True grits event tests uninitiated

N.C. Museum of History serves up Southern culture and red-eye gravy recipe
By SARAH AVERY, Staff Writer
Published: Sep 27, 2004

As museum fare goes, eating grits wasn’t as exotic as taste-testing cockroaches or mealworms, but those who turned out Sunday for the N.C. Museum of History’s program on "Fixin’ Grits" learned some pretty wild stuff about the Southern delicacy.

Grits are, for instance, eaten with peanut butter, on occasion.

They have been made into frozen pops.

They are an ingredient in something called awendaw. It’s a kind of corn mush pudding, for those not from around here.

"Grits have become a kind of initiation ritual, perhaps, or a litmus test for cultural identity," said Mary Ellis Gibson, director of Women’s Studies at UNC-Greensboro and the presenter of the museum’s tribute to grits.

About 75 people attended the history museum’s event, which also featured a 1978 movie titled "It’s Grits" and a grits tasting session afterward with samples prepared by chefs from Whole Foods.

Gibson said the vaunted place that grits have in Southern cooking is actually the essence of American melting pot culture. The meal, she said, was a native American concoction. It’s made by soaking corn kernels in lye so that the casing burst as the kernels swell. The lye is rinsed out, and the corn is dried, then ground into tiny pellets.

Native Americans probably served the mush to European settlers, who were soon sold on its versatility.

Why grits became so peculiarly linked to the South, however, is not clear. But they’re clearly a distinction of Southern identity, Gibson said, fixed with gravy, dripping with butter, served with eggs. And as Southern cooking has become chic, so, too, have grits.

Gibson said she has no fears that, as the South gains more newcomers, the culture will die. "The rumors of the death of Southern culture have been greatly exaggerated for 100 years," she said. "A transforming culture is alive."

But in a state where 100,000 New Yorkers moved in between 1995 and 2000, the museum’s ode to grits eatin’ and grits fixin’ was perhaps overdue.

"What’s red-eye gravy?" asked Kristen Schaffer, who moved to the Triangle from New York three years ago. Schaffer said she’d eaten grits and liked them, but she was curious about the gravy often cited as a required accompaniment.

Gibson offered the recipe: Use the dripping of country ham fried in a cast-iron skillet, and stir in a few tablespoons of black coffee.

© Copyright 2004, The News & Observer Publishing Company

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