WASHINGTON — Like many food writers, Erin Byers Murray enjoys taking a deep dive into learning the history and nuances of specific ingredients. For her first book, “Shucked,” Murray chronicled the year that she spent working on a New England oyster farm; her second book, “Grits: A Cultural and Culinary Journey Through The South,” however, led her on an unexpected cultural journey about the simplest of ingredients: ground corn.
“I was used to knowing grits only as something that came in a box from mass producers,” Murray says. “I didn’t really grow up eating them, so it wasn’t necessarily a natural fit as a topic for me.”
It was a passing comment from Sean Brock, a James Beard Award-winning Southern chef, that led Murray down the rabbit hole. “I was actually talking to Sean about vegetables, and he happened to float out this idea that grits have terroir” — whereby the local environment in which a food is grown is said to impact its flavor — “and I couldn’t stop thinking about that idea and wondered if it could be true.”
But as she started sampling small-batch artisanal grits from Southern millers such as Anson Mills, Geechie Boy Mill, Delta Grind and Original Grit Girl, Murray began to understand that this coarsely ground corn has deep roots in many cultures that, perhaps, transcend its flavor characteristics.
“Talking to people about grits started to open up all these conversations about bigger things,” says Murray. “I had just recently moved to the South, and it seemed like the people who were reviving grits as a food didn’t really match its origins. I was realizing that there was more to this than just following the dish through history.”
Interest in grits has been fueled in recent years as farmers have revived heirloom varieties of corn branded with evocative names like Jimmy Red, Pencil Cob, Carolina Gourdseed White and Hopi Blue, but it has not been lost on Murray and others that a food originally cooked in the kitchens of the impoverished has found its champions in recent decades among white male chefs leading fine-dining restaurants.
“The South has always been poor,” says Grits cookbook author Virginia Willis, “and so our food is a food born of poverty. Grits is the porridge of poor Southerners.”
Alice Randall, a novelist and cookbook author who teaches courses on both soul food and Southern food at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., sees grits as a food specifically associated with the South but not necessarily with a race or even a gender (although they were most commonly cooked by women in earlier history). “Grits are inherently Southern, so they identify as a taste of the South across cultures,” she says.
Murray theorizes that grits can be traced back much further than to the kitchens run by African American and white women in the antebellum South.
“For grits, every major pivot point in the story line involves appropriation,” writes Murray in her book. “It started with the fateful naming of the bowl of cracked maize.” It’s said that British colonists arriving in Virginia were presented by Indigenous people with steaming bowls of this maize, a dish that the colonists began referring to as “grist,” which later morphed into “grits.”
Interviews with Sean Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota who has been preserving and showcasing Indigenous cooking through The Sioux Chef project, and William Thomas, an African American pathologist who worked with Cherokee natives Nancy and Tony Plemmons on their cookbook “Cherokee Cooking: From the Mountains and Gardens to the Table,” led Murray to wonder how long grits — or some version of them — had been cooked for nourishment.
“The evidence exists,” says Murray, “that corn was being milled in 8700 B.C. in Central America. There must have been a dish of ground corn and water cooked over heat. It’s a food product that’s not just historic — it’s ancient.”
Randall, of Vanderbilt, likes seeing the rising interest in grits. “The essence of soul food is preserving and evolving at the same time,” she says. “What we are seeing in the 21st century with grits is some distillation of that: what we learn by refining and processing, as well as what we learn by going back to milling them in the old ways. It’s an ongoing study of the evolution and preservation of a food item.”
Even while Murray was delving into the archaeology, technology and agriculture of grits while researching her book, the most consistent theme seemed to be that of nostalgia — and comfort. Murray’s conversations with cooks, farmers and millers sparked deep-seated memories. She says: “You can talk about artisanal producers and the evolution of shrimp and grits in fine dining, but when you get down to it, it’s about the memory of someone — maybe your mom or your grandma or your uncle — standing at a stove and stirring. It’s the definition of slow food.”
“I think there are people who will wonder why grits are such a big deal,” Willis, the cookbook author, says, “but grits are found all over the South at almost every meal. Even when you go to someone’s house when someone dies, there’s going to be a cheese grits casserole on the table. I call them ‘funeral grits’ because it’s pure comfort food.”
Grits, Murray hopes, will help spur more discussion about how food shapes our culture, as humble ingredients are elevated into expensive dishes even as we come to terms with long-lost, or ignored, origin stories that deserve recognition.
“The real story of the book wasn’t just this dish,” says Murray, “but how I could look at this place where I lived and get to know its people better simply by talking about grits.”