I am ashamed to say this as a Southerner, but I took grits for granted.
They were always there on my breakfast plate. A comfortable replacement for Cream of Wheat. White. Creamy. Sweet. Slathered with butter. Why should they dream to be anything else? Why should I think they had other dreams?
As happens too often when we take those we love for granted, my grits were marginalized. So sure of their purpose in my kitchen, I had never considered their full potential. Never even considered their very nature.
My whole grit eating reality collapsed around me in college, when one of my friends, Elizabeth prepared a grand breakfast for me while I was visiting her one weekend. Eggs. Bacon (I know I have mentioned this before, but bacon makes everything better–BMEB). English muffins. Garlic and cheese grits.
WHOA! What the? Garlic? And cheese? The slathering of butter would be just fine, but how on earth was I to justify the requisite addition of sugar? With my grit world being sufficiently collapsed, I finished my breakfast in a shock so deeply numbing that I couldn’t tell you anything else about it.
How had this happened? How could my grits have betrayed me so? As I tried to come to terms with my new reality, it slowly began to occur to me that I had never really known grits at all.
You know how when you are sad, they seem to be playing only sad songs on the radio? Or when you broke up with your college sweetheart, you turned to a pint of Haagen Dazs and some sappy old movies that served only to amplify your feelings of despair and loneliness?
Well, my friend, it was no different with grits. I sat watching My Cousin Vinnie in the company of friends. The very, very Yankee Vinnie, played by Joe Pesci, is sitting in a small Mississippi diner, where he has been served a proper southern breakfast. He asks the short order cook “what is a grit?” The cook replies “them hominy grits…” WHAT?! “What is a grit?” What kind of infernal Yankee question was that?! Wait a minute..
What IS a grit? Why is it that of all the movies, on all the channels, on all the Saturday nights, I had to stumble into that one?
With the sting of my breakfast betrayal still so fresh, the stark realization set in at that moment. My grits had not betrayed ME. It was I that had betrayed them. Never even known their true essence. Never considered their other potential uses. Please pass the Haagen Dazs–Rum Raisin, please! And like we do too many times in our other relationships, I might have learned a lesson that day, but it would be years before I applied the knowledge.
In order to figure out what a hominy grit really was, I first had to figure out what hominy really was. For some reason, hominy was something that everyone seemed to donate to the canned food drives when I was a kid, but I never saw anyone eat it. Inspired by Joe Pesci, I learned that hominy is a kind of corn. It is also known as posole. Being a common ingredient in menudo, it is very relevant here in Texas. I do not eat menudo, but not because of the hominy. See my earlier posting where I discuss my position on eating tissue that was once part of the digestive tract, and you’ll understand my position on menudo. Posole is the key ingredient in the stew of the same name, which is popular in Mexican and Southwestern US kitchens. Somehow, knowing what hominy actually IS made the thought of it being served in savory dishes more plausible. Afterall, we don’t serve corn in overtly sweet dishes, right? Okay, that’s not right either, although as a kid, it was all I knew. Cut me some slack…Kids are big of mouth, and narrow of mind.
What have I learned since? Well, I’d like to quote this little nugget, by Tina the tour guide at the Alamo, in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure: “there are thousands and thousands of uses for corn, all of which I will tell you about right now….” Okay, no I won’t…But, what? Don’t you turn to Pee Wee Herman for cultural wisdom?
Anyway, hominy comes in both yellow and white varieties. When dried and ground, it is called either grits, or polenta. Grits in the US, and Polenta in Italy. Usually, polenta is made with yellow hominy and grits made with white. However, they are pretty well interchangeable, so don’t knock yourself out trying to find one if the other is available. Just try at all costs to avoid using instant grits. No self-respecting Southerner eats instant grits, so if you want to be authentic about it, best follow that guidance. I suspect no self-respecting Italian grandmother would serve instant polenta, either. In fact, I have never heard of it.
Learning to apply all of this corny knowledge did not happen overnight. (I believe that is what my English teacher would have called a double entendre). Rather, it was a slow awakening born mostly in local restaurants and on cooking shows. It started with a lovely bowl of Caldo Xochitle, laden with chicken, and avocado, and posole. It included watching a pot of Shrimp and Grits come to life on a cooking show. Provocative, sexy even, how the yellow polenta turned thick and creamy with the addition of copious quantities of shredded cheese. The shrimp was sautéed with bacon, and lemon, and garlic, then piled on top of the steaming hot, creamy, cheesy grits. A spattering of green onions and a dash of hot sauce later, and I had an epiphany… I could eat that. A savory grit. One that was not covered with sugar and eaten with eggs and bacon. Even though BMEB.
So, I made some. The very next evening. Oh, that I had applied the lesson so much earlier in my life. It was divine. Creamy. Cheesy. Garlicky. And topped with mounds of tasty shrimp. I figured my husband would not dig it, so I put about 2 tablespoons of grits and one shrimp in a tiny bowl and had him sample it. Clearly, grits were not the only thing I did not know as well as I thought–my finicky guy loved them. Big lesson learned for him, too! It is a favorite in our house. In fact, I eat them savory more often than sweet these days.
Shrimp and Grits Serves 6 hungry people (or 8 otherwise) Grits:
- 2 cups yellow corn grits, or polenta
- 2 cloves finely minced fresh garlic
- 1 t salt
- 1 t ground black pepper
- 1/3 cup butter
- 4 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese (must be sharp)
Bring 8 cups of water to boil over medium high heat. Add in the grits, salt, pepper, and garlic. Stir to break up the grits. Reduce heat to medium low, and simmer until thick, about 20 minutes. Stir in the butter and cheese, beating until smooth and creamy, about one minute. While the grits cook, prepare the shrimp…….. Shrimp:
- 2-2.5 pounds of medium shrimp, peeled, headed and deveined
- 1 pound of thick cut bacon, chopped
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- juice of one lemon
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 1 bunch green onions, sliced (including the green parts)
- Louisiana Hot sauce, to taste
In a large skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until crisp. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon to a paper towel. Add the garlic and shrimp to the bacon drippings, and cook for 5 minutes, or until the shrimp are just done. Add the parsley and lemon juice, and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the bacon back to the skillet, and serve. To serve, divide grits among serving dishes. Divide shrimp onto the top of the grits. Top with green onion and hot sauce to taste. Enjoy the warm, comforting Southern hug!