Among the foods that are inarguably Southern, grits rank at or near the top. The narrative that says grits are of, for, and in the South is chiseled in stone. But what isn’t chiseled in stone is how to prepare them— or how to eat them. In this essay, a newly arrived Southerner explores the possibilities of this mythic culinary side dish.
Grits and the California Boy
by Nils Skudra
Coming from northern California, our family was totally unacquainted with a Southern phenomenon called grits although the idea of them fueled my peregrinations ever since I watched the 1992 comedy film My Cousin Vinny. In that movie is the now-classic scene where the protagonist and his fiancée, replete with their New Yorker mentalities, encounter grits in an undistinguished little roadside diner in Alabama. A boisterous Vinny asks the resident cook what they are and tells him that, although he’s admittedly heard of them, he’s “never seen a grit before.”
Inspired by Vinny’s remarks about grits, when we touched ground in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2016, I promptly ran over to the nearest supermarket and with the help of a kindly clerk located at least seven varieties of grits—instant grits, regular grits, yellow grits, white grits. It was as if those boxes were reaching out and screaming, “Eat me!” so I grabbed several and photographed them, eager to send images of them back to my compadres in the San Francisco Bay Area, who might conceivably be impressed by this regional find and by the multitude of manners in which they could be had.
Several weeks later, however, I learned from a profusion of sources that there was more to grits than just cooking them up. People here freely and animatedly shared the best way to eat them, where to buy them, and how to cook them. Some folks who called themselves “purists” stood up for stone-ground grits, others praising to the rafters the superiority of the hominy variety. An occasional dissenter championed quick grits, but virtually no one sounded off on the benefits of instant grits, which apparently no self-respecting Southerner would admit to eating.
I even read somewhere that one poetic soul referred to grits as a “culinary blank canvas. Alone, they’re not much to write home about but doctor them up with some cheese or sausage, or bacon, or whatever, and they are mighty fine.” A sweet inhabitant of Guilford Hills, our neighborhood, suggested I warm grits with a little sugar and milk, a concoction popularly known as Georgia ice cream. I liked the sound of that on my tongue and made a mental note to produce this on a morning when I was ravenous with hunger and filled with the intentionality of cooking something that not only looked but sounded good.
However, action and intent do not always make a merger. Feeling a bit intimidated by all the hoop-dee-doo surrounding grits, I put off cooking them myself and instead sallied forth into the restaurant universe, ordering grits with abandon in at least ten restaurants between High Point and Raleigh. While this was admittedly more expensive than cooking the goodies up myself, I was gaining perspective and listening to restaurant owners hold forth on what grits perfection really was. And there was no end of conversation on this topic. There were the refinements as well. The subject of toppings for grits was almost a holy subject!! People clearly approached the subject of grits with reverence. Some folks spilled into my West-Coaster ears that it was best to add milk and sugar to them (treating them like Cream of Wheat) while others put toppings like cheese, butter, and bacon on them. One person opined, “Don’t forget the red eye gravy,” but didn’t explain what that was! Other individuals interrogated me, with the wiliness of a country lawyer, whether I would have the grits regular, creamy, or al dente— and did I know just how to get that done? A neighbor from Danville, Virginia made the “if-that-don’t beat-all” comment that the Bestway Market just yonder from my house sells a beer with grits in it! Imagine that! The idea of this was an article all by itself!
Driven by a newly spawned lust for the best darn grits, I even spent one rain-speckled Sunday driving with the car’s intermittent-yellow-engine-light on out to the legendary Old Mill of Guilford, founded in the 1700s and looking not a day worse for wear. It seems that the city of Oak Ridge, where the mill was located, laid claim to selling the crème-de-la-crème of grits, and what was more the employees were chatty and waxed euphoric when talking about them. There was a kind of sacredness in the way grits were approached and a way in which they were a staple in the Southern imagination. I was convinced. A flick of the Wells Fargo MasterCard moments later and I stashed those babies in the back of the Toyota, like trophies beaming out their best-ness. Paying my respects to one of my favorite places in the Piedmont, the Oak Ridge Military Academy, on the way home I marveled that the city also boasted the best grits on the planet so Oak Ridge was doubly blessed to this Civil War historian visitor. And the fact that I had made it back to Greensboro in my woebegone, broken-down car just confirmed the fact that I was meant to get those grits and set foot on the Oak Ridge soil.
On arriving home, I hurriedly got on Facebook and told everyone about that trip, focusing on the California crowd, who I imagined would be awed by the adventurousness of a West Coaster in Southern foodie land. The whole experience was rendered even cooler when, an hour later at the Whole Foods market, a pretty and flirtatious Southern belle confided in me, “Y’all know that grits also stands for “Girls Raised in the South.” I would have believed anything she told me . . . until her impossibly tall (and wide) husband appeared on the horizon and didn’t want to talk to me no-how, no-way, whether grits were the subject of polite conversation or not. Wishing her adieu, I continued on my path of culinary mischief, knee-high in grits by this time but excited about some good information I’d received by-the-by about cathead biscuits, wobbly gelatin, smothered pork chops, and seven-layered caramel cake — all next on the agenda to investigate and subsequently produce in a glorious gastronomic feat. After the grits-perfection-to-be-realized episode, I was going to conquer more of the rudiments of Southern cooking, which I was quickly realizing was a cuisine that my poor California soul had heretofore been deprived of.
But so far I was still figuring out the niceties of grits, and I was working from the ground up. The culinary Good Book’s chapter and verse had it that grits were nothing more than a dish of coarsely ground corn kernels boiled with water or milk. I didn’t buy into this bit of legerdemain— for me, they were exotic like the South with its resplendent magnolia trees and the wet-moist heat which permeated every cell of my body. Not just a simple porridge delivered on a plate, they were utilized as the very way to shape narratives of Southerners and the places they inhabited. One author named Sara Claro in fact had it that “as all good Southerners know, grits are the workhorse of the kitchen. Take almost anything you have in the fridge, stir it into a pot of grits, and you have an instant meal.” I was properly inspired and readying myself to get down to cooking business.
On a day full of snow when my rescue dog wouldn’t stop barking and driving me to distraction with his shrill cacophony of sound, I summoned up the courage to try my hand at cooking grits. I’d heard about Bill Neal’s and David Perry’s book Good Old Grits but never could find it in any of the local libraries. I figured that if I didn’t follow the advice of the masters, I shouldn’t bother making grits at all. Still, I was willing to give it the old college try. I knew in my heart that I was never going to make grits as good as Lucky 32’s Southern Kitchen but I consoled myself with the thought that I’d already spent a small pile of money putting together a small-grits store and I might as well walk the walk and drop the talk.
I’ll spare the reader here the results of the grits-making episode. Nothing about it was memorable other than I burned my favorite pot and violated what someone in the local Nextdoor.com website called “The Ten Commandments of Grits” – I put both syrup and sugar on the grits in an effort to remedy the taste-like-cardboard disaster they undeniably were and admitted minutes later that I was coveting my neighbor’s grits (and violating another of those Ten Commandments). Furthermore, when I offered Jackson (my Bichon Frise) a taste of the home-made grits, he walked over to his bowl, snagged a taste, rolled his eyes, and walked away (never to return). Worse than a bad Yelp review, even the dog let me know they weren’t fit for consumption.
Not being a Southerner, I must now concede that I didn’t get the grits-making gene, and there wasn’t going to be the venerable shrimp-and-grits recipe, produced a la Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill in my future. I was going to have to go out and order grits that were, at least, cooked right and ditch most of the grits boxes in the Salvation Army bins that were never full enough to flow.
Nevertheless, I still think about grits and why they are an important part of life here. People continue to send me anecdotes about grits, and I keep them stored up in a big binder of stories-to-write. My favorite perhaps is one from a young woman in Lindley Park who wrote to me, “As a lifelong Southerner, I love them so much, I named my dog Grits.” She sent me a photo of her canine friend. There will come a day when I try my hand again at making grits (perhaps with the classic sharp cheddar), but for now you’ll see me in the good local haunts happily eating them and not worrying about creamy results and differences in granulation.
Nils Skudra is a Master’s student in Library and Information Sciences at UNC Greensboro, where he received a previous Master’s degree in History in 2018. I will be graduating with my MLIS degree in August 2021 with a goal of full-time work in the historical or library field. He has a passionate love of U.S. history, particularly the Civil War period, and in his free time, he loves taking day trips to historic sites and museums across North Carolina, especially the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. Skudra also writes freelance articles on historical topics, travel, and humor, as well as film reviews.
Lesson Plan: NH-MSF-Lesson-Plan Personal Essay Food