Grits by any other name
By Kathleen Parramore
Katie Johnsman, head miller at Marsh Hen Mill, pouring corn into the mill. Images provided by Marsh Hen Mill.
Most of the grits in the United States come from the South. Our own state, recognizing the importance of grits, declared them the state food in 1976. The earliest recorded form of grits was eaten by the Muskogee indigenous peoples in the 16th century. These native peoples ate a soft mashed corn, which was introduced to the European colonists in 1584 and now have become a staple of the Southern diet. Arthur Barlowe, who was traveling with Sir Walter Raleigh in North Carolina, wrote about the “very white, faire and well tasted” boiled corn. The natives referred to this dish as “rockahomine.” Later, the word was shortened to “hominy.”
The Muskogee first ground the corn in the stone mill, giving it the texture. Food historian Erin Byers Murray, who wrote the book Grits: A Cultural and Culinary Journey Through the South, notes that grits became a Southern food staple as they became a major part of enslaved people’s diets. Deep South magazine connects shrimp and grits to the Gullah Geechee peoples.
Grits got their name from the texture of the dried corn. This texture was created at the gristmill where everyone from the surrounding area brought their corn, wheat, rye and oats to be ground. These mills were small, humble buildings and part of the landscape of small towns, situated on rivers or creeks. Although the process has changed, there are still gristmills operating in the South. Those we would instantly recognize are Anson Mills in Columbia, Marsh Hen Mill (formerly Geechie Boy Mill) in Edisto and Food for the Southern Soul in Charleston — all chef favorites.
Marsh Hen Mill roadside market.
Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts operates his mills designed like the original mills. Though he went to UNC Chapel Hill as a music (fourth chair of San Diego symphony) and science major, his real passion was chemistry experiments. He “grew small-plot Carolina Gold in Charleston and worked with a rice geneticist in Texas to reinvigorate the seed,” as stated in his bio. He was driven by a lack of ingredients and an epiphany while putting together a large formal meal in a historical Charleston home. He began his research with corn, which he found in a field in Dillon, S.C. Although he milled grits for chefs in Georgia and S.C., his circle widened and he is now known for his collection of native heirlooms.
Marsh Hen Mill on Edisto Island started in 2003. No pesticides are used on their heirloom corn. Owned by Betsy and Greg Johnsman, it is a family-owned and -operated mill specializing in heirloom grains, grits and cornmeals. Greg and Betsy met at Clemson and Greg began farming with Betsy’s dad. They discovered and bought a 1945 mill and separator in Saluda, S.C. Starting with the refurbished mill, Greg took to experimenting with all types of heirloom corn until he found the sweet, hearty flavor he was looking for. Marsh Hen sells from roadside markets, restaurants and on their website.
Betsy and Greg Johnsman, the owners of Marsh Hen Mill, and their boys, Victor and Moses.
Jimmy Hagood of Food for the Southern Soul is still using the mill that his great-great-great grandfather, Col. Ben Hagood, purchased in Pickens, S.C., in 1845. His grits are noticeably finer and take less time to cook. These stone-ground grits are milled from the original 20-foot waterwheel and 1600-pound granite millstone, making them a creamier style of grit. Though Hagood has won many awards for his barbecue, these grits are some of the best I have eaten.
From a nutritional standpoint, grits are a great source of folate, niacin, pyridoxine, riboflavin, thiamine and especially high levels of iron and B vitamins. Stone-ground grits are the least processed and have the most fiber and nutrients. This variety also has a heavy texture and strong corn flavor. The hominy variety is soaked in lime and has the outer hull removed, taking with it the fiber but leaving B and E vitamins intact. Quick and regular grits have the hull and germ removed, making them quicker to cook and with longer shelf life but little to no nutritional value. Instant grits — well, they are just instant, with little to no taste and no nutritional value (from my standpoint, why bother?). And yet, the most commonly consumed grits are regular and instant varieties, sometimes referred to as a “fortified” product, meaning that minerals are added back in, particularly iron. If you are having grits as a morning meal, add fruit to get the optimal absorption of iron. Grits are loaded with antioxidants that keep our eyes healthy. Plain grits have little to no calories and fat, but who eats them like this?! One could skip the cream and butter and add olive oil, but again, why bother? I look forward to my rich and creamy grits.
Guinea flint grits from Marsh Hen Mill coming out of the separator.
As to the difference between the white and yellow, this predictably depends on the color of the corn that is used. White grits are milder, and yellow have a stronger taste with a gentle sweetness. Yellow grits are richer in starch and white have a higher sugar content. Even blue and lavender grits come from blue corn, like the chips.
Grits are a versatile food and can appear on a plate any time of day. Chefs are becoming more creative with grits, an example being Mashama Bailey’s dish of foie with grits served at her James Beard award-winning restaurant, The Grey, in Savannah. Woe was the patron who forgot he was in a Southern restaurant and tried to order the foie without the grits! Denied.
Another standout is the shrimp and grits from Glass Onion restaurant in West Ashley. I wrote this several days before Christmas and firmly decided shrimp and grits would be my first course to serve for Christmas dinner. They were terrific, and you don’t have to take my word for it — they were gone before I could get a photo.
Edna Lewis’s Grits
Edna Lewis, a renowned American chef, teacher and author whom I greatly admire, refined the American view of Southern cooking, and I follow her recipe for grits, available online.
2 cups water or more
2 cups milk or more
1 cup stone-ground or regular grits
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
Heat the 2 cups water and milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until just simmering.
While the milk is heating, put the stone-ground grits into a large mixing bowl and cover with cool water. Stir the grits assertively so that the chaff floats to the top. Skim the surface carefully and remove the chaff. Drain the grits in a fine strainer. (If you are using regular grits, skip this step.) Stir grits into the simmering water and milk. Cook, stirring often, until the grits are tender to the bite and have thickened to the consistency of thick oatmeal. As the grits thicken, stir them more often to keep them from sticking and scorching. Regular grits are done in about 20 minutes, but stone-ground require an hour or a little more to cook, and you will have to add additional milk and water as needed.
Season the grits generously with salt and stir in the cream and butter. Remove from heat and let rest, covered, until serving. Serve hot.
Marsh Hen Mill also shared their recipe for no-frills Island Grits. More recipes are available online at https://marshhenmill.com/.
1 cup Marsh Hen Mill Stone Ground Grits (any variety)
4 cups water
Salt and butter to taste
Bring water to a rapid boil in a heavy saucepan. (See note)
Add salt and butter.
Add grits and stir well until water boils again.
Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and continue cooking for 25-30 minutes, stirring often and adding water as needed.
Add additional salt and butter to taste.
Note: You may start with three cups of water and add the fourth as needed while cooking if you would like, as this may reduce cooking time, but it will require a closer eye and more stirring.
*Cooking time may vary depending on the stove top and the conditions in the kitchen. Elevation and humidity will affect cooking times.
After 25 years in the technology field, Kathleen Parramore earned an MSc in nutrition from University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and then a degree in culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Tech. She is a writer, consultant and dinner party caterer in the Charleston area.