Grits to Champagne in the North Georgia Mountains
The North Georgia Mountains are home to some of Georgia’s leading fresh food producers. Vegetables, fruit, flowers, cheese, wine, nuts, grain, poultry, eggs, fish, pork and beef are all seasonally available throughout the area. An abundance of fresh water, combined with soil rich in nutrients and a temperate climate offer a recipe for great fresh seasonal foods. Our local cabbage from Osage tastes better – maybe it’s the soil. Also, local grits from Barker’s Creek Mill taste better too – I wonder why that is?
Earlier this year Mitt Romney made a swing through the south and declared "I am learning to say y'all and I like grits, and things." Mitt has no idea how important grits are to the southern palate. Grits have been around several thousand years before being discovered by the presumptive Republican Presidential candidate. My wife is an anthropologist. According to her, Native Americans first cultivated corn, or maize, between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. Once it became part of their diet, they ate maize in various forms at almost every meal. According to archaeological evidence the earliest evidence of hominy production dates to 1500 – 1200 BC in what is now Guatemala.
The process of making hominy is called nixtamalization. You start with field corn. Traditional grits are produced by soaking the dried corn in an alkali solution. This can include baking soda, lime, or wood ash to create "lye water." The kernels are soaked for a day or two. In the solution the kernel swells to twice its size and the shell pops off. The kernels must then be rinsed many times to get rid of the alkali. They are then dried, and finally ground into grits. The grind can be coarse, medium, or fine. This chemical process gives hominy grits their unique flavor and aroma.
Hominy grits were one of the first true American foods. Cherokees made hominy grits by soaking corn in lye and beating it with a kanona (corn beater). The grits were used to make a traditional hominy soup. When the colonists came ashore in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, the Native Americans introduced them to bowls of boiled corn that they called "rockahomine," which was later shortened to "hominy" by the colonists. Later settlers dubbed it “Grits,” and Southern Americans have been eating it ever since.
During the last 400 years it became so prevalent in the south grits became known as “Southern Potatoes.” They played an important role in helping southerners survive the great depression.
This process of soaking corn in lye water is the same process used in the southwest to make masa harina, the principle ingredient in tortillas and tamales. We have also learned that the alkaline soaking treatment enhances the nutritional value of corn. The process converts the niacin in the corn into a form more absorbable by the body. This altered chemistry allows grits and tortillas to prevent pellagra, a niacin deficiency disease, making it an important staple in the diets of many cultures. It’s this treatment that makes grits significantly different from polenta, which is merely ground corn that has not been treated with lye water.
And I can’t imagine it took long for America’s new chefs to start looking for ways to make grits more interesting. One of my favorite variations evolved in the low country of South Carolina – known as shrimp and grits. In the region near Charleston shrimp and grits was a staple food for people along the low country. It was inexpensive and the combination of fresh shrimp with creamy grits is very tasty and nutritious. Our friend Chef Louis Osteen is widely credited with elevating low country cuisine from down home to upscale. Chef Osteen says “Shrimp and grits is low country’s finest offering.” In October 1989, Louis's Charleston Grill, in the Omni Hotel at Charleston Place opened to immediate praise, receiving national media attention when it was selected by Esquire magazine as one of the country's "Top 25 New Restaurants.” Since then shrimp and grits has become a fancy dinner dish, served all dressed-up at many of the south’s best upscale eateries.
As a chef I think the combination of shrimp and grits is good enough to make believers out of even the most ardent grits-phobe. There are entire cookbooks devoted to just “shrimp and grits.” I have seen some interesting variations including grilled shrimp basted in barbecue sauce on garlic cheddar grits, battered and fried shrimp on cheesy grits and shrimp cooked with Andouille sausage with a Tasso cream sauce. Mmmm, it all sounds good.
Our southern chefs are always looking for new and inventive ways to use grits. At Beechwood Inn we pour cheesy cooked grits onto a sheet pan and chill them. Then they can be cut into shapes for pan searing or char-grilling. Top each “grit cake” with a pan seared scallop and include a crumbling of Benton’s Smokehouse Bacon. Perfect. I have seen some really unusual recipes for grits too, including Herbed Grits with Dark Chocolate Hot Sauce.
What I have learned since coming to the North Georgia Mountains is that most of the heirloom varieties of corn that were once used to make grits are now largely extinct. We know from reading antebellum recipes and the notes of historic millers that the heirloom varieties of corn were much different from the hybrid corn grown and ground today. The heirloom varieties were revered for their rich mineral flavor, very floral aromas and a rich creamy mouth feel. These are flavors, aromas and textures that cannot be found in hybridized corn that has been developed principally for rapid growth and resistance to disease.
At Beechwood Inn we use grits from nearby Barker’s Creek Mill located on Betty’s Creek Road in Rabun County. They just taste better. Miller Woody Malot attributes it to the corn. Woody uses mostly an Heirloom corn known as “Keener Corn.” According to Woody, about three-quarters of what's ground at Barker's Creek is white corn meal and grits. Modern food scientists have made grits white by bleaching and over- processing. Many of the natural foods buyers look for yellow grits and cornmeal because they assume it is a sign of a heartier and healthier product. But in the South, grits have traditionally been white, not because of over processing but because the whole grain they come from is white corn. The Keener Corn is an open-pollinated white flint variety farmed by the Keener family since the 1820’s. This exact strain of corn may be extinct except for this one farm.
Woody says “The white Keener makes excellent speckled grits and cornmeal. All our grain products are untreated in any way. There are no preservatives added and the bran is not sifted away from the germ. This gives a truly superior flavor.” Because of this we keep Barker’s Creek Mill products in the fridge or freezer to preserve the quality.
While Barker’s Creek Mill has long kept the tradition of milling heirloom corn, the notion of using heirloom varieties to make grits is now exploding across the culinary circuit. Glen Roberts, who founded Anson Mills in Columbia South Carolina, has made it a personal mission to travel the back-roads of South Carolina and Georgia to sleuth out the few remaining heirloom corns.
According to the Anson Mills website “By 2000 Glenn had ten varieties of Southern dent heirlooms in the ground and was milling grits for chefs in Georgia and the Carolinas. Word got around. A handful of ingredient-conscious chefs across the country--Thomas Keller in California, Charlie Trotter in Chicago, Tom Colicchio in Manhattan, Ann Cashon in Washington DC, and Jodi Adams in Boston--began to use Anson Mills products and promote them vigorously to their colleagues. The circle widened.” I’ve tried Anson Mill’s Grits and they are excellent – but they have nothing over Barker’s Creek Mill grits.
As an ingredient-conscious chef I use Barker’s Creek Mill Grits in breakfast, lunch and dinner recipes. For breakfast we will fill Osage Farm Pablano Chiles with Manchego Cheese Grits cooked with local sausage and top it with fresh house-made cilantro pesto. For dinner we feature a Confit of Baby Back Ribs with Wild Cherry –Balsamic Glaze on top of Rosemary White Cheddar Grits – this latter recipe pairs very well with Wolf Mountain Vineyard’s Brut Rose Sparkling Wine. The creaminess of the grits accentuates the creamy and yeasty mousse of the sparkling wine. There you are – from “Grits to Champagne” right here in the North Georgia Mountains.
I am thrilled to practice my trade in the Mountains of North Georgia and to have all the wonderful local farms, gardens, mills, vineyards and orchards nearby. I also admire and respect Miller Woody Malot for his devotion to preserving and promoting an important part of our mountain heritage. And to Mitt I say, “grits are not just a cheesy breakfast food.”