The last time my father cooked for me, he made his trademark cheese grits for breakfast while I packed for the train.
He was 86, his health was failing, and he didn’t cook much anymore. His freezer was packed with Hungry Man frozen dinners and my brother and I later found a dozen boxes of Pop Tarts in his pantry. But he was always the consummate host and he knew an appetite for grits was the one of the things that we still shared even if he did use quick grits and Cheese Whiz.
They came to the table with steam still rising from the bowls, the grits the texture of velvet from long cooking and fresh garlic masking the processed cheese. We ate them slowly and talked about the trip ahead. Then Dad gave me a big hug and drove me down the hill to catch the bus to the train.
I didn’t realize it was the last meal we would ever share.
He was in a coma when I arrived a month later and would die four days later. I loved him more than I knew and miss him every day.
Now, whenever I eat grits, I think of Dad. So it seems fitting to make these baked grits for the reception following his memorial service in a couple of weeks even though grits are misunderstood by so many people.
I will explain that grits are one of the few foods from his impoverished childhood that Dad ate with pleasure. They were a comforting taste of home.
Then I’ll coax guests into trying them by describing them as American polenta. It’s all true.
The name grits is thought to come from grytte, the Old English word for bran. At one time, Southerners called their breakfast porridge hominy grits for the process by which the kernels were soaked in lye and the hulls removed before the corn was dried and ground. Today, though, most grits are made from whole dried corn, usually a white variety. For more information, check out this article I wrote for the Mercury News.
The best grits are made with stoneground corn and retain the germ that carries the corn flavor. They must be stored in the refrigerator or freezer, unlike the shelf-stable quick variety from which the germ has been removed. I like the whole heart grits from Adams Milling Company in Alabama. They cook up soft and creamy with a slightly chewy texture and serve as the perfect backdrop for cheese, garlic or the spicy shrimp that have become so popular in restaurants.
Perhaps the most revered artisan grits producer, though, is Anson Mills in South Carolina, which ships its corn to chefs and grits connoisseurs all over the country. In a pinch, you can use Bob’s Red Mill’s corn grits, which are available in many supermarkets. They’re yellow and also labeled as polenta to appeal to a wider audience, but they’re stoneground and made from the whole grain.
This recipe is my version of a classic Southern casserole. I was pleased to see that Virginia Willis calls a very similar dish “Funeral Grits” in her wonderful Southern cookbook, “Bon Appetit, Y’All” (Ten Speed Press, 2008). She notes that it’s “the perfect dish to take to the bereaved after the funeral” since it can be treated as a side dish, holds up for several hours in a low oven, and reheats well as leftovers.
This souffle-like casserole is more involved than my Dad’s simple grits and cheese. It has a lighter texture from the eggs baked into the dish. I’ve added a little jalapeño, too, to give it a bit more zip. Still, I’m sure Dad would have liked it.
Grits and cheese in most any form comfort the soul. Whenever I eat them, I think of the poor Oklahoma country boy who worked his way up to a university professorship but still kept his simple tastes.
Dad, this dish is for you.
1 cup stoneground grits (see Note)
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 6 ounces)
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup chopped green onions
2 eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup milk
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and butter a 2-quart ovenproof casserole or soufflé dish.
Cook grits with salt and water according to package instructions. Stir in cheese, garlic, jalapeño, butter and green onions. Let cool about 15 minutes. Blend eggs with milk and fold into grits. Pour into prepared dish and bake about 1 hour.
(Note: Quick grits are an acceptable substitute but avoid instant grits, which will be thin and pasty)
Adapted from “Craig Claiborne’s Favorites from the New York Times, Vol. 3” (Random House, 1988)