That Time Jimmy Carter Made America Obsessed with Grits
The Golden Age of Grits in the United States was the late 1970s. Yes, I remember that song trying to assure me that "grease" was the word for that era, but the historical record tilts heavily in favor of grits. Grits regularly appeared on my family's breakfast table (thanks to my Southern-born-and-bred parents); "Kiss my grits!" was a popular catchphrase (thanks to a Southern waitress named Flo on the TV show Alice), and we had a former peanut farmer and unabashed grits eater sitting in the Oval Office. Few presidents have been so effectively paired with a particular food as Jimmy Carter was with grits.
When Carter launched his campaign, peanuts were the sole advisor shaping the Georgia governor’s public image. A series of newspaper interviews by Carter's wife, Rosalynn, changed all of that. In March 1976, Rosalynn described her typical morning to the Washington Star saying, "Jimmy usually makes breakfast—grits, cheese, eggs and coffee—puts the dishes in the dishwasher and makes the bed." This image certainly piqued the interest of a nation hungering for an authentic leader in the post-Watergate era. Nothing said "humility" and "integrity" like a man who happily ate grits on a daily basis. Carter enhanced the man of the people persona that helped propel him to the White House.
For the as-yet uninformed, the late Southern food historian John Egerton explained grits as a byproduct of corn kernels. “Dried, hulled corn kernels are commonly called hominy; grits are made of finely ground hominy. Whole-grain grits may also be produced from hard corn kernels that are coarsely ground and bolted (sifted) to remove the hulls." Grits are traditionally prepared by boiling them in water until they thicken. They’re are usually served for breakfast on a plate or a bowl, seasoned with salt and pepper, and topped off with some butter. If you really want to antagonize a Southerner, just add sugar. Grits can be made a myriad of ways, but Jimmy Carter especially loved cheese grits.
Folks didn't even wait until Carter was elected to kick off a wave of grits euphoria. When Carter picked Walter Frederick Mondale as his running mate, the pair soon became known as "Grits and Fritz!" Mondale so embraced grits that he eventually included a recipe in his own 1984 presidential campaign cookbook. Much to the relief of curious eaters and people seeking to ingratiate themselves with the new First Family, newspaper food sections and society pages offered helpful advice on how to prepare and serve grits. One D.C. power couple hosted an inaugural ball to fête the Carters and 200 guests. The hosts served fried chicken and grits, and even enlisted legendary actor Lorne Greene (Bonanza, Battlestar Galactica) to shop for the ingredients in local grocery stores.
Rosalynn Carter told the Washington Star that while in the Georgia governor's mansion, she loved grits, "but only served them when they had company because 'they're so fattening.'" Given all the hoopla, the Carters knew that grits would have to become a mainstay on the White House menu. One of the first duties that the First Lady performed was teaching the Swiss-born, White House executive chef Henri Haller how to make grits.
Like all fads, the national grits obsession didn't last long. As humorist Calvin Trillin wrote in 1990: "There must be thousands of American households, for instance, that still have an open and largely unused box of grits dating from the early years of the Carter administration."
To all the haters, it's time to welcome grits back to your table, and September 2, also known as "National Eat Grits for Breakfast Day" presents a perfect opportunity. Let's make grits great again—or even admit that they always were.
Adrian Miller is a grits lover, and author of the James Beard Award-winning book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.