Variations on simple grits

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.

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