True grits, more grits,
fish, grits and collards,
Life is good where grits are swallered.
- From a poem by Roy Blount, Jr.
Creamy white grits are a classic Southern food “swallered” by folks from Washington D.C. all the way down to south Florida and over to southwest Texas. In fact, the Quaker Oats Company says 75 percent of the grits sold in the U.S. are bought by Southerners, predominantly in Georgia, South Carolina, and north Florida. Honestly, I think the other 25 percent is probably bought by displaced Southerners who live up north. That’s just speculation, of course.
My own family has bought more than their fair share of them over the years, I must admit. Cheese grits have always been my favorite, especially served with a blackened grouper or red snapper fillet, or maybe a small mound of fried gulf shrimp. I love them for breakfast, too, topped with an egg cooked sunny side up and sprinkled with pepper. My dad hooked me on that method, and I can’t resist poking the egg and letting the creamy yolk serve as a sort of sauce to enhance the flavor and creaminess of the grits. It’s oh, so good.
When my little sister and I would wake up on chilly winter mornings on St. Joe Beach back in the day, we knew that we’d either have some oatmeal with a little brown sugar, a bowl of cream of wheat with a drizzle of milk and a sprinkle of white sugar, or those aforementioned cheese grits. Mama would cook quick or regular grits (never instant grits, y’all … ever) on her avocado green gas stove, and when they were perfectly creamy, she’d put a serving into each of our bowls and lay a slice of American cheese on top.
We loved stirring in the creamy, melty cheese and sprinkling a bit of pepper over them. They were filling, especially with that little bit of added protein, so we didn’t get hungry at school before lunchtime. As Janis Owens wrote in one of her cookbooks, “Grits are hot; they are abundant, and they will by-gosh stick to your ribs.” She was right, and mama knew it.
Long before we two girls had grits for breakfast in a little kitchen at the beach in the ‘70s, they were being eaten by Native Americans in the 16th century. The Native American Muskogee tribe's recipe was made at that time of Indian corn, similar to hominy. The Muskogee would grind the corn in a stone mill, giving it the signature “gritty” texture. The best grits are still made that way, usually in smaller mills around the South, like at the Old Mill of Guilford near Greenville, North Carolina. They’re still grinding in a 240-year-old mill, and they sell their grits and other products online.
No matter what kind of grits you choose to buy, whether stone ground, regular, or quick (just not instant, which I cannot stress enough) remember to season the water with salt at the beginning. The grits will absorb the salt during the cooking process; they will not be able to afterward. If you’ve ever said you don’t like grits, it is probably because someone didn’t salt the water and you hated it, with good reason. The only other reason I can think of is that someone tore open a paper envelope of instant grits and served it to you, and again, that’s no good. That’s not what real grits are like.
Here are some basics for you about this quintessential Southern food. I hope you’ll give them a try.
Bring the liquid, butter, and salt to a boil. Gradually whisk in the grits, return to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Cover.
Cook the grits, stirring occasionally so that that they do not stick or form a skin, until they are creamy and done to your liking. It takes about 40 minutes for stone ground grits, but many people like to cook them longer for a finer texture. If you do that, you may have to add more water. For quick grits, it only takes about five minutes.
Alternatively, you can cook grits (4 parts water to 1 part grits) overnight in a slow cooker set to low. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt per cup of water before cooking.
To make the grits really creamy, whether cooked on stovetop or in the slow cooker, whisk 1/2 cup heavy cream into the grits in the pot just before serving. To make cheese grits, stir in one cup shredded cheddar cheese (or your favorite melting cheese) just before serving. Stir well until cheese is completely melted. If you’re serving the grits alongside fish or other meats, you can cook them in chicken broth instead of water for a more savory flavor. Smoked gouda cheese is a great addition to grits served with fish, a method I learned to love at The Fish House in Pensacola.
One of my favorite Southern chefs, Vivian Howard, suggests a number of savory additions to your dinnertime grits: cheese - all kinds, caramelized onions, fried onions, bacon, country ham, sausage, tomatoes, corn, roasted peppers, mushrooms, eggs, gravy, braised beef, roasted peaches, crispy sweet potatoes, béchamel, sweet corn, sautéed apples, broccoli, collard greens, or herbs.
I can attest to how well collard greens pair with grits; it’s one of my favorite easy dinners to make. There’s something perfect about the bitterness of the greens mixed with the creamy, mild grits that makes my palate happy. That, alongside my mama’s fried chicken, would make up my perfect meal.
Finally, here’s a recipe for the late Southern food writer Craig Claiborne’s casserole in which he uses grits in an elegant, delicious way.
Craig Claiborne’s Grits Casserole
Yield: 8 servings
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Bring the milk just to the boil in a heatproof casserole and add ½ cup butter. Stir in the grits and salt, and continue to cook until it is smooth and creamy.
3. Remove from the stove and add pepper. Beat with an electric beater and add the remaining 1/3 cup butter.
4. Stir in the Gruyère until melted. Sprinkle Parmesan on top. Place in the oven and bake 1 hour, or until crusty on top.
“If there was ever a time to boil up some grits, it is now.” ~ Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow
Y’all try some grits this week in a new way, and pass on this part of our Southern heritage to your children or grandchildren. Enjoy!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home. She is married and has three sons who are substantially taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she’d love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.
This article originally appeared on The Star: What Southern Folks Eat: Life is good where grits are swallered