Kiss My Grits
Shane Mitchell hates grits. Thus, she is a heretic in her family, which has 325 years’ worth of roots deep in grits country — Edisto Island, S.C., to be precise. So The Bitter Southerner asked the impossible of her: Go forth, Shane, and learn to love grits. This is her story.
“Eat your grits.”
“Don’t you know?” asked my mother. “There are children starving in Africa.”
“Not my problem.”
“We don’t let food go to waste in this house, young lady, so you will sit there until every bite is gone.”
My mother, a beautiful redhead from Florence, S.C., knew this was an empty threat. We’d been at this kitchen table standoff over boiled-corn particulate before. Left on the plate long enough to congeal, either by accident or picky-eater pigheadedness, the breakfast bane of my childhood took on a disgusting texture: lumpy on top with a slimy underside like the exposed white belly of a dead snake flattened on the road. It made me gag, but there was a certain perverse pleasure to poking it with a fork.
I hate grits.
Buzzard poo. Spackling paste. Corpse skin.
As a cultural marker, this one sticks to the ribs of the region, so much that the states sandwiched between Texas and Virginia have been christened “The Grits Belt.” Georgia declared grits its official prepared food in 2002. A similar bill was introduced in South Carolina:
"Whereas, throughout its history, the South has relished its grits, making them a symbol of its diet, its customs, its humor, and its hospitality, and whereas, every community in the State of South Carolina used to be the site of a grits mill and every local economy in the State used to be dependent on its product; and whereas, grits has been a part of the life of every South Carolinian of whatever race, background, gender, and income; and whereas, grits could very well play a vital role in the future of not only this State, but also the world, if as Charleston's The Post and Courier proclaimed in 1952, 'An inexpensive, simple, and thoroughly digestible food, [grits] should be made popular throughout the world. Given enough of it, the inhabitants of planet Earth would have nothing to fight about. A man full of [grits] is a man of peace.'"
Despite this geographic ubiquity, all grits aren’t thoroughly digestible. Only recently I discovered that my distaste might have more to do with an inventor from Crystal Lake, Ill., than my parent’s stovetop skills.
Instant grits probably seemed like a good idea at the time. If you were raised in a Southern family during the 1970s, a man named Roy G. Hyldon was largely responsible for what wound up being served at breakfast. Postwar convenience foods still dominated supermarket shelves; “heirloom” referred to your Nana’s silver service; even brilliant cooks like my mother occasionally defaulted to a cardboard container emblazoned with the logo of a bewigged religious elder.
In 1967, Hyldon and his associate James T. Collins filed U.S. Patent 3,526,512 for perfecting “an instant food product of the corn grits type” for the Quaker Oats Co. The process as defined in the patent description involved admixing corn grits with polysaccharide gum and emulsifiers in order to create a product that can be prepared “by the mere addition of warm water … in a serving bowl.”
Buried in the patent’s technical lingo about “dried sheets of discrete particles in a starch matrix” is this unappetizing paragraph:
Still another advantage of our new combination of additives becomes apparent after the product is prepared for use. When conventional corn grits are prepared in large quantities and stored on a steam table or the like to keep them warm until serving, they soon become an adhesive mass or cake and lose the texture associated with grits. Our new process, however, has provided us with a corn grits product wherein the forming of an adhesive mass or cake is postponed several hours. This results in a product which retains the grits’ texture for the longest of normal serving times for the product.
What a depressing triumph of science over taste.
Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Market & Mill, coming through the rye on Edisto Island, S.C.
“I’ve got to move all this by end of the day,” says Greg Johnsman, dodging around 50-pound sacks of food-grade yellow dent corn piled atop pallets in his storage barn at Geechie Boy Market & Mill on South Carolina’s Edisto Island.
A heavyset man with impressive facial hair, the curlicue “Grits” logo on his T-shirt is dusted with meal. We’re inspecting his collection of vintage milling and farm equipment. A Gibbs Machinery Company grits separator. A 1953 John Deere tractor. A seed cleaner picked up from an academic studying peas in Georgia. An early Meadows grits bolter, which has the serial number 382 hand-stenciled on its wooden casing. (Only 600 were built before the company shifted to metal housings in the 1920s.) Johnsman flips open the lid and points to a smudged signature. Neither of us can decipher the name but the pencil script reads “Edisto Island” underneath.
Edisto is my family’s home ground. They have lived on this Lowcountry sea island for almost 325 years, through wars, pestilence, hurricanes, crop failure and real estate development. My father and brother are named for the place. My grandparents were born on adjacent farms. So were my great-grandparents. During several adolescent summer visits, Nana hauled me around to pay social calls in stuffy front parlors of plantation houses owned by distant cousins. Most mornings, some elderly female relative’s lumpy grits were served at breakfast and less-than-politely declined by an obstinate child with no discernable table manners whatsoever. Every year or so, I go back to clean Spanish moss off headstones in the family cemetery plot, inhale the iodine scent of pluff mud at low tide and eat boiled peanuts. (If you’re thinking, how can she like slimy peanuts but not slimy grits? Don’t be a jackass.) Johnsman’s operation is on the way, a few miles beyond the McKinley Washington Jr. Bridge on Highway 174.
Scenes from Edisto Island.
While Johnsman’s field hands unload collards from a flatbed truck parked in the cleaning shed, his wife Betsy fields orders from the storied Tavern on the Green in Manhattan’s Central Park, and their 5-year-old son Victor drags me by the hand to show off his baby chicks keeping warm in a cardboard box. They are nearly the same sunny shade as freshly ground corn heaping up in the climate-controlled milling room.
“I’ve never bought a new mill,” Johnsman shouts as the belt drive whirs on his mid-century separator. “Don’t know what that’s like. The old equipment turns at 600 rpm. The new equipment turns at 1,800 rpm.” He sticks a scoop of grits under my nose. “The beauty of all this old equipment is that slow speed does not generate much heat and leaves the corn in its most natural state. If I mill corn right out of the field, that’s cooking it. Here in the Deep South? This is the worse place in the world to mill with the humidity and everything.”
Cracking corn is an ancient technique. (The 1840s folk song “Blue-Tail Fly” lyric “Jim crack corn” actually refers to rotgut corn whisky. What has it got to do with grits? Stick with me on this.) Before mechanized mills, there were metate or hand querns. The early Mayans boiled maize in an alkaline solution of water and lime, which softened the hull and made the kernels easier to grind, transforming it into a more nutritious substance known as nixtamal. The Native American word hominy defines the same process, but leads us into a sticky semantics side issue, so let’s skip straight to what happened when colonial-era Americans introduced wind- and water-driven mills. George Washington’s gristmill was a profitable aspect of plantation life at Mount Vernon. In 1790, the newly inaugurated U.S. Patent Office granted inventor George Evans Patent 3 for his automated milling technology. From there to Hyldon’s Patent 3,526,512 is a matter of 177 years and several left turns in Southern breakfast history.
Greg Johnsman’s separator falls somewhere in between on this timeline, before small mills became obsolete in rural Southern communities. When forced between his mill’s bed and runner stones, the corn kernels are cracked, then sifted through screens as bran is skimmed off. The grind is adjusted depending on the orders Johnsman needs to fill. His grits are catching on beyond the “Belt.” Naturally, Southern chefs like Sean Brock of Husk, Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner, and Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill are faithful customers. But when the phone rings these days, it might be Christopher Kostow at Meadowood in Napa. April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig in New York. Paul Kahan at Blackbird in Chicago.
“We can create all cornmeal or all chicken feed,” he says. “But our business is making grits, so we have to find a common balance.” He points to a crate of stitch-sealed paper sacks. “That’s some Jimmy Red we just milled for Brock.” He grabs up a bag of this rare kernel variety, which Slow Food recently added to its Ark of Taste heritage food catalog, and offers it to me.
At his roadside market, the two of us chug bottles of Cheerwine from the cooler and continue the history lesson. Above our heads hangs a battered wooden scoop.
“That looks insignificant, but it’s one of the most special pieces I have,” explains Johnsman. “A miller said to me: ‘Son, this is the money.’ Families brought in their corn and got the meal back. But the miller would take one scoop out of your bag and set it to the side. Then he would sell it to doctors and lawyers in town. So that’s a tariff scoop. It’s not a standard measurement, but it’s how he made a living.”
Johnsman collects historic milling tools, such as the "tariff scoop" (first photo) and a "dough board" for scooping grits from the separator.
In the corner, behind piles of just-picked vegetables from the farm, sits a 1945 mill and separator he promised to put on display after buying it from a retired miller in Saluda, N.C. He points to an innocuous nail on one side below the meal screener.
“You see that nail?” he asks. “It took me two years to figure out what it was for. Someone prior to me found a shortcut. By adding that one nail was how he could hold a bag properly and improve the product process drastically.
“There’s no miller store, no technical school; milling was just taught and passed on from whatever benefited each person,” he continues. “So when I find these little nuances I kind of get to hold hands with a gentleman who came before me.”
I examine an inscription Johnsman hand-lettered in black on the mill’s wood casing: High Speed Chicken Feed.
“At the time, I thought it had to do with corn,” he admits. “Someone had to tell me it’s trucker slang for uppers.”
“Yaller is for critters,” recites Glenn Roberts.
In an outbuilding at Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center (CREC), a few miles south of Charleston on the Savannah Highway and directly across from the seed vaults at the U.S. Vegetable Lab, we’re looking at a kernel of Jimmy Red under a magnifying glass. If Johnsman is miller and farmer, then Roberts is miller and missionary. The founder of Anson Mills, this lanky Californian is an expert on antebellum identity crops. John Haulk, Bloody Butcher, White Eagle, Carolina Gourdseed White. Some have better pedigrees than a St. Cecilia Society debutante.
“If you grew up South of Broad in Charleston, you’d never eat anything but white grits,” he says. Upcountry and farther along the frontier, he claims, common folk couldn’t afford to be so picky about the color of their breakfast cereal. Roberts’s second favorite hobby is hunting for feral plants. He drives an electric car. His mother was raised on Edisto during the Depression and learned her skillet skills from a Gullah nanny. Even though he grew up in California, the family still ate like Southerners.
“Mom had grits flown out to La Jolla,” Roberts says. “My surfing buddies would come around and she would be making grits and greens for dinner.”
Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, at left, and Dr. Brian Ward of CREC.
Just in from the fields where late fall crops are still being tended, Dr. Brian Ward holds up the Jimmy Red kernel and identifies components for me: pericarp, endosperm, germ, tipcap. A horticultural specialist in charge of the Organic Research Farm, he wears khaki shorts, mud-scuffed work boots and a checked shirt bearing the university’s bright orange tiger paw logo.
Remember I mentioned there was a connection between cheap booze and grits? The salvation of Jimmy Red may be tied to the illegal whiskey trade. Known formally as James Island Red, this auburn-hued corn was supposedly co-opted by Gullah moonshiners, who hid their stills in piney woods behind the fields they planted. True or not, it makes for a fine origin story. As Scott Blackwell of High Wire Distilling explains: “If you can get good grits out of a corn, you can make a good whiskey. There’s a direct correlation between starch and sugar. And Jimmy Red’s starch has character.” Amateur seedsman Ted Chewning, who farms in the ACE Basin, acquired three precious ears from a friend who died before harvesting his last crop, insuring its tenuous existence. So far, Chewning has been able to trace the actual genesis to a farmer named Elmore Humphries, born in Screven, Ga., about 40 miles from the coast, in 1895. But that’s where the trail stops.
“I have some of [Chewning’s] original Jimmy Red in the vaults across the street,” says Ward. “This kernel is from the more purified line. It took 10 years. We kept picking the best of the best plants in the field.”
Roberts chimes in. “All maize was originally human sustenance. And it’s non-persistent, so without human intervention, it does not survive. That’s fairly unique because most of the early staple cereals were self-pollinating and self-replicating. Corn is different: It doesn't replicate, it will cross, it’ll drift, it does everything you don’t want a plant to do. If you hit on something that tastes really good you have to work hard to keep it the same.”
Heirloom varieties of corn from the CREC seed vault.
Corn cultivation in the Lowcountry dates back to South Appalachian Mississippian mound culture. (That’s 800-1600 A.D.) During the Antebellum era, plantations developed their own corn-provision systems with distinct cultivars — John Haulk, Henry Moore, Jimmy Red — that horticultural scientists like Ward consider the holy grail of Southern corn flavor.
“Once you get a rare or culturally distinct seed,” Roberts says, “the end goal is not to privatize it, but to get it back on people’s tables.” He turns to Ward. “Hey! Did you know Jimmy Red is selling for $18 a pound right now?”
We move to a table where Ward has a dozen more oddball corn cultivars laid out. Roberts ticks off kernel shapes: “There’s every degree of cross from flint to dent here.” To understand the evolution of grits in the South, he asserts, it’s crucial to know the morphologies and classes of corn, because some are more suitable than others for fresh grits.
“If you’ve ever tried to hand quern flint corn? It’s the hardest substance produced by the plant kingdom,” he explains. “And the reason you don’t see grits in the North is because, as you move north, there’s more and more flint class and you can’t make fresh grits from flint corn. Dent is much easier to mill. Even so, coarse grits originally came into fashion because nobody wanted to have to pass it through a hand mill again and again.”
Roberts and I take a spin around the fields where grape, indigo, sorghum and rice experiments are underway as Ward loads his truck with bins of heritage field-pea varietals being stored until the next planting season. CREC is based on a 325-acre farm that has been dedicated to agricultural research since the 1930s — after the sea island cotton industry finally collapsed, most Lowcountry farms shifted to vegetable “truck” farming; at its coastal facility, the University began developing disease-resistant tomatoes, okra, beans, melons and cabbage. Now, Ward’s rare seed studies reflect the rising interest in preserving the earlier Lowcountry pantry.
“Want to know a good definition of old-fashioned grits and why we miss them?” Roberts asks. “There used to be signs on the side of the best toll mills that would say ‘fresh grits.’ And that meant new crop, fully robust corn with bright field flavor, still carrying nuances of sweet corn, as well as minerality or dairy or nuts. To keep chunks of the germ, where the flavor resides, along with the hard-starch endosperm, you have to mill to a big particle size instead of milling it all to powder.”
So why did we ever shift away from something that at least sounds so delicious?
“Instant grits were easy,” replies Roberts. “Coarse grits were the better way to get flavor out of a mill product but you give up speed: The cooking time is 90 minutes. Two hours are even better. Best? Soak it overnight, just let it ferment, expanding the flavor profile and nutrition of the corn. Then bring up the heat.”
It’s getting late and I’m hungry. Roberts walks me to my car. “Know what Native Americans call corn?” he asks.
On the farm at CREC.
When Pat Conroy published “The Prince of Tides” in 1986, my parents copied out full paragraphs and left them taped to the refrigerator for each other to find. Late at night, I could hear them still snorting with laughter in our kitchen. Parts of chapter 11 were their absolute favorite, where Lila Wingo serves sweetbreads and coq au vin to her uncouth shrimper husband in a quixotic attempt to gain membership in the Colleton League via their snooty cookbook “containing the best recipes in the Lowcountry.” As with the finest humor, it cuts close to the bone.
My mother was a self-taught cook. The only two books in her pantry were “Larousse Gastronomique” and “Charleston Receipts,” which like Conroy’s fictional version was compiled by Lowcountry ladies of a certain social standing. (My Nana’s sister, Fannie Lee Anderson Seabrook, contributed a palmetto pickle recipe.) Similar to Glenn Roberts, I grew up eating Southern, although my parents relocated to New York before I was born. My mother’s fried chicken, hot out of the pan or cold on a picnic, was food for the soul. Her spoonbread was lighter than cotton candy and her pan gravy smoother than velouté. She missed the soaking humidity of a Southern coastal summer, missed girlfriends who once danced the shag on weekends at Myrtle Beach, missed other people who sounded like her. It was she who encouraged the social calls with family who remain rooted in the Lowcountry.
I would be less crazy if she hadn’t.
To be of a place but not from it has been the crux of a lifelong identity crisis. To lack the drawl yet still address collectives with “y’all.” Belong to a clan 10 generations deep but live in a place where no one frankly gives a damn. Feel ambivalent on visits to the few relatives still occupying those big white houses on Edisto and South of Broad. Would it make me more authentically Southern if I did like that little white mound of food?
The Lowcountry’s most ballyhooed dish is shrimp and grits. Unlike other regions in the Grits Belt, where country ham or livermush or red-eye gravy is its companion on the plate, the Carolina coast prefers shellfish for breakfast. (The height of shrimping season and the corn harvest overlap in the Lowcountry.) Always on the horizon this time of year, the commercial boats, rigging extended, nets dragging, a-sway on the tidal swell. But the tiny sweet shrimp that swarm in salt marsh creeks, rippling across the water’s surface like a gust of wind, are most prized for this dish. The best way to catch them is to wade in with a cast net, bare feet sinking in the plumey sediment of decaying spartina grass.
The standard recipe in “Charleston Receipts” involves sautéing fresh shrimp in bacon grease with an onion and bell pepper. Stock from the pinched heads or shells and a little flour is added until the whole mess is slightly soupy. A dash of cayenne, a slug of Worcestershire. Then poured over hot grits. Comfort food for homesick parents.
Jimmy Red grits, and the shrimp to go with them, on the stove in the kitchen of Husk in Charleston. At right, Husk's finished rendering of shrimp and grits with runner beans in tomato broth.
Until recently, no one from Charleston would bother ordering homey shrimp and grits in a sit-down restaurant. Coinciding with the revival of fresh grits milling, however, Lowcountry chefs have put it on the menu for visitors “from off” who don’t own a net or boat. Hominy Grill serves shrimp, mushrooms and bacon over cheese grits. Dixie Supply tops it with scallions and chicken gravy; a grossly sweet cube of cornbread squats on the bowl. I order yet another version at the Glass Onion drowning in mushroom gravy.
“You don’t want it to look like prison food,” says the waiter.
Or, I think, albino puke from a cardboard cylinder.
According to a spokesperson at The Quaker Oats Co., the South continues to be the largest per capita consumer of instant grits, and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in St. George, home to the World Grits Festival. Every April since 1986, this town in Dorchester County, 53 miles upcountry from Charleston, has hosted a weekend celebration of grits eating and corn tossing. Almost 30,000 people attend. The festival highlight involves an inflatable kiddie pool brimming with viscous corn particles in a starch matrix. Contestants dive in, roll around and then weigh themselves. The winner has the most grits adhered.
The real thing: Jimmy Red corn.
Do not attempt this with Jimmy Red grits. While seedsmen like Ted Chewning and Dr. Brian Ward continue to propagate more, and millers like Greg Johnsman and Glenn Roberts stockpile it for certain lucky chefs, this pure line of hand-selected corn is still hard to come by.
“On the cob it’s yellow,” says Chewning, who spoke to me on the phone from his farm in Walterboro. “And only turns blood red when it dries down. We’re guessing it was a moonshine corn because of the way it finishes after fermenting. Throughout the history of whiskey in America, people saved their seeds. But it’s still a mystery. We all love a mystery.”
One morning I drop by Husk, in downtown Charleston, where a plain pot of Jimmy Red grits awaits me. It’s not South of Broad white or Critter yellow, but somewhere in between, flecked with telltale red bran. Cooked low and slow for hours, in equal parts water and whole milk, it has chewy density. Some weird alchemy between this milled corn and dairy imparts creamy, cheesy goodness. The corn’s flavor isn’t masked either. I eat a spoonful. Then another. And another.
I don’t gag.
Greg Johnsman's son, Victor, in the "Grits Patrol" car, a 1967 Impala (originally a state vehicle used by the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond) that Greg bought and restored. In the second photo, Greg's father-in-law, Adair McKoy, carries his gransdon, Moses Johnsman. The final photo: one of Edisto Island's countless picturesque landscapes.
My mother didn’t witness the fresh grits renaissance. She died up north unable to eat solid food in the summer of 1989. Her ashes rode in the trunk when we drove her back down South for the last time. One Christmas before she got sick, however, I gave her a kitchen apron, silk-screened with the wisecrack made famous by her favorite “Alice” sit-com character Flo. It read: “Kiss My Grits.”
She wore it with pride.