“Wow, you’re so Black.”
I was traveling with my swim team when we stopped at a restaurant for breakfast. I ordered grits, only for the server to say they were out. Despite my disappointed frown, my Black coach promptly looked around. He asked who ordered grits, shocked that anyone would order grits — a southern delicacy — in Holland, Mich. When I confessed, that was his response.
Ever since I was a child, grits have always been a breakfast staple in my household. One of my earliest memories includes looking up at my dad while he stood in front of the stove, stirring the morning pot of grits. As he brought down the pot and asked me how many scoops I wanted in my bowl, I had my slice of bacon in hand, ready for it to be used as a spoon. Every morning before school, there was grits. Before every swim meet, there was grits. Before every SAT or ACT, there was grits. I devoured the comforting warmth of savory delight before every moment whether big or small. Grits make me feel full, confident and ready to start my day.
So, what does my Blackness have to do with the fact that I like grits? Even years later, that moment stuck with me. Grits for me is something that is a part of life, a constant that I never questioned. My Chinese dad would make grits for my sister and I every morning before school, which even made my sister mistake it as a Chinese dish rather than a staple of Southern cuisine. When we had family Thanksgiving in Georgia, my Aunt Helen would make all the cousins grits for breakfast. Every time I bite into the pepper and butter seasoned ground corn, I taste the love seeped in from my family.
Grits can be traced back to pre-colonialism times when Native Americans first shared meals of hominy grits with European settlers. Centuries later and grits have evolved into a fundamental food associated with the South. Coming from Georgia, my mother brought the tradition of cooking grits with her to Michigan, and my grandparents upheld the tradition when they moved to help take care of me and my sister. However, people in the Midwest do not eat grits. It was so uncommon that Costco decided to stop selling it (and you know it’s serious if it’s Costco). However, that doesn’t mean grits are absent outside of the South. During the Great Migration, many Black families moved across the United States and brought grits with them since it’s easy to make, easy to customize and calms your soul. Although I admit that grits is an acquired taste due to its inherently bland flavor, I wish there were others who had also developed that taste. How could I explain that a simple bowl of white grounded corn with butter and bacon was as essential as a cup of coffee in the morning is to others? How could I explain this feeling of home and comfort I had in this food unfamiliar to most Michiganders?
In the South, people take their grits seriously. In the iconic film, “My Cousin Vinny,” Joe Pesci creates an argument for his defendants using grits as a time measurement for witness accountability. Out of that scene comes Maury Chaykin’s famous line: “No self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits. I take pride in my grits.” Southern restaurants have been cooking grits the same way for the past two centuries. The first printed version of a shrimp and grits recipe, written by a Southern white man and credited to his Black butler, was published in 1930. However, if you taste grits from different regions in the United States, you will see that those outside of the Sun Belt are more likely to eat sweet grits rather than the traditional savory kind. The taste of grits has evolved to be personalized to what each individual needs — it’s a dish that creates individuality among Black households.
Funnily, the more I thought about my love for grits, the more grits-lovers I stumbled upon in my college life. In “Writing about Race, Gender, and Popular Culture” — a class I took here at the University of Michigan — someone typed “Salt or Sugar?” in the chat box on Zoom and I immediately knew what they were talking about. This question turned into a ten-minute-long discussion between the professor and four or five students on how we all eat our grits. When a student sent a Youtube video of grandmas rating each other’s grits, I finally started to see some recognition in this grits-deprived state I call my home. Although the class consisted of mostly white students, our conversation about grits awoke all the Black students in the Zoom call, even those who would usually have their cameras off. In light of this bond, everyone shared each of their own different ways for cooking grits. Just like people, there are many different types of grits; being part of the Black community is a similar concept.
There is an art to cooking grits to perfection; but first, you need to know your own personal taste. For me, I like my grits thin with a nice, solid layer at the top that comes after letting it cool down. For my sister, it’s thick grits that are still smooth but chunky enough to be outside of water consistency. There are many different ways you can eat grits: salt, pepper, sugar, greens, sausage, ham, butter, milk, shrimp, cheese. Anything and everything can be added, and that’s what makes it so unique.
Growing up in a multicultural household gave me many different perspectives on what it means to be Black and Asian. However, many of my Black peers excluded me from their group for reasons such as not knowing the “Black handshake” or not understanding African American Vernacular English, and my Asian peers excluded me for not knowing Mandarin or not physically looking Asian. Grits are significant in Black culture, it represents to me what a blank canvas to culture can be. Doesn’t matter if you eat grits with sugar or salt, it is still part of Black culture. If you add coconut milk, it is still Black culture with a twist of the Asian palate. Regardless of how you like your grits, it is still rooted in one’s Blackness and something that can express your uniqueness to the world.
So for the grits-eating population out there, how do you cook your grits? Whether I’m in Georgia, Michigan or anywhere else in the world, I cook mine the same way: with butter, pepper and bacon.
MiC Columnist Jasmin Lee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org