True Grits

There's new appreciation stirring for humble ground cornmeal as a base for great cuisine

June 06, 2007|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun reporter

On the tip of his finger, Matt Lee balances a corn kernel. Candlelight travels through the translucent grain, turning it into a Day-Glo specimen for Lee's discourse on the "anatomy of a grit."

The powdery stuff on the kernel's ridge that "looks like a French pedicure" is corn flour, he says. Then, sifting through a cup of coarse, stone-ground corn, Lee finds the "hard, glassy protein part" that comprises grits, along with bits of hull and black specks of stem-ends, where the kernel grew from the cob.

When Matt Lee and his brother Ted hold cooking demonstrations to promote their recent cookbook, they make their own grits with a hand grinder and give this same lesson. The Charleston, S.C., duo believe it's helpful to remind people of the culinary alchemy taken for granted when they tuck into a bowl of shrimp and creamy grits, slab bacon grits or grits served with shiitakes and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Sitting in the Hominy Grill, a Charleston restaurant devoted to low-country cuisine, the brothers eat and talk grits. They call the venerable foodstuff "a pillar of Southern cooking" in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, which recently won the James Beard Foundation award for "cookbook of the year."

Among the book's recipes for grits, though, are several, including cheese-grits chiles rellenos with roasted tomato gravy and chocolate grits ice cream, that proclaim the ingredient's ever-expanding role in creative cuisine rooted in a wealth of traditions.

Through hoppinjohns.com, John Martin Taylor, author of several Southern cookbooks, sells 20,000 pounds of milled grits annually, much of that to "restaurants that have absolutely nothing to do with the South," he says. That includes Jimmy's No. 43, a Manhattan pub where a ladle of thick grits may be substituted for mashed potatoes on the shepherd's pie.

At a time when corn is blighted by its notoriety as a source of corn syrup, found in many junk foods, grits devotees such as the Lees, Taylor and others stand up for the ancient crop's abiding integrity. When grits are stone-ground and quickly served, "the corn flavor is amazing," Matt Lee says. On the table before him are sauteed shrimp with mushrooms, scallions and bacon served over cheese grits, fried grits in a cheddar-and-parmesan dredge and a straight-up bowl of creamy grits, all prepared with fresh grits from the Old Mill of Guilford in Oak Ridge, N.C.

The water-powered 18th- century gristmill is a rare example of an operating artifact from a time when mills for grinding corn were as essential to a community as a supermarket is today. Back then, fresh, quality grits from corn crossbred for taste and texture were as prized as they are now in sophisticated kitchens, says Glenn Roberts, the owner of Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C.

For that reason, grits made from heirloom corn served in restaurants such as Baltimore's Charleston have much in common with the cracked maize that has sustained generations of Southerners, he says.

"To me, artisan means `by hand,' " says Roberts, who says he has trespassed across thousands of acres (often on bootleggers' property) to find and revive nearly extinct heirloom corn varieties, such as Carolina Gourdseed White. "We do this ourselves. We mill for three days, we [work in the fields] three days," Roberts says. "If we can't do it, it's not artisanal anymore. The definition of artisan is exactly the way everybody used to eat."

Cindy Wolf, Roberts' former protege and the chef and co-owner of Charleston Restaurant in Baltimore, swears by the satisfying mouth feel and earthy flavor delivered by Anson Mills grits. "It's a great foil for savory food, just like potatoes or pasta or rice," says Wolf, who apprenticed in one of Roberts' restaurants in Charleston, S.C.. "It's a pretty delicate flavor, a little bit sweet."

Grits cakes are standard fare at Wolf's restaurant. "We mix in a little Reggiano with creamy grits and just a little bit of Japanese bread crumbs and form it into cakes and fry," Wolf says. The cakes "emerge with a wonderful crispiness and are almost creamy and cheesy on the inside."

As a chef at Georgia Brown's in Washington and at her previous Baltimore restaurant, Savannah, Wolf also educated her customers about the glories of grits, providing a sample upon request. They were often skeptical because "the grits a lot of people are exposed to are something out of the grocery store," she says. The lessons have paid off. "I get very few requests for a taste anymore," Wolf says.

"It's grits that carries us through work and play in the South," co-authors David Perry and the late Bill Neal write in Good Old Grits Cookbook. "And it's the grits that have been on our plates for generations - all the way back to the Indians - that say this is America's first food."

As essential as grits have been to American foodways, it has taken high-profile chefs such as Wolf, Neal and Hominy Grill owner Robert Stehling to elevate the ground cornmeal from food cliche to "low-haute" status.

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