Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Living in Hominy

Stone-ground yellow corn grits
"You never heard of grits?" the cook asked.  "Sure I've heard of grits. I just never actually *seen* a grit before," says the unknowing Yankee.  

I always have a little bit of a hard time describing grits in a pleasant and appealing way when  I'm faced with the unwashed masses"   
"It's a corn meal mush."  
"It's a porridge made from dried corn."
"It's a hot corn gruel"
"Oh, why is called grits? Um..well...i'd assume the texture."

It usually plays out like an out-of-his-element Joe Pesci ordering breakfast in the small town south.  Grits, our famous region defining dish, made from ground corn that has been treated with lye, is a love it or leave it kind of dish.  Those of us raised on the stuff find it comforting, always with a fond memory of less complicated times.  Those who are less familiar usually end up saying "Oh yeah, I've had that.  It's called polenta."

Classic Mexican-style tamales
The lead in into Latin food is not quite as obvious, though.  The Maya are credited by many in the discovery of hominy and with that discovery came the staple ingredient of all of Latin American cooking: masa.  Tortillas, tamales, sopes, huaraches, among a few other thousand crucial dishes are made with the stuff.  In reality Mexican food wouldn't be Mexican food with out it.   So then from my perspective I ask "how can these ingredients be used interchangeably?" 

I've always loved grits as a vehicle.  Mixed with salty, Red Eye gravy, thick with cheese, or even just an acceptable way to eat a mouthful of wonderful butter, grits have always been the best to me when served alongside something else.  It's always challenging for the modern chef to work with classic ingredients in a contemporary, interpretive ways while maintaining the tradition they've been steeped in.  But then again, it's also really fun.  See you in the kitchen.

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