Grits

Posted in: History- Apr 12, 2011 2 Comments

I just returned from a trip to the Midwest to visit family, and the discussion of grits came up – me being from the south, central Virginia in fact. Well, actually our restaurant is in Charlottesville and one dish that is always on our menu is shrimp and grits. As many stars in the sky, there are recipes for this Southern classic. At l’etoile, we think that we prepare it the best in Albemarle County. Grits are the backbone, but first a little history.
Another versatile corn product is hominy, which is whole-grain, dried corn, traditionally soaked in a lye solution made from wood ashes to rid it of its outer husk. The kernels may be prepared as a starchy vegetable. Canned hominy is found in grocery stores all over the South…Grits are ground dried corn or hominy, and they must be cooked slowly for a long time.

Whole hominy or great hominy is the result of the alkaline (lye) process of removing the hull form the kernel. But the word “hominy” refers to dried and hulled corn kernels, coarsely ground and prepared for used in puddings and breads, in particular. The term “grits,” or “hominy grits,” especially in southern states, refers to finely ground hominy. Hominy grits, usually of white corn, have been called “the potatoes of the South,” so heavily have they been relied upon for starch in that region. Hot hominy is simmered over a slow heat for hours with butter, perhaps cream, and salt or sugar to taste. Grits for breakfast, served with eggs and ham or as a side dish, is a long-established dish of the South.

Eastern settlers hulled corn by both methods after cracking and pounding their corn in the hollowed log mortars and wooden pestles they called interchangeably “hominy blocks” and “samp mills.” But throughout the nineteenth century, American cooks north and south labored valiantly, and hopelessly, to squeeze the rich nomenclature of native corn dishes into the narrow confines of hominy, samp and –worst of all–grits. Anglo-Saxon grytt from bran and greot for ground had melded into “grist,” which colonists applied generically to dried, ground and hulled grain. The New Orleans Picayune only confused matters when it called hominy “the older sister of grits,” since it was the Indians who taught Creoles to thresh the hulls from dried yellow corn until the grains were white. Grits might be yellow if the hull was left on, the Picayune specified, but “the daintier preparation” was white with the hull off. Plain hulled corn was “big hominy”; grits ground superfine were “small hominy”…In the North, samp (from the Narragansett nasaump, or unparched corn, beaten and boiled) came to be indentified with coarsely ground corn however it was hulled…Grits for many reasons became strongly identified, as they are today, with the South.

Hominy. Dried, hulled corn kernels cooked in a variety of ways in breads, puddings, and other preparations. It was one of the first foods European settlers readily accepted from the Native Americans, and the word, from one or another Algonquin words, such as rockamoninie (“parched corn”) or tackhummin (“hulled corn”), was used as early as 1620. Different terms describe hominy that has been treated or ground in different ways. “Great hominy,” also called “whole hominy,” “pearl hominy” (from its pearly appearance), and “samp” (from the Narraganset nasaump, “corn mush”), in coarsely ground and prepared by scalding shelled corn in water and wood ash to separate the hulls, called the “eyes.”…If the corn is ground more finely, or ground twice, the result is called “hominy grits” or, as is usual in the South, just grits. Further grinding results in cornmeal….”Hogs and hominy” is an old southern dish of hominy and fried pork.

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