The first time I ate grits, I thought they tasted like stainless steel. That might have had something to do them being forced past my pursed lips and clenched teeth on a diner spoon wielded by a boy hell-bent on making me “embrace my Kentucky heritage.” He was my boyfriend—my first, as it happened—and I didn’t know much about how these things worked. Romance, grits, and articulating the nuance of regional identity were all new to me, and besides, I was running out of breath (he’d pinched my nostrils shut, too) so I just went ahead and swallowed.
I like to think he’d meant it as a joke or a kindness. When I showed up at art school in Baltimore, no one knew what to think of a girl from Northern Kentucky. People grow up there, love it and never leave, and never have to explain to anyone that it’s not really the South (or the Midwest) and yes we wear shoes and no we don’t have carnal relations with our siblings, keep pigs indoors as pets or any of those facile, insulting cliches about that area of the country. But we were 18 and appropriately callow so people said those things the second they heard “Kentucky.” I took to saying I was from “just outside of Cincinnati,” I kept my shoes on even when everyone else was barefoot and I sure as hell wasn’t going to eat any grits.
But the problem was that they were good. Once I got past the creepy force-feeding (and relationship dynamics), I couldn’t help but realize that grits stirred something in me. They’re a shibboleth of Southern-ness for an awful lot of people, both for better and for worse, but they’re also comforting, endlessly adaptable to particular tastes (I like mine with cheese and hot sauce, my friend Alex Hardy will smite you where you stand if you attempt to slip any sugar into his), and can feed a slew of people for just pennies.
The greatest cost of serving grits, or rather proper grits, is time. Instant grits will get the job done if you’re in a hurry, but if it’s a weekend morning and you’ve got the day stretched out in front of you, the alchemy of water, grits and endless stirring (you’ll see in the video) transforms them into something akin to edible love. I set aside a solid part of a Saturday or Sunday morning to whisk together a batch to share with my North Carolina-born husband and in the midst of our hectic lives, we sit down together over something other than takeout Chinese food or apology salads and appreciate where they came from—where we came from—one spoonful at a time.
Basic Stoneground Grits
5 cups water
Generous pinch of salt
1 cup stoneground grits
Butter (that's your call, but anywhere from 2 tablespoons to a whole stick seems about right)
Cheese, however much and whatever kind makes you happy
Hot sauce (but that's just me)
How to Make It
In a heavy, lidded pot, salt the water and bring it to a boil. Then pour the grits in a slow, steady stream, whisking as you go. Take as much time as you need to do this.
Reduce the heat to a simmer, whisking constantly until the mixture starts to thicken. When it starts to feel like the grits have absorbed the water and started to soften, you can place the lid on the pot for 5 minutes at a time, then return and stir out any lumps, taking care to check the bottom of the pot to make sure the grits aren't sticking. Repeat this as often as necessary until the mixture is thickened, sampling spoonfuls (carefully!) to make that individual grains are soft and not, well, gritty.
Remove from the heat, stir in butter, then cheese until fully incorporated and season to taste.