Grits, the breakfast staple of the South, is a mystery to many who live beyond the Grits Frontier which is bounded by the Mason-Dixon Line to the north and to the west by the Big Thicket area of East Texas. Increasingly, those who don’t know grits are being exposed to them by migrants from the South and a much more mobile U.S. Military. Even in Alaska you can purchase grits in the larger grocery stores.
Grits are corn that has been dried, boiled in caustic lye to remove the husks and had the central germ removed. The starchy result is dried hard, ground into grit-size particles and packaged. The Native Americans perfected this technique to produce hominy (an Algonquian name), and the dried, pounded result was grits. Hominy, or in Spanish “Maiz Pozolero,” is sold in cans, and resembles a white, soft garbonzo bean with a bland taste.
Grits have very little taste. If taste was measured on a color scale and white was tasteless, grits would be buff, at best. Grits derive the majority of their taste from the salt, pepper, butter and heavy gravy that is put on them or through mixes of cheeses and seafood as in Cheese Grits and Shrimp n’ Grits. Pre-soaked and cooked slowly, grits can become very smooth and is called “Southern Ice Cream,” although it is eaten hot and not cold.
As typically eaten, grits are put on a plate. They should still be slightly runny when hot, but will set up more firmly as they chill. On the plate they should be hot enough to melt butter and properly accept the usual salt and pepper put on them. They are not served in a bowl with sugar and milk as one might Cream of Wheat. Most Southerners consider Cream of Wheat a poor substitute for grits. In truth, both are equally bland, but at least grits have some texture.
Grits are best, and often, served with red-eye gravy derived from cooking salt-cured ham, quail gravy or with the gravy derived from wild game. They are not typically served with fried chicken. With chicken, rice is the preferred cereal. The heavier the gravy, such as the mix of pan scrapings and onions derived from cooking livers, the stiffer the grits can be.
Grits consolidate rapidly after cooking. They may be covered, refrigerated, mixed with water and reheated for a later meal. It is also common for old grits to be formed into a paddy and fried in a frying pan and served as a pancake.