Southern Origins: Grits
Over the last few years, as I’ve learned more about grits and seen them hailed an emblem of Southern food, I’ve wondered how I missed out on them for so long. Despite being fed well from my family’s Mississippi—and later, north Alabama—kitchen, where most things were scratch-made and daily menus included plenty of traditional Southern fare, I suffered a lack of exposure to grits growing up.
Grits were just never a big deal in my house. While we had those little packets of instant grits (usually the ones studded with “bacon” bits) in the pantry, I don’t remember eating them often (or being very impressed with their resemblance to Elmer’s glue the few times I did). We weren’t into breakfast in my family—unless it was for dinner—and that meal most often consisted of either pancakes, bacon, and eggs or biscuits, bacon, and eggs.
The first time I really remember eating grits, I was at a fancy restaurant, and they had shrimp on top. I think I was probably in high school, and if you had told me the textured grains suspended in velvet with the flavor of hot buttered corn in my bowl were something other than grits, I’d have easily believed you. They were that far removed from the bland, gelatinous mass those little packets yielded.
My relationship with grits has followed a path that’s similar to their own journey. For me, they went from something so basic they barely registered on my radar to being essential elements of favorite dishes. Same for grits in general: They have truly humble origins, yet now they’ve been elevated to a place of prominence in the Southern food hall of fame.
Erin Murray, who also came to appreciate grits later in life, deftly explores the foodstuff in her book, Grits, husking layers of its history to reveal how grits came to be and shining a spotlight on the dish’s role in the modern South. She shares a bit of what she uncovered.
Where and when did grits originate?
When I set out to do my research, I came across a mention of the dish from the 1630s, which was when settlers arrived in Virginia and were handed “steaming bowls of cracked maize,” which they termed grytt. But the dish can be traced much further back—all the way back to the origin of corn, which showed up in Central Mexico around 9,000 or 10,000 years ago. Along with early evidence of corn cultivation, evidence of hand-grinding implements in the same area has been found dating back as far as 8,000 years ago. So, my theory is that as soon as corn was being cultivated and harvested, it was likely being ground by hand and then cooked in water over heat—producing a very early variation of grits. Here in the United States, indigenous populations were eating these variations long before first contact.
How/why in your opinion, did grits come to be such an important and popular Southern food?
Ground corn porridge became a staple in settlers’ diets. It was inexpensive and easy to produce, becoming a sustenance food for those coming into the region—settlers as well as the enslaved populations unwillingly brought here starting in 1619. So, while grit-based corn porridge was eaten in many places at the time, here in the South, a very large segment of the population, at both ends of the social spectrum, was eating grits. From there, it was carried into the future by those who had eaten it before, regardless of color, class, or creed, keeping it strongly tied to this region.
Grits are seen as basic, but there are many varieties. Tell us about some of them.
One of my favorite “new” styles of grits is the Jimmy Red variety being grown by Anson Mills and by Geechie Boy Mill, both in South Carolina. Jimmy Red is a corn variety that was nearly extinct but was coaxed back into production thanks to the work of seed saver Ted Chewning along the coast of South Carolina. Now, small farms around the Southeast are planting the variety, and some, such as Anson and Geechie, are milling it to make grits. This variety is reddish orange in color and cook down to a pretty pink hue. When cooked plain, with just a little bit of salt and butter, you can taste the sweetness and earthiness of the corn. Nothing bland about them. Other millers are working with blue Cherokee corn, Pencil Cob corn, and Hickory King corn. Taste any of these side by side, and you’ll get different flavors and nuances from each one.
Once very humble, grits are now found on fine-dining menus. How/why did that happen?
In the 1980s, the dish shrimp and grits became a “thing” when chef Bill Neal’s recipe was published in The New York Times. The recipe took off and was picked up by countless other chefs who started putting it on menus. Since then, chefs such as Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham and Linton Hopkins of Eugene & Elizabeth’s in Atlanta have been instrumental in bringing traditional Southern foods out of the home kitchen and preparing them for fine-dining clientele. Now, you'll find grits on dining room menus from high-end to low.
What motivated you to write your book?
In 2012, I moved back to the South after living away from it for nearly 30 years. It wasn't an easy transition for me, but I was determined to get to know and “reclaim” the South as my own. Being a food writer, I knew that if I wanted to find connection and clarity, it would have to be through food. So, I started digging into Southern ingredients and dishes and quickly realized that there was much about grits that I didn't know or understand—much like the South itself.
What is the most surprising or interesting thing you learned about grits?
What I loved learning about was the many ways grits tie people together. I was able to better understand people, politics, gender issues, race issues, and cultural differences—all by looking deeply into one dish. Those cross sections all come together because people like to cook, to eat, and to share their grits.