Thursday, March 24, 2011

Inside Looking In: "What's a grit?"

More than any other region in America, the South has a distinct flavor. That's not news to anyone, I suppose, but to an outsider, the unique ingredients can seem pretty exotic, maybe even confusing. Everyone is familiar with fried chicken, but pairing chicken with waffles is not as wide-spread, even if it is delicious. "Chitlins" are famous, but outsiders tend to focus more on the source more than the product, which makes them a kind of unfortunate ambassador of Southern food - and they're not nearly as common as people seem to think.

One of the more enigmatic food items, virtually unknown outside the Southern states, is (are?) grits. A person of northern persuasion might ask, "What's a grit?" To be honest, I don't know myself, and I've lived here for years now.

Grits are measured in estimates. This is one "mess" of grits.

I do know that grits come from corn. I think I've had corn every way it can be had - popcorn, creamed corn, "nibblet" corn, corn on the cob (boiled, grilled, and even deep fried just to prove that we can)... hominy, tortillas, corn chowder, corn syrup, corn liquor... the list can go on, and we can have a montage of me scrubbing floors listing the different kinds and uses of corn, but we're not going to do that.

Grits are almost unique, though. The corn kernels are fed into a mill that grinds them to a particular consistency. A fine grind turns into corn starch, a useful thickener in lots of recipes. A slightly coarser grind becomes cornmeal, the base for corn bread, corn muffins, and a great crust for fried catfish. Crank the coarseness to 11 and you have grits - add hot water and you have a paradox.

I think that the biggest misconception about grits is the "grit" part. I suspect that Non-Southern Individuals think that eating grits is similar to eating a porridge made from sand. Sounds like something dentists would support, just like Mountain Dew, jawbreakers, and bare-fist boxing. But grits, real grits, are kind of creamy. And still gritty. But the grits never grind, so it's more of a texture than a grittiness; I don't really know how to explain that. How can it be creamy and gritty? Smooth and bumpy?

The confusion doesn't end there. Ask yourself a simple question: how long does it take to cook "quick" grits? Instant grits are pretty quick, if you ask me - a minute in the microwave to heat the water and you're good to go. "Quick" grits require a stove top and saucepan, and they take somewhere between twenty minutes and all day depending on how hungry you are. You can cook and eat five bowls of ramen in the time it takes to cook one batch of "quick" grits. How long do normal grits take? You'd have to put them on the boil the night before if you wanted to have them for breakfast in the morning! The extra time for "quick" grits pays off, it's a very different sort of thing from the instant variety, but "quick?" That's as accurate as calling them "grits" - only true when you compare it to molasses.

We Southerners (I claim myself as a Southerner, even if I am a transplant) can't help but add random savory meats to our breakfasts (another great reason to live here). Waffles get fried chicken, and grits get (gets?) shrimp. And why not! It's a wonderful combination, I've had it several times and have loved it each time. And that's not all you can add to grits; unlike its fancy Yankee cousin oatmeal, you can put almost anything in a bowl of grits. I've had them with bell pepper and bacon, and both are good. Cheese is popular too, but if you're not feeling fancy you can just add a little salt. Some people even like theirs with sugar, but we don't associate with that sort. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Katie made my favorite-to-date not-all-that-quick grits the other night. There were shrimp, of course, and she's convinced me that I love shrimp more than any other kind of seafood. She dredged the shrimp in flour then cooked them in a sauce made with chicken broth, onions, and I don't know what else. She had a recipe (or possibly another one) but she didn't have all the ingredients for either. That's not generally a problem for her; I've seen her use three different cookbooks for one dish, and it's always worked out so far. The results of this improvisation are pictured below:

One mess of delicious.

But what is a grit? I've tried several times and so far I've failed to isolate any single cooked "grit" from the other grits and the interesting corn-based creaminess that exists between them all. I'm sure that if I ever did, it would be too small to know you've eaten it. So why bother with calling it (them?) grits when any singular use of the word would be meaningless? I guess because "coarse corn porridge" is the wrong kind of mouthful for breakfast. But it leaves me with the annoying task of figuring out how to refer  to it (them?) when trying to write about them (it?). "Grits" should be like "moose" and apply to any number of grits so long as they're the food kind.

I did manage  to isolate some unkooked grits, but even here the individuals are so insignificant that I didn't bother getting just one, so any one "grit" is still meaningless. Take from this picture what you will.
One of these tiny dots is a single grit. All of these together would barely cover my fingertip.


  1. Mmmmm grits!!! When I first moved to Arizona I went to the local grocery store to get my grits... and they didn't have any!!!I was HORRIFIED! I thought I was going to have to move back to Georgia! Luckily - I located them at another store *whew*! My favorite grits concoction is grits casserole - you throw bacon, sausage, eggs and diced potatoes and onions into cooked grits, sprinkle the top with cheese, bake and eat. YUMMY!!!

  2. I want to watch My Cousin Vinny now. :)

  3. Aahahaha! Natalie's comment made me giggle. I'm a New Yawker, but enjoyed many summers in Nashville and Mississippi with my grandparents, thus have a great love for all things southern. That includes grits. Try finding those in Maine...

  4. haha, never ever had myself any grits!!! Now my hubs family makes this Norweigen dish called
    'grout' well, that is how you pronounce it anyway not sure how to spell it. But, it looks like grits (wallpaper paste!!) and the whole family LOVES it...butter and cinnamon and sugar and everyone is one happy I make rice that night and pig out on rice with butter...hehe
    I am stopping by to say HI. I am a member of the ftlob community and just wanted to give a hi ya!

  5. Chiltlin's.Kind of in the same vein of Rocky Mountain Oysters in Montana, only different. *lol*

    I have not eaten grits, every. To be honest they kind of scare me. Its the Yankee in me. Shrimp and grits. Why not just eat corn? They remind me of malt o meal, in consistency, from what I have seen.

    Thanks for posting about them. It was interesting. I learned something new and that is always good.


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