Kat Kinsman is a very proud member of and cheerleader for the Southern Foodways Alliance. That was not always the case.
The very first spoonful of grits I ever tasted was one jammed through my clamped lips and clenched teeth by the hand of my first real boyfriend. His other one was pinching my nostrils shut, and it quickly became a choice between perishing in a grimy, vinyl-upholstered booth in a Baltimore greasy spoon or choking down the food I'd eschewed for the first 18 years of my life. I opened up and swallowed hard.
I'm from Kentucky, and for a very long time, I didn't know what to do with that. It's a border state – neither quite the North nor the South, and to make matters more confusing, I spent ages 2 to 18 in Northern Kentucky, which isn't enthusiastically claimed by either side.
Some Cincinnatians enjoy a joke about the peril faced by passengers taking the lower half of a bridge connecting their fair city with the Bluegrass State just yonder over the majestic Ohio River. A Kentuckian will, naturally, wish to free their feet from the cruel and unusual imposition of those "shoes" those fancy Buckeye staters insist upon and pitch them from the windows of their pickup trucks, endangering all below. Hardy har.
Our team, for the record, sucked. And we certainly could have used some farm-fresh produce rather than the grey meat, leached-out canned green beans and flabby, frozen broccoli that passed as vegetables in our school's lunchroom. We did have our signature chili spaghetti, though, and it was somehow in our limited view, a darned sight more sophisticated than grits, burgoo, mutton and moonshine.
There were no grits at my family's dinner table. We'd landed in Kentucky by virtue of my father's employment as an organic chemist in Cincinnati, rather by any familial ties or affinity, and there were pretty houses in a nice suburb.
My mother is, or was at the time, an enthusiastic eater, but joyless cook, and food was a matter of maintenance and obligation rather than self-expression or cultural cheerleading. She was the daughter of two people who for various and sad reasons turned their backs on their Italian food heritage. My father, an adventurous and talented but time-constrained cook, used his stints at the stove to explore the foods of other lands: India, Hungary, Wales and China.
Upshot - we didn't eat "Southern" food, and I didn't know I was supposed to until I went to art school and met a whole bunch of kids who thought otherwise.
It hardly needs to be said that there are an awful lot of preconceptions about people from "the South," and I was confronted with plenty of them upon beginning school on the East Coast. Through a New Jersey and New England lens, as a former denizen of the Bluegrass State, I was supposed to go barefoot at all times, have a goat or pig as a housepet, possess carnal knowledge of a male sibling and yes - chow down on grits like it was my freakin' job.
In order: combat boots at all times, hamsters and fish, no brothers (and EEEWWWW!), and I'd try grits over my dead body. Or, as it happened, my wildly protesting and rapidly asphyxiating body.
Kids, especially teenage boys, do dumb, careless, cruel things in the name of humor. My boyfriend, egged on by our punk rock and probably drunk friend, thought it was in my best interest that I go ahead and accept grits as my Southern birthright (even though I was born in New Jersey, just like him).
So under duress and in a great state of upset, I was force-fed my very first taste of grits. Shockingly enough, I did not instantly burst into a chorus of Dixie, dabbing sorghum behind my ears and spewing Faulkner. I was not magically made Southern via a grit-based baptism, but one thing pretty odd happened - I realized grits were not the enemy. In fact, over time, they've become my favorite comfort food. I make them most weekends for myself and for my very Southern husband who grew up eating them as often as I ate Cheerios.
Grits are hard, dried corn, (often dent or flint corn or hominy) ground into pieces, sifted to remove the cornmeal, and then simmered and stirred, stirred, stirred into a starchy mass not unlike polenta. That's all. They don't possess some magical quality that transubstantiates a person into Southern, but they can do the contrary.
Grits' job is to fortify a person and be delicious and yet at this particular point in time, they're being used by a slew of political candidates as a secret handshake, a wink, an shortcut to claim knowledge of the Southern soul. It's not a new trick, nor is it at all specific to any given party and it's the equivalent of using instant grits, rather than taking the time to stand and stir and craft a soulful, timeless, sumptuous dish that you'd be proud to serve to family and strangers alike.
So Mitt, Newt, Rick, and candidates to come, how about taking the twenty or so minutes it takes to simmer down a proper pot of grits, and use the time to talk to your constituents about how they take 'em? Butter, salt, sugar, hot sauce, gravy, shrimp - each person takes them a little bit differently, and there's no such thing as a Southerner without a story, and they come in all flavors.
Just grit your teeth, swallow a spoonful, and listen with your mouth full.
Oh and - Paula Deen has a thing or two to say about grits.
More on Southern Food
Hugh Acheson: Southern food, beyond the butter
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