What Is Arguably the First Truly American Food?
Grits is of American Indian origin and is similar to other thick maize-based porridges from around the world, such as polenta and mieliepap. The word “grits” is derived from the Old English word “grytt,” meaning coarse meal. Although grits is known mainly as a Southern delicacy, it’s also arguably the first truly “American” food.
When the first pilgrims came ashore at what is now Jamestown, Virginia, their first experiences with Native Americans probably involved discovering a traditional dish the natives called “rockahominie.” This steaming porridge was made of softened, ground corn and seasoned with salt and animal fat. Today, we call porridge made of ground corn “grits.” The word may have come from either the German word grütze or the Italian word gruzzi, both of which mean “crushed or coarsely ground corn.”
Grits is a porridge made from corn (maize) that is ground into a coarse meal and then boiled. Hominy grits is a type of grits made from hominy, corn that has been treated with an alkali in a process called nixtamalization with the cereal germ removed. Grits should not be confused with boiled ground corn, which makes “hasty pudding” or “mush” or may be made into polenta using coarse ground corn, or with the “mush” made from more finely ground corn meal.
Traditionally, the hominy for grits was ground on a stone mill. The ground hominy was then passed through screens, the finer sifted material used as grit meal, and the coarser as grits. State law in South Carolina requires grits and rice meal to be enriched, similar to the requirement for flour.
Three-quarters of grits sold in the U.S. are bought in the South, in an area stretching from Texas to Virginia that is sometimes called the “grits belt”. The state of Georgia declared grits to be its official prepared food in 2002.
Similar bills have been introduced in South Carolina, naming it the official state food. Grits may be either yellow or white, depending on the color of the corn used. The most common version in supermarkets is “quick” grits, which have the germ and hull removed. Whole kernel grits is sometimes called “speckled”.
So how does one go about cooking grits? A typical recipe calls for one part grits to be added to two to three parts boiling water. After being seasoned with salt and/or sugar, the grits are usually cooked 15 to 20 minutes until the water is absorbed and the grits form a thick porridge. Occasional stirring is necessary to prevent the grits from sticking and becoming lumpy.
Grits is usually not eaten plain. A variety of additives — including butter, salt, sugar, cheese, and gravy — are popular. Grits is usually served for breakfast, along with side items like ham, sausage, or eggs. The dish originated in the Southern United States but now is available nationwide, and is popular as the dinner entrée shrimp and grits, served primarily in the Southern United States.