Archive for Wednesday, October 23, 1996

COMFORT FOODS GET DOWN TO NITTY-GRITTY

October 23, 1996

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I'm not sure how my mother, who spent the first 26 years of her life in Alaska, came to love grits but that Southern standard made frequent appearances at our table when I was a child.

Because devotion to grits is full of nuance, I should clarify that we took a decidedly Yankee approach. In our house, grits were never served for breakfast, were never fried and never swam in red-eye gravy. Instead, Mom baked her grits in a casserole and served them as a side dish.

They were gooey and cheesy and stuck to the ribs, which gave them major kid appeal. I suppose it was because grits as I knew them were a heavy, fattening food that I made it this far into adulthood without giving serious thought to incorporating them into my own menus.

Not to mention the screeching, fingernail-on-chalkboard voice of the Flo character on ``Alice,'' the 1970s sitcom set in a roadside greasy spoon. Flo's ``kiss my grits'' epithet probably did more to undermine the mainstreaming of Dixie cuisine than the revelation that a Southern cook uses EVERY part of the pig but the squeal.

Having lately passed through the gates of middle age, however, I've found myself with hankerings for the comfort foods of my youth. I quickly discovered that craving grits north of the Mason-Dixon line can be a lonely business. Even in Lawrence, dietary melting pot that we are, grits are treated like an obscure specialty item in the grocery stores that do carry them.

The quick grits I cooked Sunday were the real Southern thing, brought to me by a friend who recently visited Georgia.

As I put the casserole together, it occurred to me that grits have been left behind in the rush to put more whole grains on our plates. Hominy grits are, in fact, the whole grains of dried corn that have been ground and milled to a consistency reminiscent of Cream of Wheat.

It seems to me that grits would be a welcome alternative in the '90s diet. I explained my theory to Ann Chapman, dietitian at Watkins Hospital, who said that in terms of calories, quick grits are comparable to oatmeal cereal. The trick, she said, is to alter standard recipes to eliminate the fat and cholesterol.

Indeed, the published recipes I found for baked cheese grits called for a full stick of butter or margarine and up to one pound of cheese. The margarine, I found, is extraneous. The quantity of cheese also is a matter of taste and a low-fat substitute will suffice.

In addition, by adding diced onion and even green and red bell pepper you can give a grits casserole some depth and create enough of a flavor diversion to obscure the fact that you've omitted the butter and cut the quantity of cheese in half.

A Southerner undoubtedly would disparage this adaptation as just another example of Yankee snobbery. I'm learning that this quickly can become an issue when Northerners leave their fingerprints on any piece of Southern culture.

I didn't delve very far into the grits issue before becoming aware of the regional division over usage of the word ``grits.'' It seems natural to me to treat grits as a plural noun -- ``grits is'' just doesn't roll off the Yankee tongue.

Southerners, however, consider it a matter of pride to use grits as an ``it,'' not a ``them,'' and happily mock Yankee attempts at grammatical correctness. This is evident by the slogan stripped across a web page on grits (http://206.1.124.154): ``No one can eat just one.''

Cheese grits casserole

1 cup quick grits

4 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs, well-beaten

1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

optional

1 small onion, diced

4 tablespoons margarine

water, stirring continually until thick (3 to 5 minutes). Remove from heat and stir in eggs, ave their fingerprints on any piece of Southeroptional onion, pepper and margarine. Transfer to a 2-quart casserole and top with remaining cheese. Cover and bake 45 minutes, until casserole bubbles and begins to brown around the edges.

Note: This casserole will have the consistency of soft mashed potatoes. For a firmer custardlike casserole, use three or four eggs. Serves 6.

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