I love everything about grits, except eating them

by Brian Clarey

There are no grits on Long Island.

I suppose that may not be technically true — there’s bound to be some itinerant Southerner cooking up a pot somewhere in Nassau County even as I write.

But my experience growing up there contained not a single incidence of exposure to the grit, that most basic staple of Southern cuisine.

In my sheltered youth, in fact, I thought grits to be a meat dish, an assumption based solely on the catch phrase of one of the day’s popular television characters — when Florence Jean Castleberry told the customers in Mel’s Diner to kiss her grits, I assumed she was referring to a body part that correlated with a cut of beef. Or maybe pork. Lots of hogs in the South, I reasoned. Maybe somewhere near the ass.

But nobody lives for too long in this country without encountering grits, which, in my opinion, are basically inedible. Even today, 20 years after I embraced my inner Southerner, I believe that grits are indigestible to any organism not equipped with a gizzard.

My grit-less existence ceased abruptly when I headed down South for college, way down South — New Orleans, which I figure is pretty much the bottom if you allow that the Southern parts of Florida stop right near the panhandle’s armpit.

There’s no breakfast without grits in New Orleans — or, at least, not at Loyola, where every morning the foodservice folks would whip up a huge mess of them to be dolloped out on the line, ladled with melted butter and, eventually, graced with pepper and salt then devoured one coagulating spoonful after another. I thought it looked like cream of wheat, a favorite of my father’s during his snow-swept youth in Albany, NY.

My freshman roommate, a Mobilian majoring in jazz, straightened me out.

“It’s like corn,” he said during one of our early exchanges, which had all the characteristics of anthropological investigations.

I reciprocated by turning him on to the deep cuts from the Steely Dan catalog.

I didn’t know at the time that grits hold the same sacred status in the South as college football, eccentric relatives and ceiling fans set on slow burn — part and parcel of the culture, so ubiquitous as to be unremorsefully taken for granted. In the South, a man can be offered a plate of grits as readily as he can a cup of coffee, and with more frequency than house-cured meat.

And they eat versions of grits all over the world, of course. Polenta. Farina. Gruel. Anywhere corn grows they will grind the hulls and separate the fine parts from the coarse, swell them up with boiling water and hunker down.

It is the coarse by-product that, when boiled just right, becomes grits. And that, I think, is not insignificant. Coarse like the sand on the Outer Banks. Coarse like the silt that lay in the bed at the Mississippi’s mouth. Coarse like the hands of generations who worked the land and sea. Coarse like a man’s voice after taking a pull from the moonshine jar.

It was grits that sustained generations of slaves who lived on scraps from the main house, nourished the farm boys who took up arms against their country, fed the mountain folk and the lowlanders alike. And whatever didn’t get eaten could go to the hogs.

And yes, grits could be found on any proper Southern table, even in the Garden District of New Orleans or behind the laced facades of Charleston’s finest homes. Grits were, and are, democratic. Grits are for everybody.

I know this now.

I guess it was a couple weeks into my college experience when I actually tried them.

I’ve never been much of a morning eater, even less so in those days when I spent my evenings discovering the joys of grain alcohol and cheap wine.

But this one morning, as I lurched along the chow line, the lady working the steam table made me the same offer she made every student, every morning: “Y’all want some grits, honey?” Yes. Yes I do. She slopped a stiff wad into a small bowl, pushed in a crater with her ladle to create a pond of molten butter, golden like cheap beer.

When I tucked into them I made a face like a baby who has just eaten a fistful of sand.

I don’t know what I was expecting, because grits are one thing that taste almost exactly like they look. But I did not like them. I did not like them at all.

Perhaps my northeastern palate, raised on new pickles, bagels and folded slices of pizza, couldn’t adjust to the texture; I wanted to chew it but my teeth could not gain purchase on the grains. I wanted the grits to have less viscosity, to swirl around my mouth like smooth porridge. The grits would not. I wanted more flavor, less butter, maybe a little kick of spice. The grits, on every count, let me down.

“They’re better with cheese,” another freshman, this one from Atlanta, admitted to me.

I swallowed before saying, “How can you guys eat this crap?” All the Southerners with whom I was dining professed to love them unconditionally.

Then they made fun of me for saying “you guys” instead of “y’all.”

I struggled with the grit for years — how and when to order them, the proper way to prepare them, how to make this quintessential Southern dish agree with a verb. Can I get them with brown sugar? Are they strictly relegated to breakfast? Are they singular or plural?

Some questions remain. Initially I likened them with other hot cereals I had been reared upon, and seasoned them with brown sugar and cream, maybe a squirt from the maple syrup jug.

Three years into my time in North Carolina, the flavor profile of the dish file of the dish became more clear.

“It’s just corn,” my friend, a photographer born and raised in Creedmoor told me. “Corn is already sweet.”

He encouraged me to explore the savory side of grits, to recognize it as a worthwhile starch like rice or cous cous. Paprika, he said. Cayenne. Cheese.

Grits without cheese… man, that’s like a barbecue sandwich without a pile of cole slaw atop, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve been in the South now for about 20 years — more if you count my infancy in Virginia, which I don’t. And as far as the grits go: I get it. Anyone who loves food sees the grit as a versatile starch capable of handling even the heaviest ingredients.

I have eaten grits in cheap buffets and people’s mommas’ houses, in some of the South’s finest restaurants and most questionable egg-and-biscuit joints. I have had them with cheese, with cream gravy, with fried green tomatoes, with shrimp, with sausage and, once, with cayenne pepper and doggie treats.

I still don’t like them. Not really. But I understand. And I respect.

These days I make grits in my own kitchen.

I hate the rime of gristle left on my stovetop afterwards, hate the way the grit pot leaches its detritus all over everything else in the dishwasher during a wash cycle. I’m probably doing it wrong.

But my kids, born in the South one and all, like to eat them before they get on the bus just as the weather begins to turn in the fall. I use the real ones — even a reformed New Yorker like me knows that instant grits are an aberration. I like to stir in a bit of milk or cream, plenty of pepper and some good, sharp cheddar.

I don’t eat them. I don’t want to. And I don’t need to. Grits are for everybody, whether you like them or not .