I can remember, every Saturday morning, my mother would call me downstairs to eat breakfast. Eggs, sausage, and a nice big bowl of grits.
She used to put cheese on them, but it didn’t matter. If you made them right, you had this big, creamy, epic batch of goodness that you couldn’t wait to scarf down.
The only problem is, grits aren’t supposed to be scarfed down so easily… especially in large portions. Either by size, by fiber or by the sheer caloric richness, something should stop you.
Grits, traditionally, are not “instant.” They aren’t “quick.” They’re not “quick cooking,” and they certainly can’t be described as taking “no time” to cook. (Frankly, I’d question the amount of processing of anything that all of a sudden, with the assistance of food manufacturing, now cooks “in no time.”)
Grits – and its sisters hominy and polenta – are all derived from Blacks’ cultural relationship with Native Americans. When Africans would escape from slavery, they were warmly welcomed by Native Americans who gifted them with “the secret” of corn. Roast an ear of corn, then boil it with hickory ash. The corn, lightly ground, could be cooked in a giant pot with lots of liquid to make a a creamy porridge; the starchy insides of the ground corn could be expected to release and thicken the mixture.
While this explains how the newly-freed escapees learned the glories of grits, what about those still enslaved? The idea of word “traveling back” feels hard to swallow, especially when there were so many more pressing things to discuss. However, it did. Slaves who found freedom – or slaves who were never, actually, slaves – were taken captive and taught what they’d learned to others in their flock. Slaves were traded, as were their skills and knowledge. And, quite honestly, if a slave was given “one peck (7lbs) of corn meal, three pounds of meat and a half-gallon of molasses” to last them a week, you can bet they were definitely experimenting with ways to get the biggest bang for their peck… er, buck.
And, let us not forget that Blacks came from both Africa and the Caribbean – I’m just sayin’. If you had access to corn, chances are you were boiling it and grinding it up to see what could be done with it. Not everyone’s porridge was wheat.
Very few companies make grits the old school way – the way that preserves the health benefits that the grain actually can impart; the way that, if you stored your grits improperly, would result in you finding rude little critters in your stash; the way that, as strange as it sounds, requires almost 8 parts of water for every one part of grain; the way that takes almost two hours to cook the entire batch. But, when you find that exceptional batch of hominy… you realize why it was standard. A fourth of a cup of dry, quality corn meal may weigh 1/10th of a pound – that pound might cost you $2.50 – and can yield almost a cup’s worth of food after being cooked. $0.25 a meal? You can’t tell me that’s not beneficial.
Grits – minimally processed ones – aren’t simply pure carbs. There’s protein in there and, depending upon who makes your ground up grits, they may contain a minimal amount of oil. You can definitely cook yours with plain water, but that – like most foods – runs the risk of tasting like pure cardboard, proper seasoning of not. If you’re making a meal out of your grits, in order for it to be satisfying, you’ll need to add fat.
That’s where cheese, milk, and butter came from in becoming additions to grits. Those of us who had a history of adding sausage to our grits – pardon me as I raise my hand – were also vying for a way to add fat to our grits, as that’s what adding that meat did. (Lets we forget, fat is actually necessary for proper vitamin absorption.) Because the purpose of adding the cream is to add fat to the dish, alternative milks wouldn’t work well, and Greek yogurts – though they seems promising – would be sucked up by the swell of the dish while cooking. It’d definitely add protein, just not fat… which, we need to be comfortable with admitting, matters.
Also, they’d need to be organic. Since close to 100% of all corn made in the US is genetically modified, you’d need non-GMO corn for your grits. Anything less is… well. Less.
When I spoke of polenta and grits being sisters, they are… in sort of a “same mother, different father” kind of sense. Both come from dried and ground kernels of corn. Both result in creamy-textured dopeness. Both are experiencing major gentrification right now… and both come with their own emotional baggage.
Just like grits for Black Americans, polenta carries its own baggage for Italians and Mexicans. For many, it represents a time of eating ground up corn because you couldn’t afford anything else. There’s an attachment to being able to live in a way that allows you to safely turn up your nose to polenta, and know that you’ll still have a moderately full refrigerator to go home to at night. The same could be said for some Caribbeans who frown upon eating porridge, because it represents an era where you didn’t have anything else. My mother, who grew up with 6 siblings on a one-person income, refuses to even consider buying navy beans. In fact, I remember her exact words:
“They were a dollar a pound. We used to eat them every day. I’ll be damned if I eat them now.”
The frustrating irony of all this is that if you were to consider this – the unwillingness to include traditionally inexpensive dietary staples – in the discussion about the expensiveness of healthy eating, you have to accept the facts: we’re rejecting healthy, inexpensive staples because they represent poverty to us. Little do we realize, that they were staples during lean times because they were inexpensive. That’s the point.
So, when you see a restaurant offering things like grits (or, in fancy speak, polenta), or things like ox tail, gizzards, tongue, hoof, brains and the like? That upscale attitude… is more about the price. Of course it makes sense to offer these things to wealthier people who may not’ve had to eat it growing up; they don’t know that it (and its various ways of being prepared) come from poor folks. Pay $0.79 per pound for turkey neck, put it on a plate with some kale, sell it for $19. That’s major profit. It’s smart. You, and your hang-ups about poverty, be damned.
But can grits actually serve as a part of a healthy diet? We’re talking about a minimally processed product, so of course it can. As long as you’re watching your portions, grits can not only be an inexpensive staple in a healthy eating routine, but you can enjoy them in numerous ways. My favorite, of course, is making little cakes out of them and frying them – believe it or not, because you’re only crisping the outside and not frying it all the way through like a chip, you wind up using less fat in frying them than you would if you were making a pot with cream or cheese. More on that later.
And, by later, I mean my next post.
How do you like your grits?