Having relocated myself and my entourage (and by ‘entourage’ I mean shoes) to Florida, I’m enjoying getting used to some culinary things that are peculiar to the South.
For instance, here they do seem to enjoy having a mix of sweet and savoury food for breakfast, whereas back in Britain I would choose one or the other, but not a mix of both. On the first weekend that I ever visited Jacksonville The Hublet, in our pre-marriage courtship days, took me and a group of friends to Cracker Barrel, a restaurant chain that specialises in the business of old style rural Southern charm: offering an atmosphere of cosy comfort, its walls covered with an assortment of aged and grainy black and white photographs, wooden farming instruments and old style home accessories like oil lamps and jugs. Each restaurant has a veranda outside, littered with wooden rocking chairs for you to sit on, but each also bearing a price tag on a string because every restaurant is conveniently accompanied by an ‘Old Country Store,’ so that you you can find homely inspiration while you eat, then emerge from the restaurant to buy an assortment of items – from food to clothes – that have a ‘days gone by’ charm to them. This convenient store actually made my frenzied, last-minutegift shopping a lot easier, and the Brits back home enjoyed the random selection of presents I brought back.
Anyhow, The Hublet had specifically brought me here to eat as it was a great introduction to traditional Southern home-style cooking, and although overall the whole menu was good it was widely considered by Americans to be a breakfast place.
So the menu arrives and, with The Hublet’s helpful suggestions, I decide on a breakfast which involved 2 eggs cooked however I wanted (scrambled, for the love of all that is good, always scrambled), grits or sawmill gravy (I chose grits as The Hublet had been filling me with stories of how much his family loves grits, but against his advice I chose to try a restaurant chains attempt), pancakes or homemade buttermilk biscuits and butter (pancakes for me, thank you very much), either fried apples or hashbrown casserole (I opted for hashbrown casserole as someone else was ordering the fried apple), and either smoked sausage patties (patties being some sort of thin, flat burger), turkey patties or bacon (I chose bacon as it seemed more breakfasty than squashed burgers).
We drank coffee (free refills, I love this country) while we waited, and stared at the incredibly ‘handsome’ woman captured in the photos (all the girls in our group secretly thankful we didn’t have arms that looked as if they could wrestle a pig to the ground).
Our breakfast arrived, and there was so much of it! My meal alone involved one main plate for the egg, bacon and hashbrown casserole, a separate plate for my pancakes and a small bowl containing the grits, along with various condiments and syrups to accompany my meal. Looking around the table, it was a sea of crockery as all of our plates, bowls and cups jostled for space.
The eggs and bacon were great, and the hashbrown casserole was a lovely mix of potato and onion, but I felt a twinge of weirdness as I pulled my plate of pancakes towards me. As it turned out, I couldn’t finish them as it felt too odd to be eating syrupy pancakes a) as a breakfast dish and not the expected dessert category I would class it in, and b) within the same hour as eggs and bacon. I headed for the grits, and toyed with the gloopy, grey mess in the bowl, braving a mouthful and not experiencing the rapturous pleasure I thought I would. Its taste was as boring as its appearance, an insipid blob of soggy carbs that mournfully clung onto my tongue. There wasn’t enough black pepper on the surrounding 3 tables to liven up that dish.
The Hublet teased me for ordering grits, advising that it was a dish best made at home because all restaurants seemed to serve it bland, whereas it took a true ‘Master of Grits’ (He obviously being a card-carrying Master) to elevate this food into something wonderful.
I pushed the bowl to one side, and proceeded to attack my neighbours bowl of fried apple, which turned out to be the most amazing taste explosion of apple, cinnamon and honey but which again should not be seen at a breakfast table, and should instead take its rightful place next to my bowl of ice cream after dinner.
So that was my introduction to restaurant grits, leaving me fairly unimpressed and failing to see what all the fuss was about. The Hublet decided to take matters into his own hands and and a few days later arranged for me and a group to come over to his house so that he could cook us a batch of grits.
He filled a glass bowl with a family-sized amount of grits, added water and put it in the microwave. In the meantime he sliced a breakfast sausage into a pan and fried. After a few minutes the microwave pinged, and he took the grits out, added a little more water, stirred and cracked some eggs into the grits, which he promptly mixed in until they thankfully disappeared. He let me know that normally he would separately fry the eggs then chop up and mix into the grits, but taking into consideration my loathing of egg white had decided to make the eggs vanish into the mixture. He got a kiss for his thoughtfulness.
The grits went back into the microwave. Now believe me, I’m not fan of microwave cooking, but with grits you want an even cook all the way through, and The Hublet’s family had found that the microwave gave the best results for this particular dish. The Hublet added some chopped tomatoes to the cooked sausage in the frying pan, then some black pepper, a splash of worcestershire sauce and some herbs. He then took the finished grits out of the microwave, stirred in the sausage and tomato concoction, sat us down at the dining table and served us all a bowl.
It was absolutely marvellous. Growing up as I did in the UK, we appreciate food that sticks to your insides and can keep you energised for working down the coal mines, and grits was exactly the sort of breakfast that would set you up for the whole day, and I now understood why The Hublet was such a fan of homemade grits and not the insipid gloop served in restaurants. The little submerged sausage added a special something, as well as the savoury tomatoes with herbs.
I appreciate that you would expect something with the same consistency and texture of porridge to be served with a drizzle of honey or brown sugar, maybe some cinnamon or sliced fruit. The Hublet advised me that it all depends where you were located with regard to the great North/South divide. The Northern (and apparently softie) states sweeten their grits and treat it in the same way that they would porridge, however the Southern (and I’m lead to believe more rugged, manly, awesome and all round badass) states take a more reverential approach to grits and elevate it about common porridge. He warned me that the first few times you have grits set the standard for how you will always eat them, therefore although I could sweeten them up it would just feel wrong. And he was right about that.
I definitely like grits, and I love the way The Hublet showed me how to make them, with the sausage, tomato and egg it’s vaguely reminiscent of an English cooked breakfast; which reminds me, I think it’s about time I responded in kind and introduced him to The Great British Fry Up. He’s American, so his body should be able to handle the strain placed on it by huge amounts of grease coursing through his arteries. Plus he has medical insurance so we’re good to go.