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True Grits

Let's hear it, again, for Cornbread Nation.

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According to writer Jack Hitt, going out to eat was "a violation" of his mother's "food aesthetic." She'd rather cook at home. But going out to eat is what Hitt, his brother, his sisters, and his mother did years ago.

The occasion was his mother's 75th birthday, the restaurant was one of Charleston's most elegant, and his mother's appetizer was the Lowcountry classic and a family favorite: shrimp and grits. "Just how I make them," Hitt's mother said when the dish arrived. "The family master of deadpan" is how Hitt translates his mother's less than enthusiastic reaction. Why? Here's the lowdown, as described by Hitt in an essay called "Lowcountry Lowdown":

The shrimp and grits were, in fact, far from being Hitt's mother's way with them, which was: "a heap of small, tender shrimp that have made the journey from their pluff-mud creek bed to your plate with almost no interference other than a little heat and butter." Hitt, in contrast, calls the restaurant version "a congealed puck of fusion gunk." The serving portion was super small. The plate was extra large. The grits had been molded into the shape of a pillbox. And the shrimp had been "set like bunkers against an army of infantry-green cilantro flecks marching to the sea." Never mind the showy sprig of rosemary topping it off. The worst was the cream sauce, which "catapult[ed] the whole meal into some other time zone."

Those shrimp and grits were served to Hitt's mother 13 years ago. Since then, Hitt's gone on a search for "what keeps Lowcountry food alive and what kills it." Or put another way: He went in search of (to borrow from the movie This Is Spinal Tap) that "fine line between the stupid and clever."

By "stupid," I'm guessing Hitt means that elegant Charleston restaurant's shrimp and grits. "Clever" is what Hitt must mean by directing out attention to a guy named Alan Turner, who ages wild ducks for his "purloo" (that's pronounced pur-LOW) by tying them to the hood of his car and driving them around town for a few days. Or Turner's friend Dickie Reynolds, whose secret to spicing a purloo depends on traffic: "You look down the driveway and see how many cars are coming. The more you see, the more pepper you add." The more beer you add, Reynolds also claims, the closer your purloo comes to being, technically speaking, a "bog." And, switching subjects here, the cleaner you get your chitlins, another informant tells Hitt, the better. Try throwing them in the washing machine, set the machine to cold, but don't forget to run the machine, before adding clothes, for a few hours and with a little bleach.

And don't forget to burn a hot dog if you're cooking in the mountains of North Carolina. Diners demand it at the Hill Top Drive-In on Highway 421 outside Boone. Also find out why Jews don't eat quail, according to Marcie Cohen Ferris; why a "store lunch," according to Jerry Leath Mills, is a combination of fat, sodium, sugar, and dirt; and why the muscadine grape, according to Flyer food columnist Simone Wilson, is so good for you. (It's rich in resveratrol, which acts as a natural "heart guard.")

For these and other customs of the country, see Cornbread Nation 4 (University of Georgia Press). It's brought to you by editors Dale Volberg Reed and John Shelton Reed. It's under the general editorship of John T. Edge. It's in association with the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. And it starts off right — not with a recipe for shrimp and grits too fancy for its own good but with a lovely essay (and menu) by the doyenne of Southern country cooking, the late Edna Lewis.

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