My first grits story is about disappointment. I tried them, they were bland, I moved on. I’m not the only one. When Glenn Roberts, the founder of Anson Mills, started calling chefs across the country to sell them his stoneground, organic, heirloom grits, he was met with universal derision. Chefs laughed at the idea, or they just plain hung up on him. But luckily for us, Glenn didn’t give up easy. He kept calling. Eventually, some of them started to give the grits a shot. First on board were the chefs in Charleston and Atlanta—they’d grown up with grits and were bowled over by the huge flavors of Glenn’s heirloom grains. Eventually chefs around the country started to take note, and today you find Anson Mills grits on menus at restaurants like Alinea in Chicago and The French Laundry in California. In fancy restaurants the fact that grits are no longer a national disappointment is almost entirely thanks to Glenn’s evangelism.
Glenn is something of a culinary pioneer.
He’s spent the last two decades scouring the South for flavorful old heirloom plants; ones that have long since been forgotten by farmers because they were too slow growing or too labor intensive. If you talk with him about his story, he’ll say things to you like “I’m stupid enough to drive 268 miles to taste collards that no one outside of the Bradford family has tasted in 200 years.” (You’re probably thinking what I am: that doesn’t sound stupid, it sounds like a pretty fun adventure!) He found his first heirloom breeds of corn by staking out small towns like a DEA agent. Why? The reason people were still growing those old, difficult to harvest breeds is because they were the best for making (illegal) hooch. Once folks got used to him, he’d start asking them about their corn. “I drank a lot of white lightning,” he recalls. You can make really good moonshine with old dent varieties of corn—called dent because of a small indentation in the top of each kernel. Dent corn is fairly soft, making it excellent for mashing to make whiskey. But, more importantly to Glenn, it also makes it an ideal candidate for stone ground grits.
Grinding with a stone mill is key.
Until the end of the 19th century, farmers in the south used to take their grains to local stone mills to grind them into cornmeal. By the middle of the 20th century, the stone mills had been replaced by roller mills. With a roller mill, the bran and germ of the corn are removed and the rest of the kernel is smooshed and ground into bits. The germ is where most of the flavor is, in part because it has fats. However, fats go rancid over time, and by removing the germ you get a product that lasts basically forever, but tastes like nothing—or worse, like disappointment.
By grinding with a stone mill, the grain stays more intact and the pieces end up being a little less homogenous. That’s a good thing—it means that the germ isn’t removed and the grits have way more flavor. Another advantage to stone mills is that they don’t heat up like roller mills. Just like with olive oil, which tends to taste best when it’s cold pressed, heat is the enemy of flavor when grinding corn. Too much heat will cook off some of the essential oils and aromas in the corn, removing flavor. At Anson Mills, they grind on granite mills. To be doubly sure that the corn stays cold during milling, they freeze it—a technique Glenn found buried in an old document about an 1850 crop of yellow dent corn.
Of course, having the germ also means that Anson Mills grits can go rancid over time. To keep them fresh and delicious, we store them in the freezer here in our warehouse. They’re fine at room temperature for a little while, but to keep them fresher longer, you should store them in the freezer at home, too. When you’re ready to cook them, you can take them straight from the freezer to the pot.
You could cook up a normal pot of grits with water, salt, and butter. Or you could make Grits & Bits Waffles
These waffles have been a favorite on the brunch menu at Zingerman’s Roadhouse for years. They were first made in Georgia, where the story goes that Dutch immigrants that had migrated south from New York with their waffle irons would toss last night’s leftover grits into their breakfast waffles the next morning. This might qualify as the world’s most complex waffle recipe, but it’s also perhaps the world’s most delicious.
Grits & Bits Waffles
Recipe by Ari Weinzweig
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
2 cups water
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup Anson Mills (quick-cooking) grits
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1½ cups whole milk
1 pound sliced bacon, cooked and coarsely chopped
6 ounces good cheddar, shredded
Maple syrup and butter to taste for serving
1. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar and baking powder and set aside.
2. In a saucepot, bring the water and butter to a simmer. Before the water comes to a boil start adding the grits, stirring steadily until incorporated. Add the salt and stir well. Reduce heat to low, cover and continue to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more water if needed.
3. While the grits are cooking, separate the eggs. Set the yolks aside in a dish, and refrigerate the whites.
4. When the grits are done (you can always cook them longer than half an hour—they’ll continue to get creamier the longer you cook them), remove them from the heat; transfer to a large mixing bowl and let cool to 110°F. Stir the egg yolks into the grits one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
5. Add the milk and mix well.
6. Add the flour mixture, mixing until just combined.
7. Beat the cold egg whites in a mixer or with a hand beater to medium peaks. Gently fold the whites into the batter and mix gently. Chill for at least 1 hour prior to cooking. (Note: the batter can be made the night before and stored in the refrigerator until you’re ready to start cooking.)
8. When you’re ready to eat, pour the batter into a preheated and well-oiled Belgian-style waffle iron, and add a generous bit of chopped bacon and shredded cheddar. (We use 1 cup of batter with ¼ cup each of bacon and cheddar.) Close the waffle iron and cook until golden brown. Remove the waffles from the iron and place on warm plates. Sprinkle more chopped bacon and shredded cheddar over the top of the waffles. Serve with good butter and real maple syrup.
9. Repeat until all the batter, chopped bacon and grated cheddar have been used.
Serves 4 to 6 as a main dish.