Grits are a staple, a sacred art, and a source of Southern pride. Seventy-five percent of all the grits consumed in the United States are grown in the “Grits Belt,” a swath of land sweeping from Texas to Virginia. Grits served a practical purpose in the South during the Great Depression and other difficult times as a cheap source of nutrition, though even in prosperous eras both rich and poor enjoy the dish that knows no social divide. South Carolinans love grits so much they declared them the state’s official food in 1976, and Georgians followed suit in 2002, making grits their official prepared food of choice.
When the first European settlers came to North America, they discovered American Indians ate a softened, cooked corn meal dish called “rockahomine.” The settlers soon started calling the food “hominy” for short, a name that now refers to the dried corn kernels that may be ground into cornmeal, animal feed, or grits. Most often, grits are made from white corn—and in that case the corn is called hominy—but can be made from yellow corn too, in a process closer to that used to make cornmeal.
Hominy grits are, technically, dried hominy that has been ground into grits, though some Southerners use the term hominy to mean grits.
The word “grits” itself is a descendant of the Old English “grytt,” meaning bran, and “greot,” meaning ground meal. The grist mills eighteenth-century settlers used to grind their corn also inspired the term now known as “grits.”
Purists still insist on old-fashioned, stone-ground grits, which yield a richer flavor and thicker texture than grits ground by machine. And no good Southern cook would ever think of using instant grits, a pre-cooked, dehydrated version of the real thing.
Real grits, in fact, have virtues beyond good taste. The earliest records of a dish resembling grits date to 1500-1200 BC in an area in present-day Guatemala and Mexico, where the usual cooking process included an alkaline treatment. After corn is harvested, it can be soaked in a solution made of lime, wood ash, or baking soda to produce alkaline, a substance necessary for breaking down proteins to make them easier to digest. Alkaline also facilitates the human body’s ability to absorb niacin, otherwise known as vitamin B3. Without this vitamin, humans are susceptible to a disease known as pellagra, whose unpleasant symptoms cause discomfort at best and, if left untreated, can lead to death. If not processed with alkaline, grits cannot act as a source of niacin—a problem Native Americans had known how to prevent centuries before they served rockahomine to Europeans.
Grits remain popular as ever in the Southern states, nowhere more so than in St. George, South Carolina, host of the World Grits Festival and home to the most voracious grits eaters in the world.
Residents of St. George prefer to cook their own grits, but other Southern consumers have gone commercial: some McDonald’s franchises offer hot grits. The company first introduced grits as a menu option in the early 1990’s, though the dish did not win popularity during its original launch in the Midwest. In the South, on the other hand, grits still appear on McDonald’s menus in the capital cities of three states: Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.