Gooder Than Grits,
and Other Southern Lip-Smackers
by Kate Heyhoe
To a Yankee's ear, words like "grits", "collards", and "greens" may sound as appealing as eatin' fish from the Hudson River—but that's only 'cause Yankees need to have Southern words translated. If instead you say "polenta" and "bitter greens" or "tart, leafy greens," you'll more likely strike gold. Not that Yankees are narrow-minded, for the reverse translations are equally necessary for Southerners: why on earth would a Yankee call it "polenta" when what he really means is "grits"?
And herein lies much of the misconception about Southern foods: Yankees and non-Southerners simply don't understand what they're eating. Yet, when they taste such regional specialties as Garlicky-Cheese Grits Casserole, Hoppin' John Salad, and a platter of Tabasco-laced Cooked Field Greens, they zip right back for second helpings. Fancy Manhattan restaurants might list these same dishes on a menu as Polenta Soufflé with Aged Sharp Cheddar and Garlic, Salade de Riz a la Mogette, and Fresh Bitter Greens with Pancetta and Lemon Burst—but then they'd have to charge more.
For those unfamiliar with the term "grits," know that the word is both plural and singular, as in "Grits is good." Grits is also known as hominy grits and is essentially coarse-ground corn kernels. But the quality of grits varies. If you've tried instant or quick-cooking supermarket grits and found them unappealing, then good for you! You've recognized an inferior product. The best grits are stone-ground, with minimal processing to keep as much of the whole grain intact. I use a product called Bob's Red Mill 100% Stone Ground Corn Grits, found in whole food markets and at www.bobsredmill.com. You can also order top quality grits from Southern author John Martin Taylor at www.hoppinjohns.com.
Greens are another product that gets bad press, mainly because too often the variety of greens used is too strong for a Yankee's palate. Southerners like to use collard, turnip, or dandelion greens, but more subtle greens like spinach, Swiss chard, and kale work equally as well. Face it: if you don't like the vegetable, you ain't gonna like the dish, so pick a variety of green that suits your and your guests' taste first, then cook it according to the Southern recipe.
Yankees may also want to know who or what is a "Hoppin' John." To begin, Hoppin' John is a dish made with black-eyed peas and rice. It's served whenever a Southerner gets the hankerin', and it's always served on New Year's Day for good luck. Black-eyed peas are legumes, beans if you will, that originated in Africa and ended up here via the slave trade. They're also known as cowpeas, and in France were once called "mogette," meaning little nun (the black spot on the pea was supposed to look like a nun's headpiece).
The origins of the name "Hoppin' John" are less clear than the origins of the legume. Some say a servant named John created such a popular dish, he had to hop back and forth to table to keep servin' up more. Others say the peas hop and pop in the pot as they cook. One version claims that people hop around in excitement as they look forward to the dish. Who knows... maybe John just had a limp. As the phrase "I don't know" is foreign to the Southern lexicon, you can be sure an even wider range of legends have cropped up concerning the origins of the name. If asked, most likely every Southerner will tell you a different story, and each of these tales will be just as colorful and creative as the next.
Speaking of color and creativity, here's a few Southern saws to impress your Yankee friends with....
- "Every now and then, even a blind pig finds an acorn."
- If something may be a long time comin' or may never come, "you'll be waitin' till yet."
- A person who continually laments about his/her illnesses, is "enjoying poor health."
- and if something is hard to do, it's:
..."like trying to herd cats," or:
..."like trying to nail jelly to the wall."
Ya'll come back next week, for my Southern Super Bowl Party, more Southern fun—and a menu that's gooder 'n' grits!
Kate's Global Kitchen for January, 2000:
1/01/00 Kate's Global Kitchen's Top Recipes of 1999
1/08/00 Dixie Shrimp: Just Call Me Bubba, Bubba
1/15/00 Gooder Than Grits, and Other Southern Lip-Smackers
1/22/00 Kickin' Dat Chitlin: A Southern Super Bowl Party
1/29/00 Last-Minute Dips and Southern Tips: More Super Bowl Fun
Copyright © 2000, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created January 2000