Telling tales of true grit(s)

In northwestern South Carolina, where Interstates 26 and 85 intersect, sprawls the city of Spartanburg. Historic sites and former plantations in the area date back to pre-Revolutionary War days.

Nestled in the rolling foothills of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, this former textile mill town and peach-growing center has turned into an industrial complex with a population of almost 40,000 souls. The new BMW plant there produces the world's supply of the sporty Z3 roadsters.

While I was there recently to write a magazine story, the white blossoms of the dogwood trees and the purple blossoms of the wisteria vines were in full bloom. Unfortunately, it was raining, thereby making it impossible to run on the dirt track with the car I'd traveled all the way to Spartanburg to take a ride in.

Despite the rain, one of the necessary things it was still possible to do was to eat, and Southern cooking is one of my favorite culinary styles. The popularity of Paula Dean's "Home Cooking" show on television's Food Channel Network shows I'm not alone, either.

Just the thought of sweet tea, Southern-fried chicken, country ham, fried catfish, fried okra and barbecue-pulled pork is enough to start the cravings. (You will notice that frying, while not particularly heart healthy, is a popular way of cooking things.)

Of course, you can't mention Southern cooking without paying homage to grits, or "South Carolina ice cream," as my father refers to them. Grits are the centerpiece of many Southern breakfasts.

What exactly is a grit?

To start with, there is no such thing as a "Grit Tree." Southerners like to hide a smile when a Yankee friend wants to know where grits grow.

Simply put, grits are small, broken grains of corn. They are made by initially cleaning the corn kernels, then running them through a millstone, which grinds them to a certain texture; then they're sifted.

Two products are derived from this process. The finest is cornmeal or corn flour; the more coarse product is grits. Grits and hominy are both derived from dried corn, but with hominy you start out by soaking the corn in lye water (potash water in the old days) for a day or two until the entire shell, or bran, comes loose and rises to the top. Then the kernel itself swells to twice its original size.

After the remaining kernels have been rinsed several times, they are spread to dry on either cloth or screen dryers.

The American Indians, who incidentally gave us grits, did this to make it easier to grind corn into flour. A bonus was that it gave the corn a different flavor.

It also performed an important nutritional function. The alkaline water allowed the release of niacin that could not otherwise be absorbed by the body. Lack of niacin led to a disease called pellagra, which European settlers suffered from, though American Indians did not. The settlers ate corn, but apparently they didn't eat a lot of hominy.

Historians suggest that grits played an important role in early Southern agriculture, providing food for the first English settlers in Jamestown, Va., and later helping Southerners survive the Great Depression.

"Because if it hadn't been for grits," says Lynne Tolley, hostess at Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House in Lynchburg, Tenn., "they wouldn't have had anything to eat."

A few years ago, an interesting thing began happening in primarily upscale restaurants in the South. You began to see grits served as an entrée instead of just a breakfast side dish. One of the most interesting ways that grits has been served is with sautéed shrimp.

Gourmet chef and cooking instructor Kay Ewing reports that she has had "tremendous response" to both Cajun Peppered Shrimp & Grits as well as a dish called Savannah Pork Ragout with Creamy Grits.

With anything as popular as grits, you just got to figure there'd be a festival or two. In late 1985, the store manager of the Piggly Wiggly Supermarket in St. George, S.C., was giving a broker of large grits company an order for grits. The broker made a remark that his company sure shipped a lot of grits into St. George, considering how small the town was and how meager its population (around 2,000 at the time).

A week or two later, another broker from another major grits company made a similar remark about the large quantity of grits shipped into this small town. They all agreed that if it proved to be true that the citizens of St. George did consume a disproportionately large amount of grits, they would do some research to find out just how much they did eat.

As it turned out, the people of St. George actually ate more grits per capita than any other place in the world! Thus the World Grits Festival was born. The first was held in April 1986, and every year since then this weekend-long celebration has drawn crowds exceeding 45,000 to this small Southern town, considered to be a bedroom community of Charleston, S.C.

Meanwhile, one state farther south, the State of Georgia House of Representatives was passing resolutions in 2002 that named the city of Warwick, Ga., the Grits Capital of Georgia. Gov. Sonny Perdue proclaimed the second weekend of April to be National Grits Festival Day in Georgia and recognized Warwick as the Grits Capital of the World. The Food Channel Network filmed the festival in 2004.

The proceeds from both festivals go to help charities and to provide scholarships.

I wonder whether, every year in April, the occupants of both towns meet on the Georgia/South Carolina line to throw grits at each other? It could be messy.

Gary McDaniel is a freelance writer living in Magnolia.[[In-content Ad]]