I recently took umbrage with a Facebook posting by America’s Test Kitchen – you know, those culinary wizards who do their thing on PBS using tried-and-true cooking science.
I have always considered their advice to be sage. But they really stubbed their toe, in my opinion, when they declared that grits were a “plain” Southern staple in need of aggressive salvation via a heap of sharp cheddar.
Bless their deprived hearts! They’ve obviously never sat down to a hot bowl of freshly milled South Carolina grits.
Our millers are second to none. Same goes for the visionaries who source the heirloom seeds and grow the corn. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to some of our best farmers and millers, learning about their processes and dedication to producing the best grits in America. When they feed the dried corn into the milling machine, what issues is something more than mere cornmeal and grits. These artisans are delivering an authentic taste of South Carolina.
During the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, I dropped in to Millers All Day for a grits panel with three people in the know: farmer and miller Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Mill & Grits (and co-owner of the restaurant); Erin Byer Murray, author of “Grits: A Cultural and Culinary Journey Through the South”; and Nathalie Dupree, famed cookbook author, longtime cooking show host and grits expert. There was a rapt audience in attendance, and I think it’s safe to say we all took away a deeper understanding of the significance of grits as it pertains to South Carolina food culture.
We also had the pleasure of sampling some of Geechie Boy’s sweet and aromatic Jimmy Red grits, grown from the heirloom corn of the same name. It barely survived extinction thanks to local farmers and chefs who worked hard to restore the Native American dent corn to its rightful place. Bits of the reddish bran fleck these grits with a little color.
And, speaking of color, did you know Johnsman mills grits that come in a kaleidoscope of colors: blue, white, yellow and pink? Yep – pink. He calls this type Unicorn grits, and they cook up soft and delicate. (Surprise your family on Easter morning with a pot of pretty pink grits!)
Keep in mind that these grits are plenty tasty with just a little salt and some butter. Of course, you can gussy them up any way you want – even America’s Test Kitchen-style – but I think the “less is more” philosophy applies if you want those earthy flavors to shine through.
If you’re interested in the history of these grits and other varieties being grown and milled in South Carolina, stop in and meet Johnsman, who gives regular demonstrations of his skills. You can watch the magic happen as he grinds corn in one of his prized possessions: a 171-year-old Queen of the South gristmill. Just call the restaurant for dates and times. Johnsman carries a treasure trove of South Carolina food trivia in his head, so you are guaranteed to learn some fascinating facts about the foods you eat and where they come from.
Now, my mind was totally blown twice during the course of this panel. First by Johnsman, who told me Irish potatoes were once a major crop in South Carolina. Then by Dupree, who I think one-upped him when she revealed her favorite way to cook grits: In a glass bowl in the microwave using a 4:1 ratio. Wow. I haven’t tried that yet, but if the “Grande Dame of Southern Cooking” says it works, it works. If you try it before I do, let me know how it turns out.