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Good Hominy Grits

by Betty Fussell


Photo by Doug Mason

Had you lived in deep country 150 years ago, you might have had, in the yard near your kitchen, both a samp mill and an ash hopper. The samp mill was a giant mortar and pestle made from a tree stump and a block of wood. The block was suspended from a tree branch that acted as a spring. You would use this samp mill to crack dried corn and turn the kernels into coarse meal or fine flour. The ash hopper was a V-shaped wooden funnel that held wood ashes. You would run water through the ashes to make lye, which you'd then use to soften the tough outer skins (or hulls) of whole corn kernels in order to make hominy.

Our colonial ancestors, baffled by the foreignness of corn, which they first called "Guinney or Turkey wheate," had to learn a whole new vocabulary before they could learn from the Indians how to make this obdurate grain edible. Colonists came to use the words "samp" and "hominy" almost interchangeably to mean processed corn, as in this account by an English traveler in 1668: "[They] make a kind of loblolly to eat with Milk, which they call Sampe; they beat [corn] in a Mortar and sift the flower out of it; the remainder they call Homminey, which they put into a Pot of two or three Gallons, with Water, and boyl it upon a gentle Fire till it be like a Hasty Pudden." A "Hasty Pudden" made of wheat "flower" was the instant cereal of the home country, just as "Sampe" was of the colonies.

If the word "samp" dropped out of modern English, "hominy" hung in there and was sometimes joined by "grits." In most of America "hominy" came to mean lye hominy, or whole kernels that had been skinned but not ground. In the South, however, "hominy" came to mean skinned kernels that were then ground coarsely to make "grits." To add to the confusion, most of the South (except for Charleston SC, which holds to the old ways) calls grits "hominy grits." Yankees will do better to learn the lingo of New Orleans, where the whole kernels are still known as "big hominy" and the ground kernels as "small" or "little hominy."

Many Southeasterners will tell you that the only hominy worth eating is small hominy, or grits, which they eat with everything---butter, gravy, country ham, river shrimp, eggs-cheese-cream, fried fish, veal steak, and a very local Charleston specialty named John's Island hot liver pudding. The name is worrisome the taste is heavenly, a bit like Philadelphia scrapple.
Southwesterners, on the other hand, will grind small hominy even smaller, as the Mexicans do, to make the dough for tamales and tortillas. But they also use big hominy (in the form of dried whole kernels), which they call posole, and from which they make that hearty festive winter stew of pork, hominy, and chile peppers.

As a Southwestern Californian, I was raised on canned whole hominy, which like canned beans eliminated the trouble of soaking and cooking. I am still devoted to big hominy, as well as to grits, but as a migrant to Manhattan, my problem is how to get hold of either canned hominy or good quality grits. Quick or instant grits, which is what you find on most supermarket shelves, tastes more like library paste for babies than grainy, crunchy, sweet, earthy tasting corn for children and adults. For good grits, you must have freshly milled whole grain ones, whether ground white or yellow or coarse or fine---no matter. What counts is flavor that has been retained in artisan milling, rather than removed by commercial processing. Go to your local health food stores or mail order sources to get good grits.
Once in hand, you can eat big or little hominy all day long. For breakfast, I find that there's nothing like plain hot grits, loaded with butter, pepper and salt, or maybe sugar, cinnamon and cream. For lunch, I move on to big hominy, flavored with sesame oil and fresh crisp vegetables to make a hominy stir-fry, or I may simply combine hominy with the bitter green of deep-fried parsley. For dinner, I shoot the moon with hominy and roasted peppers, a simple version of Mexican posole, using sausage and both sweet and hot peppers. One day on the hominy wagon will fill you up like nothing else in the world.

Today, even if you live in the country, you're not likely to find a samp mill or an ash hopper, any more than some Jimmy or Ginny to crack your corn and swat your blue-tailed flies. What you'll find instead is time to explore the astonishing variety of American "nasaump" and "rockahominie," as our Northeastern tribes once called the processed corn that gave them, and us, true grit.

BREAKFAST GRITS
1 ½ cups milk
1 cup stone-ground or other good quality grits
2 cups boiling water
1 teaspoon salt
pepper to taste
4 tablespoons butter
In the top of a double boiler, stir the milk into the grits, then add the water and seasonings. Stir well, cover tightly and place over the bottom, filled with an inch or two of boiling water. Cook over low heat anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, or more, depending on the coarseness of the grind. When the grits are soft, add butter and serve.
Serves 4

 

HOMINY STIR-FRY
2 to 3 green onions
1 sweet red pepper
1 cup green beans
1 tablespoon olive oil 1 cup snow peas, cut in half
½ cup sliced radishes
2 cups canned hominy (with its liquid)
1 tablespoon sesame oil
salt and pepper to taste.
Cut onions in 2-inch lengths and then into narrow strips, including some of the green. Remove stem and seeds of the pepper and cut into narrow strip lengthwise. In a wok or large skillet, heat the olive oil, add the onions, pepper and beans and saute 2 to 3 minutes. Add snow peas and radishes, then the hominy. Add the sesame oil and seasonings, bring to the boil quickly and serve.
Serves 4 to 6

 

QUICK MEXICAN POSOLE WITH ROASTED PEPPERS
1 pound Spanish chorizo or Italian hot sausage, sliced
2 onions, chopped coarsely
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
12 black peppercorns, crushed
1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (optional)
4 dried chilies such as ancho, New Mexican, Anaheim
2 cups boiling chicken broth (or more as needed)
2 sweet red or yellow bell peppers, roasted, seeded and chopped
2 cups cooked dried hominy (posole)* or 2 cups canned hominy(with liquid)
salt to taste
In a heavy kettle or skillet, saute the sausage until browned on both sides. Remove to a platter, then saute the onions and garlic with the oregano and black pepper in the same pan, adding oil if needed. Remove to the platter. In the same skillet, toast the chilies on both sides over low heat, 2 to 3 minutes, but don't burn. Discard stems and seeds. Tear the flesh in pieces and put in a blender. Add to the blender 1 cup of the chicken broth and puree. Add the chili puree to the skillet, along with the sweet peppers, the hominy and the reserved sausage and onions. Add the remaining cup of broth (or more if you want a more liquid soup/stew), taste for seasoning, and add salt as necessary. Simmer the mixture together for at least 30 minutes in order to blend flavors.
Serves 6 to 8
*Posole needs to be soaked and then cooked, covered in water, usually for at least 2 or 3 hours. What you lose in time is gained in flavor---big time.

 

 

Betty Fussell is a food historian, home cook, author, English professor and freelance writer. Her book, The Story of Corn, was reprinted by University of New Mexico Press. Betty Fussells' latest work is My Kitchen Wars, which was transformed into a one-woman show performed in New York City and Hollywood. Fussell is currently writing a history of American beefsteak.



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