Grits are synonymous with the American south. Let’s find out why!
What are grits anyway?
Made from dried and ground corn, boiled in water, broth, or milk to make a creamy porridge, grits are a food staple throughout the southern United States and have gained popularity across the country.
Grits, or dishes like grits, have been around for a very long time. The name comes from early European explorers that were looking at land to establish new settlements.
Sir Walter Raleigh and his crew were introduced to the dish in the early 16th century. During their explorations, they came across the Muskogee-Creek Indians, who had established settlements in the areas that are now Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas.
The Native Americans offered to share their foods with this group, and one of the things they gave the men was this porridge made from ground corn. The explorers thought this was pretty good stuff, and they took corn back to Europe with them.
Later, when settlers arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, the native peoples showed them how to cook with corn. The type of corn used was plentiful, and the dish quickly became a staple with the settlers.
The word grits comes from an old English word- “grytt.” It was used to describe the coarse texture of the cornmeal. Kind of like saying sand is “gritty.”
The Muskogee-Cree Indians called the dish “rockahomine.” The settlers changed it a bit and called it hominy grits. Eventually, it just became grits.
The corn that’s used to make grits isn’t what you find with the produce in a grocery store. That’s sweet corn, the kind that's yummy right on the cob.
Grits come from a field corn that’s more starchy than sweet, called dent corn.
The corn is harvested and dried. When the kernels are all dried out, the outer layer of “skin,” the hull, on the kernel makes a little dent in the soft interior.
From Corn to Grits
From harvest to cooking, there is a lot of work to making grits.
Once the corn was dried it would be soaked in a solution that was a mixture of water and potash. Potash is, literally, the ashes of plants. The process of burning makes a water-soluble (meaning it dissolves in water) type of mineral-potassium. The ashes, when mixed with water, made an alkali solution to soak the corn in.
Why soak the corn at all?
The kernels needed to be soaked for a couple of days to get the hull, or skin, to come off. The skin floats to the top of the water and is removed. Then the corn is drained and cleaned and left to dry again.
Once dried, the grains are crushed using a mortar and pestle, or they can be ground by milling. There is prehistoric evidence, found in Central America, of milling corn that goes back to 8,700 BC.
With milling, the grains are fed into a couple of large, heavy, flat rocks that pulverize the grain to produce the meal. There are still places that use this method today.
Called grist mills, these buildings often use running water to turn the millstones. Corn is fed in at the top and trickles out the bottom into barrels.
By breaking up the grains, the soft bits are separated from the tough bits, or the bran. Then the soft bits are separated from the bran and, finally, cooked into the porridge.
Either way, using a mortar and pestle or a stone mill, it’s a lot of work making grits.
Coincidentally, after the kernels have had the hull removed the corn is called hominy. When ground down to a flour-like consistency the corn is used to make corn tortillas and tamales. The corn flour is called mas harina.
You can find a great recipe for homemade tortillas in our History of Mexico story!
Dishes like grits are found all over the world, too. Manchuria, a region of northeastern China, has a dish called Gezi. Ugali is the name used for it in east Africa. And Italy has polenta.
There are a lot of ways to enjoy this southern cuisine. Savory or sweet, grits can be paired with many different flavors. Served simply, with butter and salt, or cheese.
Shrimp and grits is a really popular dish all across the south. Some people like grits sweetened with maple syrup or with fruit.
Though if you ask someone from the southern USA, they’ll most likely say savory is the only way to go!
No matter how you enjoy your grits, now you know the history of this humble dish. And be sure to check out our other USA South recipes at eat2explore!