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Culinary chameleon

In southern Manchuria, they are called “gezi.” In East Africa, they’re called “ugali.” And the derivative of what we call them today is from the Old English word “grytta,” which means a coarse meal of any kind.

But no matter how popular they are in other places, grits will always have a much-deserved home right here in the American South. They are such a Southern belle that folks from the North and West sometimes think they’re being kidded when someone offers them grits.

But for many Southerners, grits are an old food friend.

For those who need an introduction, grits have a creamy, bleached-white color. They are made from ground corn. Authentic varieties are stone-ground and coarse in texture, while the instant versions tend to yield a smoother, creamy feel on the tongue. Their taste varies from state to state and dish to dish throughout the South.

Grits even have cousins in other parts of the country with more recognizable or respectable names like polenta or farina. But making grits is as down-home and Southern as making a new sweet-tea glass out of an old mayonnaise jar. Grits are a bona fide staple of Southern culinary culture.

“What’s more Southern than grits?” responds Maurice Wilson, the owner of Grits and Gravy, when asked why he chose to give his E. Washington Street eatery the name it now carries. There is something about grits in the South that suggests comfort and a just a good, hearty meal.

How do people in Suffolk like their grits? It’s pretty simple, Wilson says.

“Cheese grits are pretty popular, but most people just like theirs with butter, salt and pepper.”

Consistency is also a matter of personal taste when it comes to the stone-ground treat. They can be prepared loose and runny like a brothy soup or thick and hearty like a scoop of mashed potatoes. According to the diners at Grits and Gravy recently, thick and hearty is the best way to go.

The process of making grits involves the use of hominy. Hominy is made from dent corn or flint, both types of corn with hard kernels. These hard kernels are dried on the cob then removed and bathed in a solution of baking soda, lime or wood ash. The kernels are then hulled and degermed using friction, then dried. The hominy that results from this process is then ground up to make the pale grains known as grits.

Once these little grains reach the kitchen, their uses are virtually limitless. Grits make for a nice side dish at breakfast, topped with butter or sausage or red eye gravy. The product can also be refrigerated until firmed, then sliced and fried in patties that can be topped and served as a side dish.

Grits can even go grand when made into dishes like shrimp and grits, a chef’s specialty at Grits and Gravy, where those tiny little grains are loaded with cheese, seasoned with green onions, peppers, andoullie sausage, and crowned with jumbo seasoned shrimp. Even dessert is a course in which grits can play a part in the form of grits pie, a custard-like pie — reminiscent of cheesecake, key lime and sweet potato pies all at once — with a subtle vanilla and brown-sugar flavor.

That’s why grits are the culinary chameleon and a Southern classic. There are pretty much no boundaries to the roles they can play at the table. Grits are limited only by the chef’s imagination. Their plain and neutral flavor can accommodate anything on the flavor spectrum from sweet to spicy.

And whether they are dressed fine and fancy in a dish of shrimp and grits or slopped plain and porridge-like in a regular bowl with butter, salt and pepper, grits are a Southern specialty and a food to be explored.