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Do You Think Grits Are a Southern Invention?

Do You Think Grits Are a Southern Invention?
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Welcome to the July 2008 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, New Hampshire.

Do You Think Grits Are a Southern Invention?

Well, not really. Fact is, they originated in New England…

When most people think of New England food, they think of lobsters, clam chowder, Boston baked beans, scrod, Indian pudding, cranberries, and apple pie. (Yes, we claim apple pie, too.) But how many of us today have a craving for white field corn, with the hulls removed, that’s been boiled in water for many hours with a little salt until it’s become a sort of mush? Yuck. And yet the dish, once a hearty staple on New England tables, hasn’t disappeared. You can still buy it in a few places, dried or in a can. It’s known as hulled corn. Or samp. Or hominy. Or cornmeal mush.

My friend the late Vrest Orton, founder of the now-famous Vermont Country Store in Weston, Vermont, once explained to me that samp is actually kernels of corn ground coarse for breakfast cereal; hulled corn and cornmeal mush are roughly as described above (no hulls); and hominy is another name for cornmeal cooked in water, as in “hominy grits,” which Southerners claim as their very own. Of course, in truth hominy grits were invented by the Algonquin Indians — who lived in New England.

Now, when Rhode Islanders convert stone-ground cornmeal, salt, butter, and milk (or — and this is controversial — water) into patties and then fry them, the result is one of New England’s truly iconic foods, the Rhode Island johnnycake, or jonnycake, or journey cake. (That’s right, the spelling is controversial, too.) Purists maintain that only real jonnycakes (we’ll opt for that spelling) are made with whitecap flint corn, a type pretty much unavailable today in any sort of quantity, although the University of Rhode Island’s cooperative extension service maintains a seed supply and furnishes limited amounts to growers such as Old Sturbridge Village.

“Any of us will tell you that the flavor and texture of a jonnycake made with flint corn is entirely different from other commercially grown corn,” a past president of the Society for the Propagation of the Jonnycake Tradition in Rhode Island once informed me. And the Rhode Island legislature firmly agrees with the society’s stand on the matter. Many years ago, it actually passed a law making it illegal to call jonnycakes made with anything other than flint corn “Rhode Island jonnycakes.” As far as I know, the law still stands.

My own idea of jonnycake wouldn’t pass muster anywhere but in Maine. When I was a boy growing up on a farm there, we enjoyed a sort of cornmeal shortcake covered with sliced apples and cream, which we called “apple Jonathan.”

Anyone remember that?

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Do You Think Grits Are a Southern Invention?

Updated Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

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3 Responses to Do You Think Grits Are a Southern Invention?

  1. Eric November 20, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

    The nixtamilization of corn…aka soaking it in an alkalai solution likely began in Mexico or Guatemala and spread from there. New England is geographically at the farthest reaches of North America from where this began.

  2. Alex Grover January 16, 2016 at 11:10 pm #

    Grits are of course a Native American invention. But to claim it for a certain tribe might be going a bit far. You all so are missing the nixtamalization process that separates European style corn meal from what was known across both North and South America before the European invasion. Grits is a nixtamalized corn product and not just soaked.

  3. Dale April 10, 2016 at 9:17 am #

    Nice article, but I agree with the comments above: why claim it (without substantiation, by the way) as a New England invention? Maize cooked in the manner of grits–as the previous commentaries point out–was a near universal aspect of North American cuisines before European settlement, and farthest removed from the point of corn’s development. Spanish settlers in Georgia and elsewhere were, I believe, eating grits before New England was conceived, not to speak of Virginia which had the dish from Powhatan’s nation for years before the landing of the Mayflower.
    After the largest question of European hegemony and cultural co-option of indigenous culture are acknowledged, another question looms: Why cannot New Englanders simply share some aspects of our national culture instead of necessarily perceiving themselves as the fountainhead for it?

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