In My Cousin Vinny, the 1992 film about a New Yawk lawyer and his equally New Yawk fiancée experiencing life in rural Alabama, Joe Pesci’s titular cousin Vinny asks an important question: “What is a ‘grit,’ anyways?’”
Southerners would scoff at such a question, since grits are a vital part of the cuisine of the “Grits Belt,” which unofficially extends down from North Carolina across the Deep South. Officially, the term for cuisine in the Grits Belt is “Lowcountry,” a term strongly associated with the topography of South Carolina and Georgia.
Grits are a type of hominy -- dried corn kernels that are treated and then ground into a coarse kind of meal or powder. They were a staple of the Native American diet and were adapted into the Southern diet in general and South Carolina’s in particular. How serious are South Carolinians about their grits? There actually are state laws mandating the cultivation, production and sale of the stuff. Like, a LOT of laws.
The preparation of grits sounds simple, but it’s not. Southerners are pretty particular about their grits, and even within South Carolina there are two main styles: boiled in water or boiled in milk (which is sometimes referred to as Charleston-style). The Palmetto State features a whole lot of grits, usually served in combination with a whole mess of seafood. Catfish, crab, and most famously shrimp get thrown into a bowl of gooey, gritty goodness, often accompanied by cheese.
Breakfast shrimp, aka shrimp and grits, started off as soul food for fishermen hauling nets through the Carolina and Gulf coasts. They went upscale in the 1980s, much to the chagrin of some true Southerners, and can now be found on menus as far north as cousin Vinny’s native Brooklyn. But shrimp and grits remains as closely associated with South Carolina as Pimento cheese and barbecue.
Before you start to wonder: Yes, there is a World Grits Festival, and yes, it is held in South Carolina. In the past, the festival has featured every possible permutation of grits, from Deep Fried Grits, to Grits Pie, to Syrup ‘N Bacon grits, to a variation on French fries made from -- you guessed it -- grits.