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At 5 a.m., the Atlanta airport was almost deserted. I asked the first agent I saw for directions to the gate for my connecting flight but did not understand a single word of her reply and so I walked on. It took three gate agents before I could understand what I was being told.

This was in the mid 1970s, and I was on my first solo adventure beyond the west coast of North America. It took a while for me to adjust to Southern accents and, until I did, I felt like a foreigner.

A small airport restaurant was open. I sat down at the bar and ordered breakfast, two eggs, over easy. They arrived accompanied by toast and a runny white porridge topped with a generous dollop of butter that was melting into a golden pool.

"This must be the grits I've heard about," I thought to myself. Spiked with a little salt and pepper, they were simple but good, with a pristine taste of white corn.

Grits are to the American South what polenta became to certain parts of Northern Italy after corn was introduced and what buckwheat was before corn arrived. Yet there are differences, too, or there should be. The most traditional grits are made with white, coarse-ground cornmeal. Italians also use white cornmeal but, traditionally, only with seafood. Default polenta, what is understood if you don't specify, is yellow.

There's a difference in taste, too. I think white cornmeal tastes white; it also has a more pristine texture and is a tad gelatinous. Yellow cornmeal is a bit sweeter and earthier.

As Mardi Gras approaches, I have found myself thinking about and craving grits. Last year, Rob Lippincott was guest breakfast chef at Costeaux Bakery on Mardi Gras and, if memory serves, several friends and I all had his delicious shrimp and grits. Lucky for everyone in Sonoma County, he now serves this yummy dish at his own restaurant, Parish Cafe (60 A Mill St., Healdsburg).

It is easy to cook grits at home. I prefer them loose and creamy enough that they fall from a spoon rather than stick to it. The best way to enjoy them is with plenty of butter, cheese and a mound of something deliciously indulgent on top. At Mother's Restaurant in New Orleans, you can get a bowl of grits topped with "debris," the pan scrapings from roast beef. If just thinking about this makes you feel guilty, don't worry: You have 40 days of Lent to mend your ways.

It's easy to make plain grits. For the best results, make sure the cornmeal is fresh. Plain grits are delicious at breakfast and welcome at dinner, too, with almost anything alongside. If the grits ever seem too thick, thin them with a little hot water.

Just Grits, with Variations

Makes 4 to 6 servings

— Kosher salt

1 cup coarse white grits or polenta, preferably stoneground

3 tablespoons butter

Pour 5 cups of water into a large heavy saucepan, add 2 teaspoons of salt and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Pour in the grits very slowly, stirring all the while in the same direction. Continue to stir until the water returns to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently, stirring frequently, until the grits are thick and tender, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Taste, correct for salt and pour into a heated serving bowl. Stir in the butter and serve.

Variations

Cheddar Grits: Stir 2 (8 ounces) cups grated white Cheddar cheese into the grits after adding the butter and season with several turns of black pepper.

Smoky Cheddar Grits: Stir 2 cups (8 ounces) grated smoked Cheddar cheese into the grits after adding the butter and season with ? to 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper and several turns of white pepper.

Creamy Cheese Grits: Cook the grits in 4 cups of water. When done, stir in ? cup heavy cream or half-and-half along with 3 cups (12 ounces) grated cheese of choice. Season with several turns of black pepper.

Bacon Grits: Fry several slices (8 ounces) of bacon until crisp, drain on absorbent paper and chop or crumble. Fold half of the bacon into the grits, along with 1 cup (4 ounces) grated white Cheddar cheese. Add several turns of black pepper, transfer to a serving bowl and scatter the remaining bacon on top.

Grits and Poached Eggs: When the grits are done, hold them over low heat while you poach eggs, allowing 1 or 2 eggs per serving. Working quickly, ladle grits into warm individual bowls, top with poached eggs and season with salt, a few turns of black pepper and several shakes of Tabasco or other bottled hot sauce.

Sweet Breakfast Grits: Fry several slices (8 ounces) of bacon until crisp, drain on absorbent paper and chop or crumble. Fold half the bacon into the grits after adding the butter. Ladle into warm individual bowls, drizzle pure maple syrup on top and sprinkle with the remaining bacon.

This recipe is inspired by both an old Tuscan recipe and classic Low Country Shrimp and Grits. If you'd prefer to serve it creamy rather than as a loaf, see the variation at the end of the recipe.

Grits and Shrimp Loaf

Makes 6 to 8 servings

— Kosher salt

2 cups coarse white grits or polenta, preferably stoneground

6 tablespoons butter

4 bacon slices, diced

1 small onion, cut into small dice

3 garlic cloves, minced

? teaspoon ground white pepper

? teaspoon ground cayenne

— Black pepper in a mill

2 pounds medium shrimp or rock shrimp, peeled and cleaned

— Juice of 1 lemon, plus more to taste

3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

3 green onions, very thinly sliced

Pour 10 cups of water into a large heavy saucepan, add 1 tablespoon salt and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Pour in the grits very slowly, stirring all the while in the same direction. Continue to stir until the water returns to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently, stirring frequently, until the grits are thick and tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the butter and hold over very low heat.

When the grits are just about done, fry the bacon in a large saute pan. When it is almost crisp, drain off most of the fat. Return the pan to the heat, add the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter and saute the onion until it softens, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 2 minutes more; do not let the onions or garlic brown. Season with salt and add the white pepper, cayenne and several turns of black pepper.

Working quickly, increase the heat to high, add the shrimp and saute very quickly, until the shrimp just turns opaque, about 2 to 3 minutes maximum. Add the lemon juice, taste and correct for salt and pepper.

Rinse the inside a 2-quart loaf pan or other 2-quart container (a souffle dish works well), do not dry it and set it on your work surface.

Quickly stir the shrimp, parsley and green onions into the grits and then pour the grits into the wet pan or dish. Cover with aluminum foil and let set up for 30 to 60 minutes.

Unmold onto a serving plate and serve warm or hot, with braised greens or a big green salad alongside.

Variation: Instead of making a loaf, simply ladle the grits into individual soup plates, top with shrimp, parsley and green onions and serve.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM.

E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com