A Cultural Kaleidoscope

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

"Georgia Ice Cream"

I remember standing on top of daddy’s feet with his worn leather moccasins beneath my toes as we danced around the kitchen in our pajamas to the soulful sounds of Al Green on an easy Sunday morning. We twirled around cartons of eggs, bowls of fruit, and piles of toast while preparing our traditional weekly breakfast. A medium-sized stainless steel saucepot filled with white, stone-ground grits was always present on the front burner and in close range of our dance steps, as it required frequent stirring.

Anybody can scramble eggs or cut up pieces of cantaloupe, but it takes a dedicated soul to cook grits – and daddy is one of those people. He makes the best grits I’ve ever tasted. Now, I’m not talking about that thin, watery, white soup they serve you at Denny’s. I’m not talking about Quaker Instant Grits either (a sin in all southern kitchens). I’m talking about grits with real texture and a thick consistency like oatmeal, grits with large pats of butter and salt and pepper to taste.

These finely ground pieces of corn are an important part of Southern culture and tradition. Corn is easy to grow in the south and serves as a hearty and filling meal in any form. To make grits, you boil the ground kernels in water or milk (or both depending on your preference) until enough of the liquid evaporates to leave the substance semi-solid like porridge. It’s important to stir the grits constantly. Careless grit-makers will leave the stove unattended, forgetting to keep the grits moving. This neglect allows too much water to dissolve leaving rock-like deposits in the pot or burning the grits if left long enough. Grits stuck to the side of a pot will ruin your day, as grit residue is one of the toughest things to scrape out of cookware.

There are other types of grit-makers (those who are in a hurry or just plain lazy), who don’t measure the proper amount of water (3.5 cups of water for every cup of grits) or who take the pot off of the burner before the liquid has evaporated. These faux-pas result in the worst types of grits – runny and watery – like soup broth with grains of rice floating in it or oatmeal in cold water that will not dissolve. Your grits should not be drinkable.

They should be sticky and creamy, but a little grainy. They should be thick and hearty like goulash, but also smooth and soft. Grits should assail your nose with whiffs of butter and pepper, as warm steam fills the air. They go with anything and can be dressed up or down. Grits can be a simple breakfast food with sugar or bacon crumbled on top or a casserole baked with cheeses and peppers. They serve as a home base for pieces of shrimp and salmon, and bed of them can be found beneath nearly every meal containing fish or meat in the Low Country.

Grits have been a mainstay in Southerners’ kitchens for centuries. They are a staple of the southern diet and a symbol of southern hospitality. Everyone in the south wants to know how to cook grits the right way or live with someone else who knows how. In a classic Beach Music song, Rick Strickland even decided that his woman has “gotta hit the road because she can’t fix grits.” And Al Green, also a southern boy from Arkansas, dated a woman who knew how to cook pots of thick, sticky grits (one of which she famously threw at him when she thought Al was cheating on her).

But, daddy makes the best grits I’ve ever tasted – made with love, care, soul, and southern charm. The grits I am eating right now are comfort food to me as I spin around my kitchen singing into a wooden spoon, 820 miles away from my home in South Carolina. I lick the spoon and smile to myself knowing that I will not be kicked to the curb over my grit-making abilities. Daddy has taught me well.


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