Grits: America's First Food

Oct 23, 2017

"On every breakfast plate in the South, there always appears a little white mound of food. Sometimes it's ignored. Sometimes insulted. But without it, the sun wouldn't come up, the crops wouldn't grow, and most of us would lose our drawl." That's what Bill Neal and David Perry said in a little cookbook published a few years ago. They were talking, of course, about grits. And, at least from a Southerner's point of view, they didn't overstate the case by much. 

The standing which grits have in the South (where they are even served at some McDonald's) was first driven home to me some 25 years ago on one of our family's first visits to Memphis. Breakfast and brunch buffets were our choice of dining experiences back then, and at every food line we went through we spotted what we thought was Cream of Wheat. We fed our son, who was but an infant at the time, bowl after bowl of it before we discovered much later in the week that the substance was really grits. In retrospect, I realize how much luckier he is than I. As a Northerner I had to wait until adulthood to taste my first serving of this uniquely American food.

It's a shame that, despite an occasional upsurge of interest in them, grits have not traveled much outside the South.

It's ironic that grits get so little respect while polenta, a slightly more refined cousin is all the rage. After all, grits have greater historical significance. As Tim Warren writing in the Smithsonian magazine points out, they were arguably America's first food. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia introduced grits to the early settlers as early as 1629.

If you think grits resemble library paste, you obviously have never tried the real thing. True grits, if you will. One taste of a classic dish like Carolina Shrimp and Grits and you'll see that grits are deserving of the attention of any gourmet.

We can only hope that one day grits will get the same level of respect above the Mason-Dixon Line that they now get below it.