April 22, 2002
-- For some, the word grits
is an all too descriptive name for a dish whose main feature might be unfavorably remembered as coarsely ground pieces of dried corn moistened into a mealy paste.
Not much more gastronomical romance is added by the theory that the name comes from grist, as in grist mill, or from grytte -- a Middle English word meaning coarse, or coarsely ground. But among those in the know, grits are a notable ingredient in America's culinary melting pot.
For Morning Edition
, NPR's Linda Wertheimer
reports on the history of the dish. As part of Present at the Creation
, she visited some of the tables where humble grits hold a mythic stature.
The myth has some basis in reality. Grits have played a central role in sustaining American families. In 1607, as British adventurers stepped off the boats in what would later become Jamestown, Va., grits were a likely offering on the first dinner tables.
Historian John Egerton says that in addition to the pigs that these travelers brought along with them, grits became an important part of early Southern agriculture.
"Both of them are good for this region because they will grow anywhere," he notes. "They're economical foods and so they serve the poor and the rich alike."
Visitors to Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House in Lynchburg, Tenn., can get a taste of some of the developments in grits preparation over the past few centuries. The folks at the restaurant are aware of the role the dish has played in the survival of the region.
"Historically, I think grits got the South through the Depression," says Lynne Tolley, the hostess at Miss Mary Bobo's. "Because if it hadn't been for grits... they wouldn't have had anything to eat."
The versatility and hardiness of the dish carries over into its preparation: grits are simple enough that kids can make them from scratch, as Bernie Billingsley, another patron of Miss Mary Bobo's, attests.
"It seems to me that when I was a kid we would make our own grits," he remembers. "Take the corn, put it in a big kettle, and boil it and I believe we put some lye in it to make the hominy. And then we drained that and put it in a grinder."
Multiply that process a few hundred times and you probably still don't come close to the quantity of grits churned out at Falls Mill in Belvidere, Tenn. Wertheimer reports that the mill, powered by a three-story waterwheel, is a massive barn-like building where corn is fed from an upstairs bin down through the millstones. According to mill owner John Lovett, the stones are set slightly wider apart for grits, producing the course texture.
Grits might come out of the mill looking ordinary -- like tiny white pebbles -- but they can be dressed up almost any way imaginable. From grits with butter and salt or a little bit of sugar, to the Garlic Cheese Grits served at Miss Mary Bobo's (not to mention dinner tables across the South), to the squid stuffed with tasso ham and served up on grits by chef Peter Smith of Washington, D.C.'s Vidalia Restaurant, the Southern staple has a versatility that begs for experimentation.
So whether they're the instant, just-add-boiling water version from supermarket shelves or the new fashion in chic cuisine, grits have been a part of American meals for 400 years, and they don't appear to be leaving the table anytime soon.
Learn more about grits at grits.com
Visit the Falls Mill
Read about Miss Mary Bobo's
Browse profiles of the Vidalia Restaurant
and its owners
. Read a recipe for Vidalia's signature version of shrimp and grits
Read recipes and other information on grits