Naturally, after talking about chitlins and grits yesterday, I wanted to have grits today.
Fortunately, this was possible. I have some Quaker Instant Grits, and I made some for breakfast.
Does it look like cream of wheat? It’s not all that different, really, except that it’s made with corn and so has a different taste and a bit of a more granular consistency.
And what is the difference between grits and polenta? Less than you might think. Mainly, grits are made with hominy, which is skinned and bleached corn – though apparently sometimes they’re made with just normal corn meal. Oh, and you eat grits mainly in the US, and mainly in the southern states, and so you typically have them (or it) with other good southern food. (I do love me some southern cooking. You shouldn’t eat it all the time – fat and starch are maybe a little predominant – but one of my favourite cookbooks is White Trash Cooking by Ernest Mickler, basically a collection of recipes from his family and friends for good ugly flavourful food.)
This also has some phonological implications for grits. If you have a Canadian accent, or any of quite a lot of other Anglophone accents, you of course say it [grɪts], with the [ɪ] variously high or low depending on where you’re from (some places you’re likely to get something close to [grɛts], likely in concert with a certain amount of creaky phonation, a.k.a. vocal fry). But that’s not how /grɪts/ is realized in many a southern US accent. “Short” vowels are often diphthongized in the southern US, and /grɪts/ can be realized as [griɛts] or [griəts] – a manifestation of the same phonological process of splitting a vowel into two parts with contrast between them that led to the Great Vowel Shift, wherein all our long vowels became diphthongs in the couple of centuries before Shakespeare.
A warning, though: if you do not speak with a southern US accent, you will likely sound stupid saying grits in the southern way in the middle of a sentence that is otherwise in a non-southern accent. It’s like saying “Nollins” instead of “Neworlins” or “Norlins,” or “Cans” instead of “Cairns” (Australia), when you normally pronounce /r/. People who sound like they’re saying “Nollins” or “Cans” are saying the /r/; they’re just saying it as a lengthening of the preceding vowel. You, in your accent, should say the /r/ the way you normally say it. Otherwise you’re shifting for just one word into someone else’s phonotactics, switching phonological realization patterns for one word. It’s desperately incongruous.
But back to the southern connection. I bet a lot of people just know of grits as “something southern people eat” without knowing exactly what they are, let alone ever having had them. Millions of people will surely think first of Flo (played by Polly Holliday, from Alabama) in the TV show Alice – a southerner working as a waitress in Mel’s Diner in Arizona. Her catchphrase was “Kiss my grits!” (Hear her say it near the end of this clip.)
So naturally you’re likely to fancy yourself feeling mighty southern if you eat some grits. It seems almost like the haggis of the south in regard to the regional pride attached to it (except that people generally don’t think of grits as disgusting, as many – not including me – do of haggis). It’s a signature bit of southern cuisine in spite of the fact that it’s not breaded or fried or barbecued or covered in some sort of sauce. Well, it’s made of corn. Shut up and eat. I suspect that it has a certain grab-and-stay power just because of the grabby sound of the word ([gr] onset) and the other tastes grit has – notably pluck and courage, but also stubble and dirt: an emphasis of honest poor-folks origins.
Grit as in “dirt” and grits as in “ground corn” are, by the way, from different Old English roots, but they are likely related further back and have also mutually influenced over the course of English history. On the other hand, groats is considered a variant of grits – one that tends to refer specifically to oats (or as otherwise specified, for instance buckwheat groats), which grits seems originally to have referred to as well – or wheat.
But, you know, as Wilson Fowlie pointed out to me today on my note on chitterlings, there’s probably someone somewhere who will insist on saying groats when talking about grits. After all, grits is what normal people call them – people who don’t have a whole lot of education and don’t speak “formal” English. So therefore if there’s a version of the word that’s more associated with England and less associated with those southern people, it must be the more correct or better version, right?
Just like I’m sure there are restaurants that do the most precious imaginable variations on grits, too. You know, “Crawfish Grit Croquettes with creole mustard foam and green onion ‘dust’” or “Herb crusted Maple leaf duck breast Smoked and sliced over Creamy herb infused grits and finished with Wild berry confit salad.” (Note the arbitrary capitalization.) Now, I like novelty in foods, and fusion, and so on, and I eat for flavour, not ethnology (“authentic” is a deeply self-deceptive concept in intercultural food explorations), but precious fads can sometimes make me grit my teeth a little. Some of those chefs can kiss my grits… actually, they can leave them alone, thanks.