In the tradition of boiling grains for sustenance, grits have stood the test of time. Before European settlers set foot in the New World, Native Americans were making grits. More than four centuries later, it is nearly impossible to order a meal in a Waffle House that isn't served with a side dish of grits.
But what are they?
Grits are similar to porridge or oatmeal, but are closer to the Italian dish polenta1, made from corn instead of oats. Most grits are white, but they can be yellow as well.
Yellow grits are made by drying yellow corn then grinding it to pieces. Originally this was done by hand on stone, but the modern process is to run it through a mill. Prior to milling, the corn is steamed to remove the outer hull, then the mill will grind the corn into three sizes of kernel pieces. The finest ground will be sifted out first to become cornmeal, the middle gauge bits are sifted next to become grits, and the remainder is called cracked corn and is used in animal feed.
White grits are made from hominy, which is white corn soaked in an alkaline solution which causes the hull to pop off and the kernel to swell to about twice its original size. The enlarged kernels are rinsed and then dried, then processed the same as yellow grits. It is the alkaline soaking process that most differentiates grits from polenta.
Pellagra is a disease characterised by a deficiency of niacin (vitamin B3) which can be caused by the body's inability to absorb it from the diet. Following the American Civil War, pellagra was a big killer in the South. Soaking corn in lye water (an alkaline solution) would break down the corn proteins making them easier for the body to absorb and use as fuel. Hominy and hominy grits were instrumental in slowing the progression of the disease. Lye is no longer used in the production of hominy, other alkaline agents are used instead.
Grits contain no fat or cholesterol, and are high in calcium and iron. They are also a good source of several B vitamins, including niacin. Grits are a good addition to a nutritious and balanced diet.
Cook Mah Grits!
To cook grits, they are boiled in water until they reach the cook's desired consistency, usually about that of porridge. For regular grits this takes about twenty minutes. Fortunately the hungry no longer need wait so long for a dish of tasty grits. Modern technology makes 'quick grits' possible, smaller granules that cook in about five minutes.
If you've overslept and are running late for work, you may even opt for instant grits, ready in a minute from the microwave. Instant grits are pre-cooked then dried prior to packaging. While these remain readily available, their taste and texture have been likened to wallpaper paste.
Prior to the invention of air-conditioning, oats and oatmeal were difficult to store in the southern states due to the excessive heat and humidity. Grits aren't as susceptible to these elements and so were at one time considered 'southern oatmeal'. During harder times in the south, grits sometimes made the difference between survival and starvation because they were plentiful and inexpensive.
Though they are still widely regarded as a dish of the American South, grits are readily available throughout the US. Most supermarkets will stock a few varieties of grits. Nearly any southern-themed restaurant will offer grits on the menu, and they are always served at Waffle Houses and Cracker Barrels.
Grits are considered a 'comfort food'2. Although they are most often thought of as a breakfast dish, grits are really an all-purpose food that can be served at any meal. Unlike oatmeal, which can be found in lots of fruity, spicy flavours for breakfast, flavoured grits are usually more savoury with flavours like cheese, bacon, or ham and gravy. In restaurants grits will usually be served plain.
Y'all Come Back Now, Y'hear?
One way to discover if you are in the presence of a true southerner is to put sugar or honey or anything else sweet on your grits. If they run screaming from the room, chances are you've hit pay dirt. Southerners are very passionate about their grits and would never put anything sweet on them. Northerners, on the other hand, will generally eat their grits with a generous spoonful of sugar, perhaps a pat of butter and maybe a splash of milk.
As one southerner puts it, 'To put something sweet on it, is like putting syrup on corn on the cob.' Southerners are more likely to dress their grits like a jacket potato: cheese, bacon, onions, butter and the like. Grits can be chilled then battered and fried, baked in casseroles, mixed with vegetables, served as a side dish or part of a main course.