Splendor in the Grits*
Getting gritty with Becky Tatum of Delta Grind
Take some dried corn and grind it until it’s the texture of rough sand. Simmer it in some water or broth. Stir in some cheese or cream. Season well with salt and pepper. Serve warm and creamy. In Italy you’d probably be making polenta — which sounds so exotic and fancy. Here in the South, we’re referring to grits. This is one of those cases where a dish’s name seems to hurt it and keep it from rising to a coveted place on the table.
I didn’t grow up with grits. A roommate kindly made some instant grits for me when I was just out of college. Even slathered in butter and pepper, they were tasteless. I didn’t venture to try grits again until after I had moved to Memphis. This time, the grits were yellow corn, stone-ground, fresh from the farmers’ market and they were a revelation that helped me to discover an important truth.
I am a grit snob.
Laugh. Point. Turn up your nose. I’m proud of this snobbery. There is probably something made with grits on half of Memphis’ restaurant menus. And I really do discern the grits’ origin before I order. There are no Quaker Instant Grits envelopes in my cupboard; they are a waste of calories.
When it comes to quality food, the word “elitism” gets thrown around a bit. But elite implies inaccessible, only available to some, and perhaps requiring some preparation that is beyond the everyday cook. Elitism can mean “belonging to a select group.” And in that sense, the term is correct. There is a large and growing group of people who recognize that these are not your everyday grits. The good news is that this is an easy group to join.
Grits are simple to cook. They are available all over town — at stores, farmers’ markets and on menus. They’re not cheap, but they are not expensive. They are not fragile or highly perishable. Pick up a bag and you’ve joined the clique.
Once you meet Becky Tatum — the lady who grinds and sells Delta Grind grits (along with other stone-ground products) — you realize there is nothing pretentious about her, or her products. High quality doesn’t have to be synonymous with elite.
I love short road trips to Mississippi. When the weather is nice, you can’t beat it for a meditative drive. The driving directions always fascinate me. Turn left at the red gravel driveway. Drive until you reach a stop sign (which might be 10 or more miles). Travel a mile or three. I always make just one wrong turn. It’s that type of day and drive when I go to watch Becky grind. Traveling behind the only person in a tristate area who drives slower than I do, I meander down highway 315 to where it meets Highway 7 and traverse into the industrial district (three buildings) of Water Valley, Mississippi.
Becky grinds dried corn products — grits, polenta, cornmeal and masa — once every two weeks in a warehouse-turned-mill. There’s nothing glitzy about it. Becky is young, direct, funny, and pretty without makeup or “done” hair. And she is capable. There is nothing snobbish about this work. Dried corn (from a Mississippi cooperative of growers) comes in 50-pound bags and Becky easily hefts them to fill the mill’s hopper. While the whole process is fairly simple, this is just one of Becky’s roles.
At age 32, Becky’s time is divided among her young family; the White Star Kitchen and Tavern (the Water Valley restaurant she owns with her husband, John); renovating their house; and Delta Grind, which she bought about four years ago.
Becky and John were working at L&M, a restaurant in Oxford, when the opportunity to buy the mill and the business presented itself. She thought “This is something different. I can do this.”
With a degree in Art History, specializing in Historic Preservation and a minor in Architecture, Becky is a self-described “academic miller.” But as is frequently the case, what she enjoys most about the business is interacting with her customers, especially the many chefs who buy her stone-ground products and her farmers’ market neighbors.
The majority of the work is solitary. Orders come in via text, phone and email. Bags are counted out and stamped with their “born on date.” The mill is warmed up and adjusted. The hopper is filled with 150 pounds of dried corn. Catch bins are placed. Then she’s ready to rock. The new Meadows Mills mill hums along, not too loud, but loud enough that you need to speak up to be heard. A fine layer of corn dust starts to coat the room. Becky and her helper, Chris, move between the catch bins on the mill, filling, weighing and finally stitching the bags shut. In a few hours they’ll grind up to 750 pounds of corn. An air compressor helps with clean up. Waste corn (which the machine separates out) is stored for some locals who pick it up for hogs and goats. Nothing goes to waste. Clean up complete, the car is loaded for tomorrow’s deliveries to Memphis.
Becky supplies chefs and retail markets from Jacksonville, Florida to Memphis, serving 45 regular accounts. This is one local product that is available year-round and chefs have come to depend on it.
“A few years ago, the old mill broke,” Becky says. They had to ship it to North Carolina to get repaired or buy a new mill. They opted for the new mill, but it took a few weeks to get it in, assembled and adjusted.
In that short amount of time, the chefs ran out of grits and several were frantic. Once you’ve tasted the stone-ground, fresh, yellow corn grits, even for a talented chef, there are not many good substitutes.
Food historians place the origin of cooked grits with Native Americans, who supposedly welcomed the Jamestown settlers with the thick mixture. Trends with grits come and go — from popular movies (My Cousin Vinny educated even the west coasters that instant grits were a no-no) to sophisticated preparations — yet grits remain a staple.
But as a staple, grits don’t have to be tasteless or boring. The yellow corn version has a very “corny” taste, and while it’s enhanced with butter, cream and cheese, the grits taste pretty darned good on their own. At the farmers’ markets, most people seek Becky out and know exactly what to do with her products, but she still gets a few who ask how to cook them.
Becky’s response reflects her easy attitude. “The recipe’s on the bag. Add some cheese and you’re good to go.”
I look for Delta Grind on menus — grits, polenta, cornmeal or masa. Finding it, I’m likely to order the shrimp and grits that prevail among the preparations. The simple products enhance tart crusts, catfish, and grillades. The grits, in new, retro-hip bags, are my hostess-gift-of-choice to give. See, it’s very simple.
I have visited with Becky at the markets for several years now, but this was my first trip to her place. No heavy lifting on my part, just a fun visit with a friend while she does her work. She lets me “stitch” a bag (which of course I didn’t get quite right), never seems rushed, dusts off the back of my jacket, and sends me on my way with a fresh bag of grits and a hug.
Perhaps saying that I’m a “grits connoisseur” would be the better word choice, but even that implies some condescension. I merely want others to try what I have learned to love to cook and eat.
Splendor — no pomp or circumstance required — available on your plate, from a nice Mississippi lady. Come on. Join the club.
At the Markets Becky sells Delta Grind products once a month at the Memphis Farmers’ Market. You can pick up a bag anytime at Miss Cordelia’s, Trolley Stop Market, Muddy’s Bakeshop or the Midtown Farmers’ Market.
*title courtesy of Jill Lightner, editor of Edible Seattle, from her comment upon first cooking Delta Grind grits.
GROUND CORN PRIMER
Delta Grind stone-ground corn products are sometimes referred to as “whole grain grits.” They are ground from dried, whole corn kernels. Hominy grits, which is dried corn that has been soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution to remove the hull — a process called nixtamalization — then dried and ground, is a different product.
Same corn, different texture
grits (course grind)
polenta (medium grind)
cornmeal (a mixture of polenta and masa)
masa (superfine grind)
Cooking The cooking ratio for Delta Grind grits is 4 parts liquid to 1 part dry grits. Grits will absorb flavor from the cooking liquid, so while water is fine, vegetable or chicken broth will add flavor. We cook our grits in half broth, half milk.
Bring the liquid to a boil. Whisk in the dry grits. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until all liquid is absorbed (30 minutes to 1 hour), stirring frequently. Season with salt and pepper.
Storing Delta Grind Grits are fresh. There is some moisture in them. Store in refrigerator for a week or so or (almost indefinitely) in the freezer.
Flavor them up Stir in one of the following to jazz up your grits: A handful of grated cheese, herbs, olives, roasted red peppers, chopped arugula, sauteed mushrooms, diced tomatoes, cooked corn, diced green chiles, bacon, or fresh berries; or a spoonful of horseradish, cream, sour cream, butter, red pepper flakes, maple syrup, or honey
THE “GRIT CLIQUE”
Lots of restaurants in Tennessee and Mississippi offer Delta Grind on the menu, including: Felicia Suzanne’s • Sweet Grass • Grill 83 • Napa Café Sharky’s Gulf Grill • University Club of Memphis • Waltz on the Square (Oxford) • McEwen’s on Monroe • Interim Amerigo • Lenora’s (Oxford) • Restaurant Iris • Brushmark at the Brooks Museum • Trolley Stop Market • Café Eclectic