It’s a hot day as I write this, a bit muggy even, and I’m reminded of summers in East Texas. I lived there for three years while attending college in the Piney Woods, a humid little slice of the Lone Star state encompassing towns with names like Big Sandy, Gladewater and Longview (birthplace of Matthew McConaughey — save that for your next trivia night). I can describe East Texas summers like this: When you step outside, someone throws a hot, wet blanket over you, making it difficult to move and breathe. Wherever you go, you are only ever thinking about this blanket, and how it has completely negated your morning shower by transforming you into a human sweat fountain.
When my mother was younger, she lived for a time in Gladewater, as did my grandparents, a fact that astonishes me because they had no air conditioning. I mean to say, no one did in those days. It simply boggles the mind. In carefully controlled laboratory conditions, scientists have been able to achieve a state known as supersaturation: air with a humidity level above 200 percent. I don’t know why the scientists didn’t simply walk around Gladewater in August.
And yet, the women in my family always seemed to be doing something in the kitchen that involved even more heat. There was invariably a pot of fresh, hot coffee on the counter, even if the temperature was 110 degrees and just looking outside made you sweat. Dinner would be a very hot business indeed with fried chicken and biscuits and salted slices of beefsteak tomatoes still warm from the garden. Breakfast was hot, too, with scrambled eggs, sausage patties, hot buttered toast and warm grits with butter and honey.
So we come to grits, a porridge made from coarsely ground and boiled cornmeal (not to be confused with hominy grits, which is made from corn treated with alkali). The best or “proper” way to eat grits is a subject at least as rife with controversy as whether pineapple belongs on pizza (yes). Whenever I was served grits by my mother’s family, it was sweet, eaten as a hot cereal option on par with cornmeal mush. (I learned about Malt-o-Meal and cream of wheat from my father’s Northern family. Both sides ate oatmeal, that great social equalizer.) However, I have since encountered droves of Southerners who turn up their noses in disgust at the idea of sweet grits. I was nearly shooed out of Pine State Biscuits in Portland a couple of years ago when I asked for grits with butter and honey. Grits, the hard-core savories declare, is meant to be salty, with cheese, shrimp, bacon, a little green onion and pepper. I say to you today: Can’t we all get along? Stop this fighting and enjoy grits both ways!
Sweet breakfast grits
There isn’t a single complicated thing about making grits. Just put 2½ cups whole or 2 percent milk into a pot with 3/4 cup quick-cooking (not instant) grits along with a ½ teaspoon salt and 3 tablespoons each butter and honey. Stir it for 5-8 minutes until it’s thick, then serve with more butter and honey, a bit of cream, whole berries or a little jam. Yes, it’s tedious to stir it for that long, but not nearly as tedious as even a minute of golf. You can also omit the butter and honey from cooking and, after it’s in the bowl, add butter to taste or sweeten it with brown sugar or molasses.
That’s how I like grits — it’s comfort food. But I cannot forget the cheesy grits I had at a restaurant in the far north of Washington state, a small but beautiful restaurant on the banks of Lake Whatcom called The Fork at Agate Bay. (Sorry to say, Southerners, that the best savory grits I’ve had was in a northern town — but consider it proof that delicious food has no geographical or ideological boundaries.) I don’t have the exact recipe because it’s top secret, of course, but cheesy grits is essentially just grits cooked with cheese in it, so how hard can it be?
Boil 3 cups chicken stock then add 1 cup quick-cooking (not instant) grits, stirring athletically for about 5 minutes until thick. You really have to stir like the dickens because lumps will try to form, but you’ve got to whack them into submission. Add 3 tablespoons heavy cream, 3 tablespoons butter and 2 cups cheddar cheese (sharp is best) then stir until smooth and all the cheese is melted. If that’s too salty for you, try using low-sodium chicken stock and unsalted butter; this is a good idea if you’re going to serve the grits with other salty things. On the other hand, if you want a little more salty flavor, crumble cooked bacon into the mix.
Serve cheesy grits as a side dish in place of mashed potatoes or as a smooth, creamy base to spoon toppings onto — sauteed shrimp or mushrooms, pork chops or pork belly, grilled or fried chicken, fried catfish, stewed okra, collard greens, jambalaya. Serve it for breakfast with scrambled eggs and bacon or sausage. Eat it as a midnight snack when you have insomnia. All that milk and cheese will send you right back to sleep (unless you’re lactose intolerant, in which case have an apple instead).
Another thing you can do with sweet or savory grits is to put the leftovers in a loaf pan for a few hours until the grits solidify. Slice it up and fry it with a little butter. You’re basically taking already-buttery grits and making it more delicious by adding more butter, if you want to think of it that way. Probably, in fact, best not to think of it that way. Just eat it warm with your hot coffee and thank your lucky stars for the existence of air conditioning.