Everybody knows that food—or, more to the point, its consumption—can kill you, especially if you happen to live in the South. Seven of the ten states with the nation’s highest adult obesity rates are below the Mason-Dixon Line, usually led, alas, by my own home state of Mississippi. (I swear, at this point our license plates should just sport the motto FIRST IN FATNESS, LAST IN LITERACY.) Not surprisingly, most of those same states have the country’s highest premature death rates. Leaving aside the slightly more complicated issues of violent crime and poverty that also factor in, we are really adept at eating ourselves to death.
It’s not always our fault. I covered Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign in 1996 and over a period of about six very long months, I listened to at least a hundred speeches in which he pledged to make the country safe from E. coli, the sinister bacterium that can lurk in raw vegetables and undercooked beef. In this post-9/11 era of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and God knows what else, that actually seems sort of sweet, but it’s a real deal. Despite the former president’s best efforts, thousands of people still get sick and some even die each year from E. coli. And then of course there are botulism and salmonella. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which keeps track of this stuff, reported the largest botulism outbreak in forty years when twenty-five people were stricken at a church potluck in Ohio. The cause: a tub of homemade potato salad. Five years earlier, more than two dozen people came down with salmonella poisoning after dining on rattlesnake cakes at a restaurant called the Fort in Morrison, Colorado, but it seems to me they were asking for it.
Scary as all that sounds, the subject at hand is not food contamination or even consumption; it is food, specifically grits, as deadly weapon. This past summer, for example, a Maryland woman was charged with second-degree assault for pouring hot grits on a man as he slept and then beating him with a baseball bat. To me, this raises the question of what exactly constitutes first-degree assault, but I digress. The incident was not the first time someone used grits to settle a score. Last year, a Florida man named Edward Holley was charged with attempted murder after dousing a man with grits, covering 30 percent of his body with second- and third-degree burns. Apparently a dispute had taken place the night before, so when Holley saw the victim on his front porch the next morning, he told police he simply grabbed the nearest weapon, “a pan of grease and grits” cooking on his stove.
It turns out that grits attacks are something of an established trend. In Louisiana, especially, folks seem to always have a batch simmering at the ready. A year before the unrepentant Holley attacked his neighbor (he allegedly told police, “If you’re going to arrest me, then just arrest me now, ’cause next time I am going to kill him”), a New Orleans man was convicted of aggravated second-degree battery after he poured boiling grits on his wife and beat her with the pot for good measure. Three years before that, a woman in nearby Boutte was arrested for pouring what police described as a “huge pot” of hot grits on her boyfriend while he slept. In an especially ill-timed move, he’d made the mistake of telling her he wanted to break up before repairing to bed.
To be fair, grits are not the only food or food-related weapon in the food pantry arsenal. When I first started spending time in Louisiana in the early 1990s, I heard tales of irate wives scalding their husbands with boiling red beans laced with lye. The citizens of Florida are apparently more partial to beef. In 2009, police arrested a Central Florida woman for beating her disabled boyfriend in the head with a raw rib-eye steak after he requested a dinner roll rather than the slice of bread she had served him. Just a few days earlier, in Port St. Lucie, a man was arrested for shoving a hamburger in his girlfriend’s face at a restaurant called Dick’s. Food can also be involved in slightly less direct but no less lethal ways. In Cleveland, Ohio, an overweight woman killed her boyfriend by sitting on him while he was face down on the sofa.
Still, you can’t beat grits for access, convenience, and hot and sticky effectiveness. The most famous grits attack, which occurred in 1974, involved the great soul singer Al Green. Green was brushing his teeth in his Memphis bathroom when a jealous female fan, whom he had unwisely invited to his house, poured a pot of boiling grits down his back, causing third-degree burns and months of hospitalization. Though Green likes to put distance between that harrowing incident and his becoming an ordained Baptist minister two years later, I can’t believe there’s no correlation. Either way, Green is still as soulful as ever and his mostly musical services at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis are not to be missed. The attack on the singer also proved inspirational to his colleagues. Usher made use of the grits incident in “Truth Hurts,” and in “Everything,” Method Man raps, “Trust me, I’m hot as they get, like Al Green getting hit by a pot of them grits.”
The proliferation of assaults by grits gives a whole new meaning to the term packing heat (not to mention white-hot), but there’s more than one irony here. First of all, the great majority of grits sold in America are made by Quaker Oats, which as early as 1877 registered as its trademark with the U.S. Patent Office “a figure of a man in ‘Quaker garb.’” Quakers, otherwise known as members of the Religious Society of Friends, are a famously nonviolent group—though it must be said that wielding some grits is one way to get around their refusal to bear arms. Also, it turns out that the actual consumption of grits is good for you. Not only are they usually gluten-free, but they also have fewer fat grams than oatmeal.
It comes as no surprise that grits have been co-opted by those with violent intent. They’ve always been enormously versatile. The best cheese grits dish I ever made was the result of dumping leftover odds and ends from a cheese platter, including a creamy Cashel blue, into a simmering pot of them along with a generous pinch of cayenne. This was at the very late end of a raucous evening when everyone needed a bit of a blotter for the booze (another healthy and excellent use of grits). So with that in mind, and in an attempt to restore the reputation of the humble grit as something good for the body and the soul, I offer up this recipe for grits cakes. They’re terrific as a base for pretty much anything from duck étouffée and sautéed shrimp to a chunky tomato sauce, and they are a tasty replacement for English muffins in eggs Benedict or Sardou. The heavenly versions on the menu at the Manhattan restaurant Maysville come topped with a dab of bourbon mayonnaise and slivers of country ham and are—forgive me—to die for.
Makes about 10 small cakes
2 cups milk
2 cups water
1 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. butter
1 cup stone-ground grits
½ cup grated sharp cheddar
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
Pinch cayenne pepper
Vegetable or other flavorless oil
In a saucepan, bring the milk and water to a boil; add the salt and butter. Whisk in grits and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until grits are done. (This should take at least 30 minutes, depending on the grits.) Remove from heat and stir in cheeses and cayenne.
Oil a shallow 9-inch baking pan and pour in grits, spreading evenly with a spatula. (The grits should be about 1 inch thick, or a little less.) Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm. Cut in squares or triangles, or use a 2½- to 3-inch biscuit cutter to make rounds. Dredge lightly in flour.
Pour ½ inch of oil into a large nonstick skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the grits cakes and fry until golden and crispy, about 2 or 3 minutes on each side.
Drain on paper towels.