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Grits are not the same as polenta

"grits and hominy are acquired tastes - but they are so highly nutritive and protein-rich that the tastes are eminently worthy of acquisition."

Bert Greene

On the left, hominy, in the middle grits, on the right polenta. Having now read a few articles on this I now believe there are two fundamental differences between grits and polenta. And first let it be said, that grits come from hominy.

The first difference between the two things - because we are sort of talking about two, not three things here - are that they are made from a completely different type of corn. Polenta from a harder yellower corn, than hominy and grits. So they taste different and have different nutritional values. And yes they are all fundamentally corn - maize.

The other difference is that hominy and grits are made from corn kernels which have first been dried, then soaked in liquid containing lye (wood ash), or even sometimes lime - an alkali anyway, which swells the kernels and also assists in removing the kernel and the next layer as well. Then it is rinsed. This gives you hominy which is generally sold in America and Mexico in tins. The early pilgrims used them as a substitute for potatoes. Grits are made by drying the homily and then grinding it down. I think the ones in the centre, have been stone-ground (obviously the best quality) and are much coarser than the grits you buy in an American supermarket. You can't buy them here. These are then cooked up as a sort of porridge - basically you boil water, pour the grits in slowly, whisking all the time, keep whisking until separated, stir from time to time and cook until soft and mushy so that you end up with something looking like this.

"Grits should be smooth and mollifying to the tongue, never rough or contentious." Bert Greene

Historically they were staple foods of the American Indians, who apparently gave some to the Pilgrim fathers who would otherwise not have survived. And so they were adopted - especially in the Southern states and have become a national dish - it's the official food of the state of Georgia.

Why am I talking about grits - after all you can't get them here - well maybe a few specialist shops have them - so you are not going to eat them are you? I found a few Australian recipes but actually they used polenta so not at all the same thing. I am talking about them because I have just started reading my next book group book, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, (so far so good) and it begins with a very young girl living in the marshlands of North Carolina, abandoned by her family who has to feed herself - on grits. I have often wondered about grits. They are so folksy, homey American, but I never really knew what they were talking about, so I thought I would look it up.

I first of all turned to Bert Greene who obviously loves them and dedicates a whole chapter in his book Greene on Greens to hominy and grits. There is a completely separate chapter on corn, so he obviously views it as quite a separate thing. And there is an amazing range of recipes there beginning with a cheese and bacon soufflé like this. There are tarts, pies, bread, all manner of things.

It's obviously a love/hate thing though even in America. In his book Bert Greene tells a rather rambling story about Talulah Bankhead which ends with her yelling to her friends in exasperation:

"The only good thing about grits, is that it rhymes with Ritz, where I go for my favourite dishes. And as for 'harmony', I'd rather starve!"

And I must admit that I have tended to think of it as food of the very poor - and yes Southern. On the other hand, my other American cookbook, The American Heritage Cookbook quotes an Englishman travelling in the South in 1837 as saying:

"Our breakfast was admirable, excellent coffee with delicious cream, and that capital, national dish of South Carolina, snow-white hominy brought hot to table like macaroni, which ought always to be eaten, with lumps of sweet fresh butter buried in it! this is certainly one of the best things imaginable to begin the day liberally with."

As for the name(s). The Algonquin Indians called it tackhummin, which evolved to hummin and then evolved into hominy. Grits comes from a mispronunciation of groats, the name given to the dish by Scottish immigrants, who likened it to their own groats.

So there you go. Hominy grits. I've always wondered and I did wonder whether it was the same as polenta. Now I know. I never came across them in my student trip to America so I have never tasted them. And probably never will.


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