Oh, candidates? Grit your teeth and listen.
March 13th, 2012
04:30 PM ET
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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.

And like dogs kicked by our downtrodden owners, we Kentucky kids would sink our teeth into someone we naively perceived as occupying the next rung down the social ladder. I'm not at all proud of this, but many is the time my high school football cheerleading squad led our crowd in a rousing cheer against a much more rural Kentucky team, "Go back! Go back! Go back to the woods! Your coach is a farmer, and your team ain't no good."

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
5@5 – Overlooked Southern ingredients
Mehepyewpleez? A love letter to K&W Cafeteria
Boiled peanuts
She-crab soup, shrimp and grits, benne seed wafers and the lowdown on Lowcountry cuisine
5@5 – Virginia Willis – Southern is a state of mind
Talk with your mouth full – what is Southern food?
Reclaiming the soul of Southern food
Southern food: more voices from the field

soundoff (70 Responses)
  1. Los Angeles Angels Jersey

    In this life, what did you miss?
    Los Angeles Angels Jersey http://www.thefootballoutfit.com/

    October 16, 2014 at 10:49 pm |
  2. bob

    I like mine with butter, salt, pepper; an egg and some cheddar cheese; or with burn-your-tongue hot venison chili, a fried egg, and cheese. The last one will keep you full until the next morning.

    January 3, 2013 at 8:57 am |
  3. David

    They're extremely bland, unless you put unhealthy stuff on them. I can take em or leave em.

    March 15, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  4. Sporky

    Nobody else eats scrambled eggs in their grits? I have grits maybe once per year, but they holler for eggs to me.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
  5. Alabama raised

    Have enjoyed grits for many years and in many different ways. (Lived up north a few years, including college, and traveled enough to try cream of wheat, scrapple, and polenta. Never heard of goetta, but hope to try that soon.) Do yourself a favor and avoid instant grits–awful–and don't sweeten them. Cheese grits, where the cheese is cooked into the grits, are great as well. Shrimp and grits are fantastic. Had quail and grits at a 5-star restaurant a few years and I can really recommend this! Another favorite grits are Girls Raised In The South.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • Ken

      A good place to order is from Gliers in Covington, Ky. Order the "Hot" variety in that the added seasoning is most often the way a local would prefer it. They make a commercial version that they ship and sell to supermarkets and restaurants.

      March 15, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  6. Yazhol

    2 words... Fried Grits... YUM!

    March 14, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
  7. Never in the South

    On a Mediterranean cruise last summer I was shocked when the smiling waiter brought me a tray of syrup, brown sugar, honey, dried fruit and nuts to accompany my rather large bowl of grits.

    When I opted for butter, salt and pepper one said "interesting...".

    Some enlightenment was clearly in order.

    After I explained the difference between grits and cream of wheat, I felt obligated to good-naturedly lecture the staff on the proper fixin's for my favorite breakfast treat.

    I started with the two assigned to my table, turned around and found a line of 6 taking in every word of my ardent sermon.

    They all turned out to be good students, but to tell the truth their service was and always had been world-class even if they did make one smallish mistake.

    March 14, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  8. ABCD

    I am far too privileged to consume substandard "southerner" food.

    March 14, 2012 at 6:12 pm |

      Of course you are. Please feel free to make yourself scarce.

      March 14, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
      • ABCD

        I apologize if you do not come to agreement with my position on this issue of grit consumption, and I would like to politely request that you cease hurling your cruel and hurtful insults towards me.

        March 14, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
      • MYOBPDQ

        By far, it is not your position to which I hurl anything at you. It is upon your at itude of feigned supremacy that I fling fetid rat corpses.

        March 15, 2012 at 7:59 am |
        • CN Red@MYOBPDQ

          LMAO! You just made my day, thank you.

          March 15, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  9. Andie

    Growing up in Atlanta, my mom would get me to eat grits by telling me that they would make me pretty. (That's how Southern mothers bribe little girls). Now, they are a delicious comfort food for me.

    March 14, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  10. jim

    Raised In Memphis, TN. I grew up eating grits and to this day I still love 'em Just a bit of salt and pepper a southern serving of butter and a fresh vine ripened Tomato on the side. I've converted more Yanks over the years by serving them with brunch to a crowd too polite to pass :) Don't care for the cheese grits myself but to each their own.
    If you really want a feel good fill me up food..... grits will do the job any day.
    Now if Y'all don't mind, I'm gonna go put on a pot right now. Have a great afternoon.

    March 14, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  11. Karen J

    Story of a transplant from Britain to North Carolina ordering his first "real American breakfast" at the local diner:
    The waitress persuaded him to try eggs – scrambled – and bacon – crispy – and sweet tea – iced. When she asked if he wanted grits, he answered, feeling daring but daunted, "OK, but how about just one?"

    March 14, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  12. Tripp

    "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". Great line. I'm dying for some grits now...

    March 14, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  13. Chartreuxe

    Cheese grits: to a 4 cup pot of cooked grits add 1.5 cup of the sharpest aged cheddar and 2-4 T butter. Stir until cheese is melted, add salt and pepper to taste. It's never 'cheese on grits' but cheese grits. More or less cheese can be added or mild cheddar can be used or combined with sharp cheddar to vary the final taste of the dish. Some enjoy using pepperjack or other strong cheese varieties but original cheese grits were made with rat cheddar.

    Serve with any seafood dish or for breakfast as a main dish. Tasty.

    March 14, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Ray

      Add a lightly stirred egg for every serving an' you have good eattin'.

      March 14, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  14. Jason

    I was raised on grits, pattied sausage, and country ham (imagine a chewy slab of salt). The big argument between my friends is always what goes in the grits. I'm a salt and butter guy, myself. Others include cheese, breakfast meats chopped finely, and even (*shudder*) jelly.

    March 14, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Chartreuxe

      I'm a traditionalist, Jason. If it's not red-eye gravy or cheese, it doesn't belong in or on my grits.

      March 14, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
      • Jeff

        I'm even more of a traditionalist. Nothing but butter and salt on my grits.

        March 14, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
        • Bud jn NC

          You are sooo right. I am going to cook up a batch for breakfast.

          March 14, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  15. Sara

    As a child, my only experience with grits was the instant variety that my parents bought. Looked gross.

    When I got into college and started working at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill (which I mention for Kat's benefit :)), I tasted the grits in the Weathervane restaurant, and they won me over. As I recall, they were cooked with chicken broth instead of water, and they were *delicious*. I haven't had them in years, but I do hope they're still the same. And now, even the grits at the Waffle House are good – a bit bland, but I still enjoy them.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • SouthernCelt

      Ever try the grits at Crooks Corner?

      March 14, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
      • Sara

        I haven't, even though I'm right down the street. I don't eat pork, so that counts out a lot of shrimp and grits for me.

        March 14, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
      • Kat Kinsman

        Bill Smith is a national treasure! And I buy bags of those grits every time I'm in Chapel Hill.

        March 14, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
  16. Scarf

    Both my parents grew up in the Ozarks, and we would visit family there several times a year when I was growing up. I always considered grits to be a waste good corn which could be much better utilized as hominy.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  17. Lauren

    I'm from south Georgia, and though I'm decidedly un-Southern in most ways (I drink unsweetened tea, despise fried foods, and have traces of a southern drawl only when I say "ya'll"), I love grits. My favorite way to eat them is with lots of sharp cheddar melted in with pieces of crumbled bacon or ham. Don't knock it 'til you try it. They're also great with shrimp, though traditional shrimp-n-grits contains sausage, onions, peppers, and sometimes cheese as well as shrimp.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Lauren


      March 14, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • chefdugan

      The writer is simply ignorant from a culinary standpoint and you should never be guided by ignorance. Cheese grits, with a very good cheddar, are wonderful. Shrimp and grits are also great. I was raised in Philly and never heard of them until I moved to Florida. By themselves, with just butter and salt and pepper they are okay. They beg for some innovative ideas and good cheese is one of them. I do not mean the kind you get in Waffle House.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
      • SouthernCelt

        The writer is a Transplant. S/He did not grow up on Southern culture because his/her parents were not from the South. Grits are a lot like Cream of Wheat with a handful of sand thrown in (Florida addition :-)). Everybody's Mom cooked them a different way because that was the way her Mother did it. It is a cultural thing not intended to satisfy the uncultured. If you don't like them don't eat them and don't gripe about them.

        March 14, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  18. msyellarose

    Hey, I'm from texas; I'll take 'em with butter, salt, and pepper!

    March 14, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  19. Jorge

    To me a grim, grey bowl of plain grits represents the staid, fearful xenophobia of strict, absolute majority social rule, something old, unchanging and bland, something that we have to clench our teeth and deal with in order to survive. Shrimp and grits, grits and cheese, grits with peaches and cream, polenta, harina de maiz con coco and cornmeal upma on the other hand, represent to me the richness of what shared life and culture could be without all the insular, historically ad-nauseam delusions of supremacy and purity.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Tommy Chong

      Dude, if you're gonna smoke stuff that makes you think like that, you need to bring enough for the rest of us.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:39 am |
      • chefdugan

        Amen. With enough good weed even plain grits might be good.

        March 14, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
      • It must be invisible

        Where's the like button... where's the like button????

        March 14, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • SouthernCelt

      It's our culture. We'll accept what we like from immigration without being forced to give anything else up.

      March 14, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  20. Evil Grin

    I grew up with grits – and polenta – and I like neither. I don't hate them, not the way I hate certain green veggie spheres of ick, but I guess I just never especially cared for them all that much.

    Not to say I couldn't eat grits or polenta if the occasion calls for it. And sometimes I actually have a nostalgic craving for one or the other, but for the most part, not a big fan.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • SouthernCelt

      Hey, nobody in Hawaii likes Poi, but I'll bet their Mothers made them eat it, just like grits here.

      March 14, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • ™©JbJiNg!eŚ®™@Evil Green

      And what green spheres do you speak of?? Ha. You simply must try whirled peas....

      March 14, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  21. Mark

    Kat – if you grew up in Greater Cincinnati, you know the important question: what High School did you go to?
    I grew up on grits and goetta ( German heritage ) and went to Highlands.


    March 14, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Ken

      Highlands or Newport Catholic. Are there any other High Schools?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:46 am |
      • further north

        to Talawanda HS, why bother with Cincinnati

        March 14, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
      • Kat Kinsman

        HA! Newport Central Catholic. Go Breds.

        March 14, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
        • Ken

          Those "rural" folks could give as well as they took. They're a sturdy stock. A rosary was once thrown back and forth across the gym floor when vititing their basketball team in the country of farmers with Calvinist leanings. Love your writing style and it reminds one of Rick Bragg. And, that's saying a lot. As for Chili, it was an argument as to which was best between Dixie and Crystal chili on Monmouth street and only blocks apart. Local butchers had the best goetta and Fipps, on Patterson street, had one of the best.

          March 15, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  22. Ken

    Maybe it's our passionate interest in something called Goetta that has us Northern Kentucky folks slow to adopt to grits. For those uninitiated, Goetta is something like scrapple but much more to our liking than either alternative. It's a pin oat and pork thing and, anything pig, is definately southern even if our Kentucky friends are not card carrying members of the "lost cause". But, remember, we gave birth to both presidents of that great effort just to show our sense of balance and fair play. More likely, we're just too darned likely to be of German parentage than Scotch-Irish to give up Goetta and join the Grit eating universe without a fight. But it is high time we try, we can always wa(r)sh it down with some bourbon to make it even more delicious. And, I'm not sure that will help our balance but is seems like a great way to start the day. Grits and bourbon anyone?

    March 14, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • chefdugan

      They just stole the idea from the Amish. It's called scrapple in the civilized world. However, I thank CIncinatti for their wonderful chili.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • SouthernCelt

      Excuse me, Scotch is whiskey, Scots are people, and Abraham Lincoln may have lived in Kentucky but he was born in North Carolina.

      March 14, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
      • Chazz

        Old Abe was born at Sinking Springs, his parents farm in Kentucky. It is now Hodgenville, Kentucky. You are right about Scotch being whiskey, but George Dickel is American whisky (no "e"). Grits Rule!

        March 14, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Since my parents weren't from Northern KY, I had to learn what goetta was at my friends' house. Now I buy it every time I come back.

      March 14, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  23. Mame

    Grits are nothing but a southern version of the northern Italian staple, polenta.

    March 14, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • Dr Ruth

      Ha Ha Ha Ha well said... now I can have GRITTS

      March 14, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Rick

      Thanks for that. I was wondering what they were.

      March 14, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Evil Grin

      As someone who is both Southern and half of whose family is from southern Italy, I've had both, frequently. I don't think either is a poor man's version or an imitation of the other. They are basically the same. If you like one, you usually like both.

      It's just that right now Italian food is considered high class (but only Northern Italian style), and Southern US food is considered lower class food. It's perceived value only.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:36 am |
      • SouthernCelt

        I love a good deep dish pizza, but heard that comes from Sicily. It can also be fairly pricey.

        March 14, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • MichaelD

      No, grits are not a southern version of polenta. For one thing they're made from different types of corn, treated differently. Frankly, they both owe their existence to American Indians, who were eating cornmeal mush before Europeans were even aware the continent existed. Corn is native to the Americas and was brought to Europe only after the sailing adventures of one Cristoforo Colombo.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • chefdugan

      Sorry dude, polenta is made from course corn meal, not the refined stuff that make up grits. Polenta, butter and parmesan, now that's nothing like grits.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Back to the cold cold north with you

      No, polenta is more like cornmeal mush; totally different from southern hominy grits.

      March 14, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  24. AleeD®

    Interesting story, Kat. I didn't grow up eating grits either. We were born & raised in Florida, with a heavy New England influence in the kitchen My first husband convinced me to try grits by telling me to treat them like oatmeal. Easy enough. I grew up eating that. So I added butter and brown sugar, stirred it all together, took one bite and didn't touch grits again for a long time.

    Years after he was out of my life, I learned that grits was corn! Well since I had never heard of anyone putting sugar on corn (at the time), I decided to give them another shot. Salt, pepper, butter, stir. Muuuuuuch better. Now they are my go-to side dish when we go out for breakfast. I'm still wrapping my head around the idea of shrimp & grits as a meal or cheese on grits. It took me years just to eat grits. In time, I'm sure I'll advance to other levels of gritty enjoyment.

    Kat, thanks again for the trip down memory lane.

    March 14, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • Orange, Texas


      I was born and raised in Texas and grits run thru my veins. I don't like them sweet either. I prefer butter and salt. Just wanted to tell you that cheese grits are wonderful! You'll like them. I also didn't think I'd like shrimp and grits, but surprise, surprise, it was very good. I had shrimp and heirloom grits at Jasper's as an appetizer.

      March 14, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  25. Chris Chamberlain

    You can speak for me as a Southerner anytime. You rock!

    March 13, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  26. Walter

    Always enjoy your stories Kat. Thought this was going to be a tie in to last nights Andrew Zimmern with the pic of shrimp and grits but, I was wrong. My introduction to grits was a drunken liberty call in Florida. Since I didn't remember the night I had to try them again and been lovin' ever since. I'm Still a damned Yankee though.

    March 13, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I have the Zimmern on TiVo. Cannot wait to watch!

      March 14, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  27. RichardHead

    Dear Fearless Leader,
    I am NOW traumatized, NOT because I will NOT eat Grits,they look like Bad Oat Meal or sauteed mealy bugs. You just had to put that video of Paula Deen at the end of a Great Story. Shoot me NOW,Please.

    March 13, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  28. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    Sounds almost as horrifying as pillow biting in prison.

    March 13, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Elwood Blues

      You got a pillow? It wasn't Joliet,I know that for a fact.

      March 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  29. Down by the river

    There's govna Bryant sitting in the front row, lookin like a douchey member of the Adams family.

    March 13, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
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