Kernels Through Time
Where the Roots of a Dish and a Region Intertwine
"Where do grits come from?"
The question was knocking around in my head as I sat down to lunch on the first day of the 2016 Southern Foodways Alliance Fall Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. The SFA, a group based at the University of Mississippi, was formed to and continuously works toward the mission of documenting and studying the various food cultures of the South, and had been putting on these food-fueled, thought-provoking weekends of discussion, education, and fellowship for more than twenty years. The theme on this particular weekend was "Corn as Symbol, Sustenance, and Problem," so there were talks covering topics like the prehistory of corn and its journey from southern Mexico into the southern reaches of the United States; of corn as the elemental grain of our diet; of corn as a syrupy fuel of the Coke revolution; of African Americans cooking corn bread and making moonshine. Throughout the corn-fueled weekend, I kept wondering how far back in time grits — ground or broken-down corn kernels that are mixed with liquid and cooked until soft — have been in existence.
For lunch, we were inside an event space called the Powerhouse, where many symposia meals took place. Chef Sean Sherman, who went by the moniker the Sioux Chef and whose mission was to educate, serve, and preserve Native American and indigenous foods and preparation techniques, had cooked for us that day.
The food was set on a plain wooden board. Disposable bamboo plates separated five neatly arranged combinations of food. Leaves and herbs, a symbol of the meal's natural elements, accented each dish. On my right, one plate held a pile of shredded, braised meat resting on top of a small mound of purplish-blue grits.
I took a bite of the grits. The meat that mingled with them was cedar-braised bison. Also on the plate were a teosinte flatbread and berried rabbit. The meal was a range of elemental notes, affected little by seasoning or salt. There was subtlety to each bite. Nothing was overdone. It was simple food that forced me to consider each ingredient, but also take note of what wasn't on the plate. In his cooking, Sean avoided the use of any European-introduced ingredients — so no sugar, dairy, flour, beef, pork, or chicken. Instead, he used wild edibles and protein, like fowl and freshwater fish, and the agricultural produce that once filled an indigenous diet, such as corn, sunflowers, and squash.
His grits tasted familiar — simmered slowly in liquid for an hour or more, they yielded a toothy bite that just barely revealed a bit of their kerneled past. Although these grits were blue, milled from an heirloom Cherokee corn variety that Sean had sourced from Anson Mills, the popular purveyor of milled heirloom grains, they tasted similar to so many versions I'd tasted on other Southern tables.
Few books reference the Native American experience with grits. Yes, there is plenty to be found about the deep indigenous connection with maize, but it's rare to find mention of Native Americans eating or preparing grits specifically. Those references that do exist refer mainly to a moment when British colonists arrived on the shores of Virginia and were greeted by indigenous people holding out steaming bowls of cracked maize. The stories don't go much deeper.
But for me, tasting those purple-blue grits that had been prepared by a member of the Sioux — a tribe located outside of what is now the American South — and by someone who was intent on showcasing the foods of his people, revealed a chasm of untold stories about the direct involvement of Native Americans in the creation of this dish. I found myself asking, Where are those stories? Is this where grits are from?
I later called Sean Sherman, looking for clarity. A member of the Oglala Lakota, Sean grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Now based in Minneapolis, he'd founded The Sioux Chef as a research project with a mission to showcase indigenous foods, specifically from his own native Dakota and Minnesota territories. The project had grown into a food truck and catering business — at the time of the conference, Sean was raising seed money for a new, all-indigenous restaurant, set to open in the coming year, and he was working on a book. Also, there was a nonprofit called NATIFS, short for North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. His hope was to create an educational food hub.
As a child on Pine Ridge Reservation, Sean and his family, like many others, faced poverty. To fight it, his mother went back to school, moving his family off the reservation and into a town in the Black Hills of South Dakota. As his mother studied, Sean spent hours at the college library, digging through books. A studious kid, he enjoyed learning. But he also needed to work. When he was old enough, he took a part-time job in a restaurant kitchen, mostly out of necessity — it was work he could find easily, even at the age of fifteen. He cooked in restaurant kitchens throughout high school, and then again throughout college in order to pay the bills. Something about the work stuck with him, and he moved to Minneapolis to pursue it. By the year 2000, he was working full-time as a chef.
Sean's early career coincided with the first moments of the farm-to-table movement — at the time, only five or six restaurants in Minneapolis touted organic or local ingredients. But he sought them out, choosing to work at the places that were sourcing directly from farmers and ranchers, those who were sowing the early seeds of understanding about how a food system involving grower, chef, and diner could be beneficial for everyone. There, a foundation was already being laid for Sean's understanding of how cooking could accomplish more than providing a meal. Following his curiosity, he started revisiting the foods of his own ancestry and heritage — he even wrote a menu early on made up entirely of indigenous foods and dishes.
Several years into his career, he had a breakthrough. Sitting on a beach in Mexico during an extended vacation, Sean noticed the indigenous community that populated the town where he was staying. The Huichol, he observed, kept their culture very much alive, especially through their foodways. The inspiration propelled him on a new path, with a mission to study and preserve his own heritage.
As he'd learned to do as an inquisitive child during those long days when his mother studied for her degree, Sean turned back to books, analyzing historical texts through a culinary lens. But he quickly learned how little recorded information there was, and how very few books he could find, especially in the form of first-person or first-contact narratives about foods from precolonial history. So he began formulating his own theories, filling the gaps by studying wild foods and plants, teaching himself about botany and the differences to be found in vegetation. As he dug, he formulated an understanding of the ways native people might have accessed the unadulterated outside world. He began to see, in both the past and the present, what it meant to use nature as pharmacy, as grocery store — as everything. Most plants had multiple uses, he learned. And, for centuries, that's what sustained human life.
"It's exciting as a chef to be able to look at indigenous history and see the plant and flavor diversity that exists," he told me. And although, he added, "we have no idea how many varieties we've lost, we have been able to hold on to a few shining examples. Slowly, we're trying to bring these things back."
Sean hadn't eaten grits as a kid, nor had he cooked them often as a chef. But he'd long been playing around with a number of indigenous cooking methods around corn. Nixtamalizing, in particular, was fascinating to him. People were regularly sending him different varieties of corn to experiment with, and he would apply several of the techniques his ancestors might have used, just to see what he could produce. He'd parch, then grind the corn; boil, then grind it; nixtamalize, then grind it. With every application, the corn would act differently, taste different. Like a detective sniffing out a case with few clues, he started to piece together, through these applications, a deeper narrative about how certain varieties of maize had been cultivated and bred for very specific uses.
An Origin Story
Today, we can trace corn back thousands of years, with two prevailing theories on its origins. Corn in its current iteration wasn't something that originally grew in the wild — it was a creation of human hands, a cultivated product. There's evidence that this first occurred in the Central Balsas River valley in southwestern Mexico. One theory suggests that it was a singular event that took place nine or ten thousand years ago when the wild grass teosinte was manipulated by human hands — its seeds selected and crossbred with other vegetation — to produce a version of the kerneled cob we know today. Others argue that it wasn't one moment but more likely a series of continual acts, with many years of agricultural work that employed various methods of cross-pollination and seed saving.
Regardless of the specifics, we know that maize started evolving immediately. With every planting cycle, people were messing with it, breeding new varieties to improve specific qualities. And they were carrying it to new places, sharing it with others, cultivating a different variety based on what suited the landscape or how they were preparing and eating it. These were agriculturalists, traditionally women, who bonded with their plants, creating a relationship with the environment around them — they were capable of understanding what characteristics needed to be strengthened and how to breed for that. They knew how to harness a plant's power and cultivate new varieties, getting different results depending on where it was grown, how well it grew, and what it was being used for. One corn was just right for roasting and popping, another for nixtamalizing, and another for dry grinding.
All the while, during thousands of years of this plant species' evolution, humans were passing along their methods for processing and cooking it, too. The method of making grits, which is as simple as grinding and cooking cornmeal or any other ground vegetable, like wild rice or squash, is a technique that can be found, historically, in just about any indigenous community around the world.
Archeologists studying the region of Central America, where maize likely originated, have uncovered hand stones and milling tools that date back to 8700 BC. So, almost as soon as corn existed, people were grinding it — it's not a stretch to think that they were also putting it in a pot, adding liquid, placing it over heat, and cooking it.
Maize took detours, traveling overseas to Europe via the Spanish, and to Africa, possibly via the Portuguese. From there, it spread farther east and south. We know this because we see corn and cornmeal in cultures all over the planet — there are versions of cornmeal mush, a form of grits, found in cultures throughout the Americas and in southern and central Africa. It goes by names like Indian pudding, armottes, mamaliga, mayi moulen, milha, and, of course, polenta. And each of those bowls of ground-corn nourishment, no matter what they're called, now contain thousands of years' worth of history.
Although corn crossed the ocean, not all of its processing methods went with it. Nixtamalization, for example, which had been passed along for centuries throughout Mesoamerica and North America, wasn't used widely on the corn that reached Europe. The act of soaking corn in wood ash, lye, or lime not only breaks down the kernel, removing the hull, but also adds the key component of alkaline, which alters the protein structure of the corn, increasing the specific protein that delivers niacin to the body — niacin being necessary for us to break down food molecules — as well as calcium, which is delivered to the body through the lime. Whether lime soaking first occurred by evolution or accident, the process allowed corn to become a nutritional staple of the indigenous diet.
Nixtamalization was an overlooked or possibly ignored process in much of Europe, as evidenced by those who experienced corn sickness, a disease that affected the skin, joints, and nervous system. The sickness was termed "pellagra" in Italy in 1771. By that point, polenta had become a dietary staple for many living in the mountainous regions of Italy, mainly peasants. Since corn was cheap and dry-grinding was a simple way to break it down, ground corn porridge was all many ate through winter — but without a protein-improving technique, the corn overwhelmed their system with proteins their bodies couldn't process. Hence, pellagra most often affected the poor. A century later, pellagra became an epidemic in parts of Africa and Egypt; in 1906, it was identified in the United States.
Now, more than a century later, we understand that the reason this nutritional deficiency didn't affect indigenous people, even those consuming large amounts of corn, was because almost every indigenous population that was growing corn, prior to European discovery, was also processing it with an added alkali.
The understanding of corn and the many methods of processing and cooking it was passed along through countless, unnamed indigenous hands — all agriculturists, cooks, and in their own way, nutritionists (again, mostly women). Eventually, maize arrived in the southeastern part of the United States about two thousand years ago.
Although there aren't many written accounts of what was consumed or how dishes were prepared in indigenous diets, grits, or more likely cornmeal mush, do appear in a small number of those. Nancy and Tony Plemmons, members of the Eastern Cherokee tribe in North Carolina, wrote about nixtamal and grits in their book Cherokee Cooking: From the Mountains and Gardens to the Table, published in 2000. One of the only food publications in existence that offers a truly Cherokee voice and experience, the self-published, hard-to-find, bound copies recount stories of the foods, ingredients, traditions, rituals, and cooking methods that have been passed down verbally for generations.
There is no recipe for grits in the book, but Nancy relays the stories of making mush from cornmeal. To make the meal, Cherokee women would use a grinding device called a kanona, a waist-high, hollowed-out log and a wooden paddle, like a pestle, that had one rounded end. As the pestle came down, the force was enough to crack the stubborn grains. The women would beat dried corn kernels, usually a white variety like Cherokee White Eagle, for thirty or forty minutes to make meal that would range in size from large grits to fine powder. And while they might mix all the meal with hot water in order to cook it down, the mixture would usually be pretty loose, and they wouldn't typically eat it as a porridge. Some might eat cornmeal mush in the morning, but they would also apply a range of other uses to it, like mixing it with chestnut meal to make a chestnut bread; or they would wait until the mixture cooled, then cut it into patties.
Before pigs were introduced to the region by Europeans, the Cherokee would use bear fat or buffalo fat to add heft and protein to the mixture. Or they would cook the cornmeal down with beans to round out the nutritional components of the corn.
Nancy and, for generations before, her ancestors, used nixtamalization to make hominy. They worked outdoors over a live fire using a large, oversize cauldron. There, a tall, wooden paddle was used to stir the corn together with water and wood ash pulled from the remnants of an earlier fire. The process took all day as the corn and ash cooked together. Once the kernel skins had softened, they would start to pop off, revealing the pillowy interior of the corn. The Cherokee might eat the hominy with other proteins, or make a lye dumpling called digu-nv-i. Once the dumplings were cooked, they could be wrapped in corn husks or hickory leaves and carried as a portable meal.
For centuries before European settlement, these methods were passed along orally, and taught, like the passing of the seed itself, by hand, bringing an early iteration of grits ever closer to the present.
Grits went through several turning points throughout the years. One of the first stands out. Around 1630, as settlers were landing on the shores of Virginia, tribes indigenous to that area offered assistance, exchanging both knowledge and food — here we arrive at the previously mentioned scene of indigenous hands holding bowls of maize out to the new arrivals. This paints a rosy snapshot — but we know that none of this happened easily or without fear. And yet, one can imagine that, like it still does today, the specific act of sharing food eased tensions, perhaps ever so slightly. It also opened up the door to the settlers who would bestow their European name — grist, previously applied to hulled, ground grains, and likely formed from the words grytt (for bran) and greot (for ground)3 — on the bowls of cracked, cooked maize set before them.