A Cultural and Culinary Journey
Through the South
By Pam Windsor | Photography courtesy of Erin Byers Murray
Once a breakfast staple, grits now serve as a blank canvas for creative chefs who add a variety of flavors to them.
Whether served with butter at breakfast, mixed with cheese for a side dish, or served as the base for a much-loved dinner entrée, grits are a Southern classic. This simple dish made of ground corn has been a kitchen standard for so long, it’s not only part of the culinary scene, it’s part of the culture.
When writer Erin Byers Murray moved to Nashville, returning to the South for the first time in 30 years, she felt a little out of place. She wanted to learn more about this part of the country she was now calling home.
“As a food writer, I thought the best way for me to get to know this place is through its food,” Murray says. “So I started digging into dishes and ingredients and began cooking Southern food. And I kept coming back to grits.”
As a child, the only grits she’d tasted were instant grits, so when her mother-in-law served her regular grits for breakfast one day, she realized what she’d been missing.
“Oh, these are really good,” she remembers thinking.
“It was one of those dishes I was fascinated by because any time you asked about grits, people ate them every day,” she explains. “They were part of tradition, and they were part of family.”
Murray began a journey of discovery that would take her through a number of Southern states, visiting mills, restaurants, and kitchens, and talking to farmers, cooks, chefs, and others. She would end up writing a book titled, “Grits: A Cultural and Culinary Journey Through the South.”
“On the surface it’s a very simple, humble dish,” she says of the Southern staple, “but then you start looking at the corn it’s made from or the person growing it or the context of the dish outside the breakfast table, who made it traditionally, and who makes it now. All of those topics reveal more about the South and what makes it so interesting, complex, and challenging.”
All grits are made from corn, but the type of corn and processing method can differ. White grits come from white corn, yellow grits from yellow corn, and while there are different ways of crushing the corn kernels, stone-ground grits require the least amount of processing.
Grits became a staple in the South because they were inexpensive to produce and could feed large numbers of people at a low cost. They became a regular part of the diet for both slaves and the slave owners they cooked for during that part of America’s history.
The origins of grits, however, date back even earlier, to the arrival of the first settlers. “There’s a moment where they say the settlers arrived and were greeted by Native Americans who were holding out cracked bowls of steaming maze,” she says.
Even as grits became a regular item on the table, most people stuck close to only minor variations of the traditional way they’d always prepared them for breakfast. But along the way, chefs began finding creative new ways to cook with grits. “All over, and not just in the South, chefs were playing around with grits in different appetizers and using grits as a baseline, kind of like a blank canvas they could heap flavors onto,” Murray says.
Then, during the 1980s, restauranteur Bill Neal of Chapel Hill, N.C., came up with a recipe that would take grits to a new level. It was his take on shrimp and grits.
“He had a variation of a recipe for shrimp and grits that included bacon and mushrooms and tomatoes and the recipe was printed in The New York Times,” Murray says. “And that recipe kicked off the popularity of shrimp and grits at the time.”
In the years since, shrimp and grits have become extremely popular with chefs who enjoyed putting their own special touches on the dish. “I think people putting their own spin on it and claiming it makes it more adventuresome,” she says. “I love trying shrimp and grits everywhere I go because I’m always going to get something different.”
Murray’s also come to enjoy creating dishes with grits in her own home. Her book includes recipes for a variety of dishes centered around grits, including her version of Shrimp and Grits.
“One of my favorite ways to eat them is savory for dinner,” she says. “I mix in some gruyere cheese and butter and cream into the grits, then I’ll sauté mushrooms with a little vermouth and some thyme and cook it down into a sauce. Then I’ll pour it over the grits. It’s like a polenta dish, but the grits have a lot more texture.”
And now, when she cooks for her family, Murray likes to use grits in place of pasta.
“Any kind of deep, hearty sauce you can pour over grits,” she says with a laugh. “It’s better than pasta!”
The creative opportunities for this Southern favorite are endless. Grits aren’t just for breakfast anymore.