Barry Saunders

It’s time to come to grips with the sugar-on-grits debate

Stone ground grits

How to make the southern staple stone grits.
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How to make the southern staple stone grits.

With all the calamitous political carryings-on occurring in North Carolina – our legislature passing a law to save us from unseen bathroom boogeymen and Bruce Springsteen refusing to play here because of it – whose idea was it to write a novel-length newspaper article about cornbread and whether it should be sweet or unsweet?

I mean, can you think of a more trivial topic upon which to expound in such dire times? Sugar or no sugar in your cornbread?

Really, yo?

Anyone with good sense knows that a far more serious threat facing us here in the South comes from people who say you shouldn’t put sugar in your grits.

I know, right? If you want to start another civil war or have irate citizens contemplating secession, start messing with somebody’s grits preference or trying to dictate how they should be et.

In the comments section of that story debating sugar or no sugar in cornbread, someone from Atlanta – figures – wrote “So long as we all still agree that sugar has no place in grits.”

A person from Alabama seconded that blasphemy.

Then someone thirded it.

Grits is precisely where sugar belongs. Enlightened Southerners know that issue was settled in the Good Book, where it is written: “Howsoever a man or woman wisheth to eateth their grits, it is good.”

For the record, there is no bad way to cook or eat grits. Those bad boys are good cheesed up and gooey, lumpy or smooth, and whether they’re boiled, fried, dyed, baked, sauteed, pureed or fileted.

And didn’t the Declaration of Independence declare that: “Congress shall make no laws abridging the rights of citizens to eat grits however the heck they wish to”?

For the record, there is no bad way to cook or eat grits. Those bad boys are good cheesed up and gooey, lumpy or smooth, and whether they’re boiled, fried, dyed – I’ve seen ’em green in Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day – baked, sauteed, pureed or fileted.

You ever mashed up some fried liver pudding in your grits?

Sweet Jesus! (Only do that when you’re by yourself, though, lest your uppity, colleged relations from Up North look down their noses upon you at the breakfast table and call you country.)

How great are grits? This great: A few months ago, those on the serving line at my favorite high-class dining establishment, Golden Corral, seemed to have been neglected and were about the consistency of cement.

Y’all gonna put some more grits out? I asked.

Hold on a minute, the server responded. He went into the back and re-appeared with a pan of hot water, which he poured into the cement mixture and began stirring.

Voila! As good as new, and the people in the line that had formed behind me moved in to finish off what I left behind.

Cornbread, unlike grits, can be cooked only a finite number of ways: baked, fried, with sugar, without sugar or with cracklins. I’ve seen it with some green things mixed in it, but never bothered to investigate what it was – since I knew I’d never be eating it anyway.

What is North Carolina coming to? ... You can put grits in sweet desserts, like if you made a sweet grits pudding comparable to a rice pudding. ... So if you consider what you are serving a sweet, then it is permissible. Other than that I do not put sugar on or in my grits.

Nathalie Dupree, award-winning Southern chef

Back to grits, though. I asked Nathalie Dupree, an award-winning chef, author and cook-show host – and apparently the only person who thinks about grits as much as I do – whether you can put sugar in your grits. I asked only because I knew someone of her scholarship and sophistication would agree with someone of mine.

She didn’t.

“Egad,” she responded by email from Charleston. “What is North Carolina coming to? ... You can put grits in sweet desserts, like if you made a sweet grits pudding comparable to a rice pudding. We have several such desserts in our book, ‘Shrimp and Grits.’ So if you consider what you are serving a sweet, then it is permissible. Other than that I do not put sugar on or in my grits. So, if you would put sugar on your cereal, it might be permissible to put sugar on your grits for the same reason, at breakfast. But not if you are serving them with eggs and bacon. All this comes naturally, without studied thought. It is just logical. I mean, would you put sugar on your bacon?”

Yes ma’am, I would. And have.

The one bad thing about grits is that, from a health standpoint, they have the same nutritional value as a bowlful of a hobo’s toenail clippings deep-fried in lard. Scientists, we’ve learned, are hard at work seeking a way to make a nutritious grit.

Until they do, though, if you want nutrition, eat kale.

If you want something to make you feel all warm and full, eat grits.

With or without sugar.

This, after all, is still America. As Chuck Berry exhorted so eloquently in his heart-rending tribute to individuality, “My Ding-a-Ling,” “This is a free country, honey. Live like you want to live.”

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