The movie "My Cousin Vinny" gave us a classic laugh line when actor Joe Pesci, playing a New Jersey lawyer confronting breakfast in the Deep South, asks: "What's a grit?"
There's still some confusion over whether "grits" should be treated in the singular or the plural. But there's no mistaking where grits come from. They are ground corn, familiar as the indigenous grain to early Native Americans who passed them along to the first white settlers. Grits remain a staple of Southern cuisine.
The Indians soaked dried corn in lye, removing the tough shell or pericarp to produce large, soft kernels called "hominy." The large pieces could be ground into tiny grains we now call "grits." But it gets very confusing, because now grits are widely made from untreated corn but still called "hominy grits."
You can still find grits made the old fashioned way--dried corn ground between huge granite wheels. The process results in a fine powder, sold as corn meal, as well as the larger grains, sold as grits. These grits usually take an hour at least to fully cook and are considered by some the only proper kind of grits to serve. Otherwise, the grits sold in supermarkets under the Quaker Oats and other brands have been further processed to cook in as little as 20 or even 5 minutes, in the case of "instant grits." But be warned. Instant grits may taste more like library paste if you are used to the real deal.
Being from Chicago, grits were utterly foreign to me until I moved to the District of Columbia. In my student days, about a century ago, I worked at a federal job that started each morning before the crack of dawn. Our first break was breakfast. I recall musing over the strange mush I saw next to the scrambled eggs on the steam table in the cafeteria. I remember thinking it looked vaguely like cream of wheat. That, I was told, were grits.
Sadly, I never really developed a lasting taste for grits. A pity, because they can be truly delicious if made carefully and slowly in the traditional manner. In the South, grits are a virtual staple, served with ham and smothered in gravy. But grits are not just breakfast food. Shrimp and grits have risen to a fine art, suitable for the finest restaurants, in Charleston. Add eggs and they can become a sublime souffle.
While we are roaming around the South on our virtual world food tour, our "food appreciation" classes sampled old-fashioned grits seasoned with cheese. We used the yellow corn grits sold in bulk at the Whole Foods. Some cultures disdain yellow corn as unfit for humans. They insist on white corn. But I must say I don't detect any difference in taste.
First, soak 1 cup of fresh grits in a large bowl of water. Stir the grits at the bottom of the bowl. This will bring the tough bran from the milling process to the surface of the water where it can be swept away with a strainer. Meanwhile, heat 2 cups of water with 2 cups of milk in a heavy saucepan over moderately low heat. Strain the grits and add these to the pot. Cook very gently for about 1 hour, stirring frequently so that the grits do not stick to the bottom of the pan and burn. Slowly the grits will absorb the liquid, swell and become thicker. Add more milk if desired.
When the grits have reached your desired thickness (not thin and runny, but not thick enough to mound either), remove from the heat and add about 1 cup grated cheddar cheese. We used a yellow Vermont cheddar. Stir until the cheese is fully incorporated, then season with salt as needed. You can also add butter and/or cream if you like. But we thought our grits were perfectly delicious as is.
With our grits, I showed the kids how to cook bacon in the oven. I almost prefer bacon out of the oven to that fried in a skillet. It always comes out flat and pleasing to the eye--not all curly and wild--and it's so much easier to cook a large quantity on a baking sheet than on the stove top. We covered the baking sheet with parchment paper to prevent the bacon sticking. Cleanup is a breeze.
Do you keep a jar of bacon grease? There was a time when I stopped, thinking the pork fat would kill me. But I'm back to saving it, especially from the good Niman Ranch pork we get at Whole Foods.