It never occurred to the Southerners on our staff (well, the Southerner) that y’all Yankees didn’t know what grits were. For y’all who don’t know the South but do know your cooking, grits is what Southerners have while the Italians are fixin’ to eat polenta. Do y’all not know there are whole cookbooks dedicated to the stuff (grits and polenta)?
Now, a better question would be, what the heck is hominy?, because that’s what grits are made of and if you’re going to try to speak our language, you might as well get your facts straight. Hominy is the dried kernel of corn, after the hull and germ have been removed. Hominy is a native American food dating back at least 5,000 years, and was one of the first foods the Indians gave to the European colonists. (The Italians, by the way, only got their corn meal for polenta by way of the Indians, so grits has at least a 4,500-year head start on polenta.)
To make grits, the dried hominy is ground - generally to one of three grinds, fine, medium or coarse - and simmered with water or milk until fairly thick. Quick grits (a very fine grind that has been pre-steamed) are available in supermarkets, but any good Southerner will tell you that old-fashioned stone-ground are the only real grits (doesn’t mean they don’t buy and make quick grits, just that they know what tradition is all about).
Grits are ubiquitous at breakfast, and also very popular as a side dish or component of a main course at other meals. Bill Neal and David Perry, authors of the startlingly out-of-print Good Old Grits Cookbook, admit that on their own, grits are a little bland. But, they say, it is rarely served plain. They come with sausage, eggs, biscuits and red-eye gravy for breakfast. They’re mixed with eggs, augmented with grated cheese or garlic, or baked into a casserole. Southern cooks also sauté shrimp and bacon and scallions and serve them on a bed of grits, or serve a spring chicken on grits, or quail on grits, etc.
Turner Catledge wrote in The New York Times, "Not even the most ardent lover of grits would think of eating it alone. The Southerner’s devotion to grits is really meant for grits-and-gravy, grits-and-ham, grits-and-sausage, grits-and-eggs, grits-with-meat-and-cheese, and so on ad infinitum.
To be fair, as a cooking term, grits can refer to any coarsely ground grain, including rice and oats. But we guarantee you’ll never get puddle of oats on your plate in the South if you ask for grits.
Finally, as you may have noticed while reading this, the biggest question about grits is whether you are supposed to say "grits is" or "grits are." And that is a question we all just can’t answer.