Sunday, 25 February 2007

True Grits

Yes, for Paradise the Southland is my nominee,
Just give me a ham hock and some grits of hominy…

Many people think of grits as a mainly Southern dish, but they have always been a popular delicacy with New Yorkers; during the Great Depression, El Morocco and many other top nightspots used to have signs outside offering “Grits to go 50c” and today grits still come with the $4.99 Janitor’s Special Supper at the 21 Club.

The word itself is an example of the rather endearing way in which Americans, always traditionalist, cling on to words which we have long since allowed to fall into disuse on this side of the Atlantic. The Old English grytt (in various spellings and usually in the plural) was in use in the eighth century and referred to coarse oatmeal; in the U.S. today it can be applied to other kinds of grain.

As for hominy, this attractive word for a not tremendously attractive thing is undoubtedly American (Indian) in origin and was first seen in print in Captain Smith’s unreliable Historie of Virginia, published in the middle of the seventeenth century. Talking about the colonists' servants, he said they “…commonly feed upon Milke Homini, which is bruized Indian corne pounded, and boiled thicke, and milke for the sauce.”

Smith was a braggart and probably a liar, so it is by no means certain that Princess Pocahontas saved him from death, but it is known that she was a daughter of Wahunsunacock (also known as Chief Powhatan), visited London with her husband John Rolfe, was presented at court, and gave birth to a son before dying in 1617. Here’s an engraving of her made the previous year.

Through her son she has many living descendants including, some say, the Bush family. Others believe that this (both the genealogy and the family) is a mistake.


The Continental Op said...

Interesting tidbit about the popularity of grits in NY. I'd always thought that I was among the few native New Yorkers with a taste for grits. The very best portrayal of a New Yorker's encounter with grits is, of course, in the movie My Cousin Vinnie, in which Joe Pesci asks, "what exactly is a grit?"

Tony said...

Sorry, you must indeed be one of the very very few New Yorkers who like grits.
It simply didn't occur to me that anyone, least of all a New Yorker, would take this paragraph seriously: I would have thought the mention of a $4.99 Janitor's Special Supper at the 21 Club would have given it away.
I do hope you didn't go there and ask for one.

Grumio said...

Personally, like the late, great Ivor Cutler, I prefer gruts anyway. The ones from the High Woods.

No-one likes grits. No-one at all.

eric said...

I'm surprisingly gullible.

Anonymous said...

ham hock!! I had never been able to figure out that lyric before ("hyam hawk") - thank you!

Tony said...

Yes, it was several years before I worked it out.