What’s Behind the Grits Culture Wars

Whether served plain, salty, or sugary, the staple dish carries hundreds of years of history in its grains

Illustration: Stefanie Wong

CChance the Rapper closed out a September 2019 episode of Ellen with a performance of “Eternal,” a track from his debut studio album, The Big Day. A one-second-long clip of the performance went viral on Twitter, after viewers realized that he had not only said the N-word, but proceeded it with a resounding, “Grits!” After thousands of retweets, the snippet started a mass conversation about grits and rekindled the age-old argument about the “correct” way to eat them.

Grits are a staple in the Black community, and in addition to a shout out on “Eternal,” they have been included in a number of songs and popular culture moments. They have rich roots as well, due to the meal’s simplicity and place within Black American history over the past few hundred years. No matter how you dress them, grits are quite literally a part of the fabric of America.

Cynthia Greenlee, editor of Southern Foodways, shared with me that “Grits, and its variations, are centuries-old” and American interpretations are a mixture of native, African American, and White southern versions of the dish. “Growing up in the Deep South, I had grits more times than I can remember. I’ll never forget brunch dates that were blessed by thick, hot grits, or school breakfasts consisting of white grits, toast, and eggs. Even when I was just a few days postpartum and couldn’t be bothered with cooking, my grandmother stood at the stove, stirring grits ever so slowly for me. Just as grits have been there during pivotal moments in my life, they have been equally as ever-present in Black popular culture.”

AAccording to Erin Byers Murray, author of the book Grits, corn was milled thousands of years ago in Central America. Years later, the Muscogee Nation, also known as the Creek people, ground corn with a stone mill. They called the food “hominy” and even used it as currency with colonizers in the 16th century. Hominy then evolved into grits (from the term “grist,” a type of grain.) Black people came in contact with grits as cornmeal during the time of the transatlantic slave trade, as it was typically rationed weekly by slave owners. But even though that’s the first recorded time that Black people and grits crossed paths, the porridge has similarities to eba, which is an African dish made from cassava flour or garri. Eba is primarily paired with savory meals, making discussions surrounding it a bit less volatile than the ones about how to dress grits.

The conversation surrounding the “proper” way to dress grits feels as old as the sun. Some swear by sugar and butter, while others prefer a more savory alternative. In a 2016 essay, Ebony’s former food editor, Donna Battle Pierce, stated that your early exposure to either sweet or savory grits, your age, and the area you grew up in will inform your taste. Pierce decided that post-Civil War northerners tend to lean toward sugar, while southerners opt for something saltier. But there are larger divides and broader discussions to be had. There are variations of grits — instant and yellow or white stone-ground, the use of which conjure up thoughts about family units and the role capitalism plays in eating.

Grits are classified as soul food, the descendent of slave meals and poverty dishes made up of what could be grown or scraped up.

The grits I know best are white, stone-ground, and so hot that a full minute of blowing on them is required. Cultural critic Nneka M. Okona outlined her preference for stone-ground grits, (which take about 45 minutes to an hour prepare) saying that they are “very different from grits [she] grew up eating.” “I think it inadvertently ends up being a commentary on our family units and the function of family and how that [overlaps] with eating meals.” Okona’s preference for slow-cooked grits is interesting though, given the cyclical hustle and bustle in American society. The breakdown of family mealtimes, plus the intersection of capitalism and sustenance—namely hurriedly preparing for work—has drastically morphed the way we approach food, including grits. In Arwa Mahdawi’s piece on food and work for The Guardian, she explains how eating at work strips us of the communal joys of eating, plunging us deeper into a well of capital-driven living. This is just one instance of how our relationship with grits has been warped by cash.

Grits are classified as soul food, the descendent of slave meals and poverty dishes made up of what could be grown or scraped up. Grits are praised for their filling and nutritious nature, regardless of how their commodification has altered the taste. However, soul food is also vilified, as outlined by Bryant Terry in his essay on grits for The Root. The belief that soul food, an undeniably Black creation bred out of necessity, is solely evil is inherently racist, and the gentrification of meals like grits—$70 gourmet grits, anyone?—is a slap in the face. But we’ve chosen to ease this pain through music.

GGritty soul singer Little Milton showcased his love for his partner in 1969 by squalling, “If I don’t love you, grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry.” Milton, born James Milton Campbell Jr., was born in Inverness, Mississippi, and raised in Greenville by a farmer who was also a musician. With roots firmly planted in the Deep South, Campbell knew his audience would relate to grits, especially in relation to love. Around the time “Grits Ain’t Groceries” was released, the racist caricature Aunt Jemima had become the face of grits, with her hot, quick side dish promising to fill bellies. Unfortunately, she was wholly incapable of easing racial tensions — a 2008 blog post shows boxes of Quaker Oats grits and Aunt Jemima’s (both owned by Quaker) side by side, highlighting the racialized history of grits.

Five years after Milton’s love song, R&B crooner Al Green was infamously attacked by a woman wielding a pot of hot grits. As Cynthia Greenlee discusses in her VICE article on grits as a weapon against cheaters, Green’s misfortune is one of the most famous moments in Black pop culture that includes grits. It’s the other, much darker side of Milton’s coin that mixes passion and the dish, as the culprit, Mary Woodson ended her life shortly after the attack. Though the situation has become somewhat of a punchline, it’s a very real reminder of the multifaceted history of grits, and why the meal is not to be toyed with.

Grits are a part of our makeup — even if you’ve never had them, your mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother has. Grits sit on dining tables, listening to hard conversations and hushed folly.

Of course, grits popped up in major moments in the following decades. In the classic 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, there is a breakfast sequence in which Celie prepares an impressive meal for Shug Avery, who earlier threw Celie’s husband’s, and Shug’s old flame’s, pitiful, burned breakfast at the wall. Celie then prepared grits, flapjacks, coffee, and more for her. After Celie nervously slid the tray of food to Avery’s room, she waited “to see what the wall gonna look like.” A smile was brought to Celie’s face as the empty tray slid out of the bedroom. Even the fanciful tastes of traveling performer Shug Avery couldn’t resist the down-home culinary comforts of 1930s rural Georgia.

A decade after the release of The Color Purple, Goodie Mob’s “Soul Food,” from their album of the same name, is a socially aware, thumping series of expressions about family, politics, and of course, food. In his verse, Atlanta rapper Big Gipp talks about his father preparing grits for breakfast in his younger years. There’s an old saying that the way to a man’s heart is through the stomach, and if you make the statement more inclusive, you’ll have a clearer understanding of Goodie Mob’s entry point into the Black American consciousness. Goodie Mob are underground legends for their work with the Dungeon Family, which included fellow ATLiens and grits enthusiasts, Outkast.

In her song “The Way,” neo-soul favorite Jill Scott happily prepares a breakfast of toast, two scrambled eggs, and grits, while thinking about how she’s loved by her man. Released on her 2000 debut Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1, her mention of grits was one of many Black cultural references that made Scott relatable to twentysomething-year-old millennials, as well as their parents. Since then, 2008 film The Secret Life of Bees has shown kneeling in grits to be a form of punishment, and rapper Young Thug is enjoying his life as a rich Black man, while still eating fish and grits, on “Dreams.”

GGrits maintain their relevance because they are willfully bound to the Black experience. Pop culture can’t exclude them because grits aren’t a fad for foodies that will soon be brushed aside. Grits are a part of our makeup — even if you’ve never had them, your mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother has. Grits sit on dining tables, listening to hard conversations and hushed folly. They soothe us, and fill our bellies quickly when difficult days ahead are beginning under the barely risen sun. So when we are creating our legacies and archives in the form of music, literature, and film, we pay homage to grits, for all they have given us over the years.

Grits continue to be a hotbed of discussion for their accessibility, deep roots in the Black community and differing, cross-country experiences. They have served celebrities, presidents, and everyday people alike, and are dressed up (or down) in a variety of conversation-striking ways. They have infiltrated pop culture in a way that only they can, through songs, attacks, and references. They are passion on a plate, and that won’t change anytime soon.

And for those wondering, I’m team sugar all day.

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