It's said there are three basic food groups for Southerners: sugar, lard and bourbon. Of course, this leaves out the most important food group, the one no self-respecting Southerner would turn down: grits.
People From Away (anywhere north, east or west of the South) don't always understand the attraction to the bland, mushy, white mound of cereal. They often liken grits to wet plaster or wallpaper paste. But most of these foreigners have eaten only diner grits, which often are unsalted and watery.
Properly cooked grits, seasoned with salt, a little butter and/or some grated cheese, are perhaps the quintessential comfort food. They are filling, cozy and simple. On top of that, if you leave out the butter and the cheese, they contain almost no fat. They're high in carbohydrates and they're really cheap to eat (about 5 cents per serving for nationally known brands). Their food value, widespread availability and low cost have made them a staple of regional diets for centuries.
In recent years, grits have been rediscovered by chefs and food writers who once considered them too humble to be of any culinary importance. Now chefs at innovative restaurants in the South recognize the value of grits to the region's cuisine and have begun putting them on their menus.
Stone-ground or "speckled heart" grits are the current favorite. (Stone-ground grits compare to white grits much like whole-wheat flour does to white; white grits have the germ and the hull removed, and with them go much of the flavor and nutritive value.)
The standard preparation is to cook the grits in water and cream until they are luxuriously thick and creamy. Then you add butter, cheese or even garlic. The resulting dish is then served as a complement to highly seasoned and sauced seafood and meat dishes.
In Charleston, N.C., they are served in several of the city's most popular upscale restaurants: Magnolia's offers Skillet-Seared Yellow Grits With Tasso Gravy, Louis' Charleston Grill serves smothered crawfish on fried grits, and The Old Post Office has a grits and fried chicken combination.
The renowned Crooks's Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C., serves Shrimp and Grits, as concocted by the late chef/owner, Bill Neal. The New York Times' Craig Claiborne (a native Mississippian) was so smitten with the dish that he published the recipe in his column. At Savannah's Elizabeth on 37th, grits are served as an appetizer, fried with salmon and leeks; at Atlanta's The Cafe at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, they are stuffed and rolled with spinach, onions and \o7 pancetta\f7 ; Birmingham's Highland Bar & Grill bakes them with wild mushrooms, fresh thyme and country ham.
This newfound acceptance of grits has spawned the publication of two cookbooks in the past year: the "Good Old Grits Cookbook" by Bill Neal and David Perry (Workman) and more recently "Gone With the Grits" by Diane Pfeifer (Strawberry Patch Publishing).
The residents of St. George, S.C., don't need the \o7 haute cuisine\f7 folks to tell them that grits are good. For the past seven years, they have paid tribute to their favorite food with the World Grits Festival. Fried fish and grits dinners are sold, there are competitions involving grits (like the grits-filled balloon toss), and samples of the winning dishes in the Martha White Grits Cook-Off are served up. And, of course, the Grits Queen is chosen. Festival organizers contend that more grits are sold in the Lowcountry of South Carolina than anywhere in the world, and no one has come forward to dispute their claim.
Fortunately, you don't have to be a Southerner to enjoy grits--and you certainly don't have to be a chef to cook them. Your preparation can be as simple as a warm bowl of grits topped with the aforementioned butter and cheese, crumbled bacon or even maple syrup. Some Southerners like them with a slightly sweet, chunky tomato sauce or plain yellow mustard. They are even surprisingly good with a dollop of pesto.
But perhaps you still feel uncertain about whether you really want to eat that blob of paste sitting on your breakfast plate. Bill Neal and David Perry anticipated your concern--in their book they offer a step-by-step guide to enjoying grits. Listen up.
"Ya'll got your forks? OK, now, cut into one of the eggs and let the yellow run toward the grits. Fork up some of those grits. Now get you a piece of sausage on the end. Drag the whole thing through that yellow egg juice. Eat it.
"Wudn't that good? You got it now?"
Cooking grits could not be simpler. Serve them with your favorite condiment, meat or gravy. Here are three recipes for preparing Basic Grits. Basic Grits can be added to other preparations, like Jalapeno Grits Casserole, or chilled for slicing and frying later.
* Quick Basic Grits: