When you actually strike up a conversation with a Bluffton newbie and get beyond the pleasantries, there is one thing that most folks can simply not grasp.
It doesn’t matter if they like the dish or not. What fascinates the outsiders wanting to earn their Blufftonian card is the “why”: Why are Blufftonians so infatuated with grits?
Why does the very mention of the word incite Clemson-South Carolina level rivalries (more on that in a later piece) as to who makes it better?
And don’t dare question the culinary integrity of the dish. The quickest way to earn a one-way ticket out of the 29910 is to say, “I do not get the big deal about grits.”
Trust me, I’ve seen it.
I have been dining out, heard someone from a table nearby utter those eight words and felt the instant chill around me. A stillness and hush comes over the room. Minutes later, an unmarked car shows up. The diner is carried out, never to be seen again. Rumor has it they dump the offender out past the town limits sign headed to Savannah, out past where the New Riverside roundabout is now (and if you need to know how to navigate that, read our Newbies Guide from the last edition).
I’ve been told that deep in the woods out there where May River Road magically morphs into S.C. 46, there is a campsite where the eight-word-utterers live. That a producer on “Survivor” found the site once and used it as their inspiration for Exile Island.
So, yes, I’m kidding. But we do take this stuff seriously down here, and for good reason.
Food historian Erin Byers Murray wrote an amazing read, “Grits: A Cultural and Culinary Journey Through the South,” and she learned that the milled corn at the root of the dish can be traced back to 8700 B.C.E.
Walter Raleigh’s explorer crew boasted of a “very white, faire and well tasted” boiled corn served by the hosts. Not to throw soap water on that fine observation from 1584, but when you’ve been at sea for months at a time, anything other than the same old ship slop is going to taste like heaven.
Grits comes from “grist,” a ground corn dish that native Virginians passed on to British colonists.
Folks can say grits is similar to hominy all they want, but they’re crazy. That’s a Northern attempt at getting to grits and it’s a flop. Hominy is at best the base.
“This is what we had to work with. We worked the land, we worked the sea and we all experimented,” said long-time Blufftonian and life-long fisherman Larry Toomer. “I had grits every morning, shrimp and grits most days for lunch. Throw in some rice and that’s pretty much my diet for most of my childhood. It’s what the land gave us and we were grateful.”
And the experiments, they were fruitful.
The Cahill farm was the center of Bluffton commerce back in the 1940s and 1950s, when hourly passing traffic was counted by spotting horse poop and passersby were counted on one hand.
The Cahills had the lone grist mill in the region, so tradesmen would trek two or three days from Savannah and Charleston to crack corn for grits, cornmeal and moonshine.
So it should be a shock to no one that John and Robbie Cahill have what many believe to be the quintessential grits in the Lowcountry. A microcosm survey of online foodies brought the Cahill’s praise out in droves.
“It’s just the perfect consistency, not too thick, not too runny. Creamy,” said Facebook poster Candace Powell. “Everywhere else I ‘need’ to add butter, salt and peppers. Theirs need nothing.”
When it’s right, you’ll have a hard time getting the exact recipe out of the chef. Every gritsmaster has their own little tweak. One thing most experts will agree on: using water or broth as the base is blasphemy.
However, local Facebook group poster Richard Dauchert shared the recipe from the Old Post Office on Edisto Island that was adored by true locals, and it’s what I’d call a fair compromise:
“Made for two, ¼ cup grits, 1¼ cup water, ½ cup whole milk, 1 tablespoon butter, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Last five minutes, add a quarter cup of cream. Double as needed.”
Still, I have been told time and again that only milk and heavy cream and a Paula Deen-level dash of butter is going to get you to the promised land. Salt and pepper to taste, but don’t skimp there either. This dish is not meant for counting points on a Weight Watchers diet.
You want to bump it up, add a little pimento cheese, I was told by local chef Kevin Anderson. Oh, the cheese. That’s really what took grits from a Southern secret to a worldwide foodie sensation. The New York times published Chapel Hill, N.C., chef Bill Neal’s shrimp and cheese grits recipe in 1985 and even long before the internet, tales of sojourns to eat the dish at Crook’s Corner and try to mimic the recipe from taste became the stuff of legend among gourmet diners.
Those in the Lowcountry know this was never gourmet. This is life. This is sustenance. Food is love. It’s history, sometimes not exactly worth celebrating, but important to remember. Grits was known to be the staple of plantation slaves’ diets. It truly was life sustaining for them, and they could catch creek shrimp without their owners knowing and create true balanced nutritional energy to survive the next day.
Every ethnicity, every color of skin here has tales of the meal meaning different levels of love and life to them. THAT’S why it matters so much, why folks are so heated.
And it’s why kitchens from Port Royal to Old Town to South Beach have been handing out their take on it for decades.
Who has the best? That’s personal preference but will certainly create a verbal ruckus once you’re brave enough to voice your favorite. Because it is a near lock that the person next to you will disagree.
It amused me to see folks like Tommy Crenshaw chime in online to say making this stuff from home isn’t rocket science. He’s not wrong. But part of the fun is the pursuit of the next great take on grits, or shrimp and grits, or what the next chef is brave enough or crazy enough to combine with grits.
It’s like a treasure hunt. Squat and Gobble is on the map. Many, like my wife, would put a newcomer like Omelette Café on the map. Sippin Cow, Cornerstone Café, Calhoun’s, Nectar Farm Kitchen, Hudson’s, Captain Woody’s, The Cottage, The Pearl … they’ve all earned enough consistent praise to inform your pursuit of your own personal perfection.
Just please, do not mutter “grits” and “why” within an hour of each other in public conversation. I really don’t want to have to send the search team out to Exile Island to find you.
Have a topic that you think needs to be addressed in our Newbies Guide? Email Tim Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.