Monday, March 26, 2007

My search for grits in NYC

A very funny comment to Friday’s post prompted me to expand on how my move to NYC led to me writing a cookbook about grits!

Having spent my entire life living in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, one day, three years ago this southern girl decided to become a Manhattanite in order to get herself on the career fast track. It wasn’t long before I was in love with the city - the nightlife, the activity, the food - but winter rolled around I found myself a tad homesick. Winter in NYC was nothing like I’d ever experienced down south. What I thought was cold had just been a slight chill, and what I thought was a “winter” coat was actually just layer I was wearing under my “real” winter coat.

To get myself through what I call “my first real winter” where the days slipped away too quickly and the months dragged on too long, I set out for southern comfort food in this northern city. NYC is an eating town, offering a plethora of ethnic cuisine, but lacking in what I was looking for - gourmet southern. There are many southern restaurants in the city, but I was looking for something more than fried chicken and collards. Don’t get me wrong, Aunt Sylvia’s is delightful, as I’ve never had such delicious fried chicken (sorry Papa) and scrumptious collards in all of my life (sorry Nana), but I was looking for one thing in particular - grits!

And so I went on the hunt, making this search my own personal project. I was still relatively new to the city, so in an effort to help my cause, I began asking people - coworkers, clients, new friends, strangers on the subway - if they knew of a restaurant that served grits, only to receive responses ranging from confusion to disgust. My friend Dianne once said to me, “Ahh grits, I’ve heard of those things, never had them though, but I’ll try anything.” This was the more pleasant of the responses I received as most folks looked at me like I was totally crazy and they were completely grossed out at the thought. When I worked grits into a conversation, as I always did somehow, it was amazing to see facial expressions become twisted and disgusted, like someone had just handed them a stinky diaper.

At first I became offended at the reaction, but then learned to simply respond with a smile and say in my sweetest southern drawl, “Well, by the look on your face I can tell you’ve never really had grits.” This most often draws the response that they had tried them - at Waffle House (which I call “dirty grits”) or from an instant package in college (which, I agree, is pretty gross) - and didn’t like them. This reaction always led me to bet them that they’ll like mine...and they always do.

My search for tasty grits in the city eventually turned into my personal crusade to convert the non-grits fans (down south we call them Yankees) into grits evangelists, a movement resulting into me hosting many brunches - perfecting the preparation of creamy, butter grits (basic morning grits) and cheddar cheese grits. In general I love watching people eat food that I have prepared, but there was even more pleasure in watching folks eat “real grits” or “my grits” for the first time. After mastering the basics I began developing my own recipes, throwing dinner parties in my tiny Manhattan apartment, the menu always centered around my latest discovery. In was through these dinner parties and by search for my favorite comfort food that the idea for this cookbook was born. Hopefully, by tasting my recipes and hearing the stories behind them, these crazy New Yorkers will learn to speak my language.

Friday, March 23, 2007

What is a Grit?

pl.n. (used with a sing. or pl. verb)

1. A ground, usually white meal of dried and hulled corn kernels that is boiled and served as a breakfast food or side dish.
2. Coarsely ground grain, especially corn.

Technically speaking, the term "grits" actually refers to any coarsely ground grain such as corn, oats or rice. When corn has been soaked in lye and the casing has been removed it becomes hominy. The lye is rinsed out very well and the corn is left to harden. Then the swollen hominy is ground up to the texture of tiny pellets in a choice of grinds-coarse, medium and fine.

Historically speaking, Americans have been eating them since as far back as 1607. When the colonists came ashore at Jamestown, Virginia, they were met by Native Americans offering steaming hot bowls of "rockahominie," which was softened maize seasoned with salt and animal fat. For this reason, Turner Catledge, former editor of the New York Times, called grits “the first truly American Food.” This comment alone makes old Turner a genius in my eyes.

Personally speaking, grits are my favorite comfort food and it is my search for this favorite comfort food during my first winter in NYC that led me to begin writing this cookbook.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Maya Angelou’s “Hallelujah! The Welcome Table”

In the ongoing research and planning phase of my cookbook, I’ve been reviewing other books targeting the same audience I’m seeking to reach. I’ve just finished reading Maya Angelou’s Hallelujah! The Welcome Table. I haven't tried any of the recipes, but if they are as warm and comforting as the stories found within the pages of this book, then Maya Angelou has succeeded in serving up a double dose of southern comfort.

One of the many stories really hit home with me. Maya tells how Momma kick started a career for herself, having suddenly become a single parent with two small children. She didn’t want to work as a maid because that would mean leaving her kids. Instead she made a living out of taking her fabulous meat pies to the workers of the two largest mills in town everyday at lunch. Eventually she opened a hut equidistant between the two companies and let the customers come to her. This hut later became a store selling much more than meat pies.

When telling this story, Maya shares a piece of wisdom from Momma. She says, “Momma told me, ‘Sister, the world might try to put you on a road that you don’t like. First stop and look behind you. If nothing back there makes you want to return, then look ahead. If nothing ahead beckons you enough to keep you going, then you have to step off that road and cut yourself a brand-new path.’”

I found this story heartwarming and a little ironic, seeming as the production of my cookbook is my first step in cutting myself a brand-new path.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

New Recipe Taste Test

New Recipe Taste Test
Originally uploaded by weezienyc.

Last Friday I had some girlfriends over for a grits taste test. We talked about the concept of my cookbook and had a brainstorm session about marketing to my target audience. The conversation was fascinating and the new recipes I tested were very tasty for a first try.

I served a spicy shrimp and grits appetizer, trying out a recipe for creamy grits that can be used as base for any shrimp and grits recipe that doesn’t suggest a specific type of grits. These grits were perfect and I can’t wait to re-test them with another shrimp combo.

For the main entrĂ©e, I adapted a recipe for polenta into a recipe for rosemary grits cakes, topping the cakes with broccoli rabe and serving them with a pan-seared garlic chicken breast (see above). The grits cakes were delicious, but I’m going to have to work on my pan-searing technique before the recipe is ready for the cookbook.

I was extremely pleased with both of these recipes and will be certainly including them in the book!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Grits and More

I’m writing a cookbook on...take a guess? Give up? Grits...and More!

The inspiration for this book came from combined a love of grits and a feeling of total shock when I realized how many people claim to “hate grits” simply because they’ve never tasted good ones.

Taking on this project has been fun, but I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it would be. Cooking takes on a whole new level of complication when you are creating and testing recipes in order for someone else to prepare them. But I’m still having a good time and to add to the fun, I’ll be documenting my progress here on Grits and More!

Check back for updates, stories, and recipes!