Grits is (or are) the coarse-to-fine ground product of a milling process whereby the hull of the dried corn kernel is popped open and the fleshy part is milled into tiny particles. Mill stones carved with grooves radiating outward from the center were set by the miller to grind the dried corn into course, medium, and fine grits as well as corn meal. The two oldest continuously operating water-powered mills in South Carolina were the Ellerbe Mill near Rembert in Sumter County, (1835–1985) and the Hagood Mill above Pickens (1828–1960 and restored and reactivated in the late twentieth century). At the Ellerbe Mill, the miller ground the corn between two milled stone wheels. In order to custom grind the customer’s corn to the fineness or coarseness desired, the miller “set the stone” on top using a system of wooden pegs. The vibration of the active mill sent the ground grits particles onto a system of screen mesh, moving them down a path that sifted them through various grades of screen into buckets of meal, then fine, medium, course grits, and the bran for animal feed. As payment, the miller received ten percent of the product milled.
In modern times, grits are mass-produced using steel roller mills. The grits are of a single grind, de-germinated, and otherwise processed for long shelf life. Oldtimers claim that the heat from the fast-turning roller mills partially parch the grits. This, they say, accounts for the difference in taste between the stone ground water mill grits and the commercial products today.
Grits, like rice, is a base for other foods and flavorings. “The taste of grits depends on what you put with it,” say most South Carolina grits eaters. Favorite complements in South Carolina are red eye gravy, “matus” (tomato) gravy, and shrimp-and-grits in the lowcountry; sausage with sawmill gravy all over the state; and country ham, country fried steak and onion gravy, fried fish and quail as favorite “grits and . . .” dishes. Grits casseroles and soufflés and other exotic forms of grits are popular for more formal dinners and now appear in restaurants featuring popular “New South” cuisine. But the grits purist in the Palmetto State simply adds salt and butter.
Hominy is the Native American word for dried corn and is the name for what we came to call grits. It resulted from pounding what English recipe books called “Indian corn” using wooden mortar and pestle technology. Research has shown that the first flour mills erected by the European settlers in Virginia converted mill stones from grinding grain into flour to grinding corn into hominy “grits,” corn meal, and domesticated animal feed. Grits and corn meal displaced flour as the dominate grain-based cooking product in the South. Grist mills proliferated throughout the South and became as much of a mainstay for towns and communities as was the general store.
The World Grits Festival held annually in St. George sees the town swell with thousands of visitors who come to see grits eating contests, recipe contests, and other “grits events.” The Martha White Company—a sponsor of the event—reports that more grits are sold per capita in Dorchester County than anywhere else in the world.
Its Grits. Produced and directed by Stan Woodward. 44 min. Woodward Studio, 1980. Videocassette.
Warren, Tim. “True Grits.” Smithsonian 30 (October 1999): 80–88.