Grits can simultaneously be both an item of pride and an item of derision. On the old TV show “Mel,” the cartoonish waitress Flo used to insult people by drawling out, “Kiss my grits.” In the movie “My Cousin Vinny,” Joe Pesci was able to break down the testimony of a faulty witness by challenging how fast “boiling water soaks into a grit.” You can find many varieties of grits on grocery shelves all over the South, but almost nowhere in the north. When my wife and I lived in Iowa (as in MAJOR corn-producing Iowa), we only found one grocery store in town that stocked grits, and only one Cracker Barrel that served them. Yankees like to make fun of grits, and they enjoy depicting grits consumption as something derogatory and backwards. Yet, I’ve seen t-shirts in the South that make various acronyms from grits, such as Girls Raised In The South, and so forth. Southerners love to feature grits because they’re just such a Southern icon.
I don’t really think too much about all that, because I just like to eat them.
More than likely, grits are an evolution from an old Creek Indian sour corn soup known as sofke (pronounced very similarly to “SOFT key”). Probably the two most important things to know about sofke are that it was prepared in many different ways depending on where you were, and it was definitely an acquired taste. Yep, that sounds like grits, all right. Southerners are highly (and regionally) creative when it comes to cooking grits, and Yankees simply can’t stand the taste of them, mostly because they don’t know how to cook them.
In their basic form (ground corn and water), grits taste terrible. A pot of grits by itself is not a food item. It can become cement if it’s allowed to dry on ceramic surfaces, and I even once read about a woman charged with assault by hot grits against a cheating husband. But if you actually want to eat them, you have to give them flavor. Salt is a MUST. Grits without salt could turn your taste buds inside out, because salt tends to ease the bitterness while enhancing the corn flavor. I’ve talked to a few Yankees who add sugar or cinnamon-sugar to their grits instead of salt, but I don’t get that. Grits are not the same thing as oatmeal, and should never be treated as such. Butter, bacon (and bacon grease), cheese, sausage, Worcestershire (nighttime grits, only) and shrimp are the most common additives, but Southerners can be as creative as the old Creeks when it comes to ways of making something inherently nasty taste incredibly fantastic.
My favorite ingredients? Salt, butter, bacon, and cheese. Simple and elegant.