been a day in my lifetime when we didn’t have grits on the shelf in the pantry. Not having grits at my house is more of a cause for panic than being out of milk and eggs and bacon. And as hard as it is for me to put bacon down the list from grits, for the sake of my heritage, that’s the way it has to be.
As a kid, I always woke to the sounds of the kitchen. Mama was always up first. 5:00 AM. She made her way to the kitchen and turned on the lights. We had two florescent ceiling fixtures, the double round bulbs with no cover. It was like turning on the search lights at Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
A pot of water was set on the stove for coffee. The flour bowl and sifter set on the counter. Bacon or sausage simmered in the iron skillet. A spoon rattling in an enamel pot. I could hear from my pillow the making of breakfast. Then, without saying a word, Mama would open my bedroom door. It was her way of bringing a boy out of the dead of sleep.
I groaned, but the aroma’s seeped their way into my brain. When she finally came back to my door, her order was simple.
“Time to get up. Breakfast is ready.”
This was our routine, and grits was always a part of it. Smooth and creamy. A pat of butter melting in the middle of a pool on my plate. Salted. Perfect. Sometimes I crumbled up the bacon and stirred it in.
“I’m sorry about the grits”, she would say. “They’re a little runny this morning.”
According to one source, three quarters of all the grits produced in the US are sold in the south. I suppose that the other 25% is shipped overseas, because the one time I lived north of the Mason Dixon there were no grits to be found on any grocery store shelf anywhere. We had to have them shipped to us from down home. Care packages arrived with toys for the kids and grits for us.
Two of my kids may have been born on foreign soil, but we were determined that they would be raised southern. They learned to say M’am and Sir, and they learned to savor the taste of grits.
I don’t understand the reluctance of folks from other parts of the country. I have friends from the north and west who, at the very mention of grits, will squint their eyes, make guttural noises, and fain mental seizures. You would think that I had suggested that they eat rat poison.
“No thanks. You can keep your grits.”
“Have you ever tried grits?”
“Nope, and I don’t plan on to.”
The problem is that unqualified restaurants have given grits a bad rap. There are just some foods that should not be served in restaurants where the cook has no idea what he or she is doing. If you are one of the unfortunate naysayers who did not grow up on grits, you should never trust your first taste to an unworthy source. Forming an opinion on grits from a small lumpy bowl on a table served by a cook from Philly is like forming your opinion of music by listening to the Jr. High ensemble’s version of Eye of the Tiger.
When making the perfect grits, the water should be brought to a soft boil before the grits are added. A gracious bit of salt is added just as the water starts to bubble. Stir once. Now pay attention here. This is perhaps the most important lesson. Slowly pour the grits into the water over a whisk while stirring. A sure sign of an untrained grits cook is to plop the grits into the water all at once and then stir with a spoon. My Mama would just walk away.
Turn the heat down as you stir. You do not want a vigorous boil. Slow heat is best. Too much heat and grits will bubble and spit like Old Faithful and burn the ever-living heck out of your stirring hand.
And keep stirring until you get a nice creamy texture. You cook them too much and you can lay brick with grits. Too little and you might as well call it grit soup.
The beauty of grits is that you can add all sorts of exotic ingredients. Grits are perfect with just salt and butter. Never add sugar unless you want to disappear quietly someplace where the body will never be found. Cheese grits are great. Cheese grits with bacon. The always-delicious Shrimp and grits. Some like to dice up a little pepper. And it never hurts to stir in a little red-eye gravy made from country ham.
One word of warning. I can’t be sure about this, but my theory is that some perverted non-grits-eating cynic invented instant grits to subvert the south. Without ever tasting the perfect grits, some guy put some pitiful dehydrated ground up corn in a little paper sack just to prove his point. Stay away from little packets of grits that say to add water and microwave. They are evil and should never have been approved as food suitable for human consumption.
And you should know, grits are not just for breakfast. It’s a slow Saturday. The weather has cooled off. A little drizzle is falling outside. My wife will ask me what I want for supper. “How ‘bout some grits.” She says, “Sounds good to me.”
The bowl is steaming. I stir in the butter. Taste. Just a touch more salt. And an old man is comforted by the taste of his childhood.