Great Grits—A Native American Treasure

Once upon a time there was a young native American wife who simply could not parch corn without burning it. She could plant corn in the spring, tend it all summer, shell the dried kernels in the fall and store them in clay pots she made herself. But parching corn was beyond her.

On one particularly bad morning a few thousand years ago, things were going even worse than usual. Maybe the rock was too hot that day, or she was dreaming of becoming the perfect cook, but whatever the cause, quite a few kernels were raw on one side and black on the other.

Tired of hearing her husband complain about how she parched corn, she decided to do something different. She put the corn on a flat rock and crushed it with another rock until she had a cup of corn meal, stirred it into a pot of boiling water and cooked it until it turned into a thick pudding.

“Not bad,” said her husband “Not burnt at least,” he added just to be nasty, “but what are the little black specks?”

She was ready for that question. “Something I thought might make the grits taste better.”

“Grits” he asked, “What kind of a word is that?”

“It’s a word I made up. It means tasty breakfast food.”

“It’s better than Mom’s parched corn!”

And so a wonderful new food came into the world and they lived happily ever after.

This could be a true story, except for a couple of small details. First, the word itself. “Grits,” comes from an old English word, “grytt,” which means a coarse meal. And second, parched corn would not turn into the creamy delicacy that we call grits today. Grits are made from hominy rather than from unprocessed corn (maize).

The people who lived in Mesoamerica discovered how to make hominy thousands of years ago. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, hominy was a staple food of the Aztecs. It is made by a process called nixtamalization, which means soaking the kernels in an alkaline solution such as a mixture of water and wood ash. After washing and drying, the nixtamalized corn is more nutritious, flavorful and easier to grind.

After you dry and grind the hominy, you have grits. When you grind unprocessed corn, you get corn meal. The Spaniards brought maize back to Europe, but they did not bring back instructions for making hominy. Later they gave some seed corn to the Italians. Those ingenious people found that corn grew well in their country and that corn meal could be substituted for other starchy ingredients like millet or chestnut flour to make polenta, a food Italians had been eating before Rome became an empire. Polenta tastes pretty good but it’s not as good as grits.

The recipe below is based on the way I think Wayne, the chef at the First United Methodist Church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, made the grits served at the men’s prayer breakfasts I attended with my brother-in-law Merle. When I told Wayne that they were the best grits I had ever eaten, he told me there was a half pound of butter in every gallon. The bottle of Louisiana hot sauce on the counter next to the range in the church kitchen prompted me to try that too, and the results were pretty darn good.

Here is what I do to make four modest servings.

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups water
1/2 cup quick-cooking grits
1/4 tsp. salt
2 T butter
Black or white pepper to taste
Dash of hot sauce

PROCEDURE:

Bring two cups of salted water to a brisk boil in a one quart saucepan. Add the grits and stir until you have a smooth mixture that comes back to a boil. Reduce the heat to very low and simmer, stirring often for about six minutes until they are very thick.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter plus dashes of pepper and hot sauce.

Serve with eggs and ham, bacon or sausage for a real southern breakfast.

NOTES: When the grits begin to thicken, you need to stir them every half minute or so as they tend to stick on the bottom of the pan.

If you use unsalted butter, use a slightly rounded quarter teaspoon of salt. I usually just grind some black pepper into the grits, but if you don’t like the idea of black specks in your grits, use a dash of white pepper. Be careful with the hot sauce: Three or four drops are enough for this amount of grits.

These grits have a subtle flavor that complements the yolk of an egg fried sunny side up or over easy. Try the combination sometime.

Grits also are the main ingredient for a wonderful breakfast casserole I wrote about a few years ago.

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