What Are Grits?

“What I really did during my visit was laze around and let Aunt Noah spoil me. Every morning scrambled eggs, grits, country ham, and hot biscuits with homemade peach preserves.”

Andrea Lee, Interesting Women

Today my son was given a pair of blue suede shoes… so how should we celebrate? A post about grits of course, a food to which The King was extremely partial.

What are grits?

What the hell are grits then? Most Europeans have never come across them except in Westerns (more on that later in the month). Essentially they are rough-ground corn, originally made by native American indians. There were two kinds, hominy grits made from field corn soaked in potash water, causing the bran to separate (the germ is also removed) – this method, apparently, is some 5,000 years old; and corn grits made from white dent corn – sometimes some of the bran is left in, the more the grittier. Effectively, then, grits are coarse-ground corn meal.

What is the difference between grits and polenta?

So what, then, is the difference between grits and polenta – which after all is also coarse-ground corn meal? Polenta is made from a different type of corn – yellow flint corn which holds its texture- it’s grittier than grits which can seem almost mushy (especially the instant type – see below) in comparison. Further difference arises from the fineness of the final corn meal (grits are much finer than polenta), and the number of millings. Polenta, when cooled, will hold it’s shape – and can be fried or roasted (especially good with gorgonzola – more in a later post). For further explanation on the difference between grits and polenta go to the excellent blog, Eating for England.

How are grits cooked?

In the UK, Tesco sells ‘Quaker instant grits’.

Grits are cooked a bit like porridge oats – you add water or milk, or a mix to the grits and follow the instructions – in the microwave it takes seconds. Don’t fiddle around with the non-instant type, which will have you stirring for hours. However, be aware that purists will poo-poo the instant type which is ground quite fine, and insist the real McCoy stone-ground type is the only thing to try so don’t serve instant to anyone in a cowboy hat. As Gwen McKee, in her Little New Orleans Cookbook notes:

“Grits are very New Orleans. But they have to be cooked properly. Gritty grits that sit up high like mashed potatoes turn a lot of first-timers off. Creamy grits that fall off the spoon easily and lay down almost flatly on the plate get a high degree of come-back-for-more folks.”

If you are a fanatic foodie, you can buy truly gorgeous, genuine grits – as well as polenta, from the US firm, Anson Mills, who can ship internationally.

And, finally, of course,

“Not even the most ardent lover of grits would think of eating it alone”

Turner Catledge, The New York Times

So here are some suggestions of ingredients to add to grits:

  • butter, salt and pepper (simple approach)
  • grated cheese…. with Worcestershire sauce and a few dashes of Tabasco to be extra dashing
  • crumbled bacon, sausage, ham
  • raw egg…or fried… or poached
  • shrimp… or even lobster… either with a champagne cream sauce. Or, as Michael Ruhlman suggests in his Ruhlman’s Twenty, in butter-poached shrimp and grits. Or, as in the photograph below, a combination of shrimp, bacon and cheddar
  • torn chicken
  • make meatballs, by frying seasoned minced meat and rolling in flour and set aside (or follow this recipe). Add a little more oil to the pan and fry chopped banana shallot, green pepper and celery*. Add some flour. Cook until it starts to brown (effectively this is making a roux). Add a tin of tomatoes which you’ve chopped, plus their juice. Stir like mad. Add chopped parsley, smoked salt, Indonesian long black pepper, and enough of a slug of red wine to make the sauce sufficiently liquid, stirring like mad the while. Cover and simmer for half an hour or so. Put the meatballs back into the sauce and serve on top of the grits.
  • jambalaya grits: variation on the meatball idea above. Start by frying the chopped shallot, green pepper and celery, but add some chopped streaky bacon and some garlic crushed with a little smoked salt too. Add cooked grits, tomatoes and garnish with some chopped ham (Parma ham is good)
  • Parma ham, fontina, and sage (garnish with ’52 Vincent motorbike fried sage leaves)

*In Creole and Cajun cooking onion, bell pepper and celery is considered the ‘Holy Trinity’ – the classic basis of many dishes. Italian cooking substitutes carrot for the pepper in its ‘Three Musketeers’.

Not everyone is a fan of grits

But be aware…grits are an acquired taste. As Tom Parker Bowles comments drily in E is for Eating, An Alphabet of Greed, “Bleached cornmeal porridge, with the consistency and taste of wallpaper paste is not an exciting prospect”. Or read what Jenny Diski had to say in her excellent memoir, Stranger On A Train:

“Breakfast was the best….though currently as we were in the South it was necessary to avoid at all costs the ‘grits’ option. Some claimed that quality had nothing to do with avoiding the grits (something dangerously like wallpaper paste mixed with, well, grit) served on the train, that one should avoid them at all times and anywhere.”

Even more telling is the fact that the phrase “you’ve gone crackers” to mean you’re crazy is derived from a term of contempt in the American south when to call someone ‘corn crackers’ implied they only ate grits.

Where to get hold of grits in the UK if you are still determined

Where to try grits in the UK? Food critic, Michael Deacon, writing in The Telegraph reports that he went to the new Red Rooster restaurant in London and says:

“I started with the Ol’ Man Shrimp N’ Grits: a gorgeously plump prawn, bursting with juiciness, and served in a delicious lagoon of grits, broccolini, pork and wild garlic.”

Be aware that Deacon also goes on to say the rest of the meal is disappointing – for his comments on the Fried Yard Bird, follow this link.

what are grits?
or you can combine the ingredients – shrimp, bacon, and cheddar all in one dish

Music to listen to while you read

While you are cooking your grits, listen to the wonderful, original recording of Elvis, playing his Blue Suede Shoes, to the US Navy, as well as Texas Sun, from Khruangbin and Leon Bridges – grits is a very southern thing…

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