Q. We’re fighting about grits. Can you share the ultimate recipe to settle this?
No, and God help you, because your fight will never end. We might think a simple corn-based porridge would be just that, but the grits wars are long-running precisely because the humble grain is so straightforward when ground and cooked as mush. To place that mush in the Southern culinary pantheon, we can turn to the ancient Greeks, who posited the four fundamental elements of all matter and phenomena: earth, air, fire, and water. Southerners think there are five: earth, air, fire, water, and grits. In fact, if you assemble the last three of those building blocks properly, they make the dish. Grits are philosophical bedrock in the South, but in war, everyone’s a damn genius. No matter what grits camp one might be fighting in, or for, all combatants think they have the “right” answer, be it the coarseness of the grind, the species of the corn, the water, or, no water, just chicken broth. A raving lunatic of my acquaintance suggested to me the other day that I try adding Monterey Jack. Really? The most flavorless cheese ever made, and from California to boot? I had to restrain myself from calling 911 for him. I have a nephew who insists on mule-ground grits. Not merely stone-ground, but ground in a gristmill that he found in the deep countryside, powered by a mule. Fine, but what about the rest of us mortals, with limited access to draft animals? I prefer to attack grits with naked simplicity—water, salt—but we must overthrow the paradigm: Do not, ever, look for an “ultimate” recipe. If by definition nothing can be right, then no tweak or improvisation would, necessarily, be wrong. Instead, celebrate the immense flexibility of grits. Throw it all in there, though perhaps not all at once. Mascarpone. Jalapeños. Heavy cream. Gruyère. Marjoram. What the hell, chicken broth. Embrace the grits war because, as Thucydides taught us in his writings from the Peloponnese, war on this front is all we will ever know.
Q. I’ve lived in Birmingham for fifteen years—do I qualify as Southern yet?
What? The answer is no. First, Southern residencies, no matter how long or heartfelt, don’t automatically confer citizenship status in the nation’s premier region. There’s a slippery scale for that—dwelling in some places, like the Atchafalaya Basin, or Vicksburg, Mississippi, or Mobile, if you want to stay in Alabama, can do it over time. I’m not here to crush your dreams of attaining formal acceptance, but do allow me to explain your home’s curious inability to deliver. Birmingham was begun in 1871 not by explorers or founders in the traditional sense, but rather by a faceless land company whose directors wanted a new city at the great north-south and east-west railroad junction. A good, if not particularly soulful, economic idea. In the mere 146 years since, the city grew up Southern, and produced plenty of native Southerners, but its leading industries of coal, steel, and medicine have drawn nationally and internationally, so that the town, today, resembles little else in the South, except perhaps the Research Triangle. My beloved, unbreakably Southern mother, my cousins, and other native Birminghamians, from Courteney Cox to Gucci Mane, will disagree. But: Though the city is a great asset to the region and the nation, it has a harder time these days conferring Deep South credentials.
Q. We’ve been invited to a blessing of the hounds in hunt country. Dress?
No slight intended, but you mean turnout, don’t you? The chase has a bit of a foxy vocabulary attached to it, so head to the woodshed and study up. It’ll keep you in the social swim if you speak fluent ratcatcher (the straight, high collar) and shadbelly (the dark formal hunting jacket). The blessing of the hounds is the annual start-of-season benediction—a word directed upward before months of high-risk contest for man and beast—held on Thanksgiving Day, before the season’s first hunt.We don’t know whose hounds you’ll be helping to consecrate, but some hunts still make an appeal to St. Hubert of Liège, the eighth-century patron of all hunters, whose invocation was thought to prevent the scourge of rabies. As to turnout, err on the side of caution, but strap on no business attire; rather, some sporting tweeds you’d wear to a country house. Make sure your shoes are good barn wear, jodhpurs or chukkas. As the Queen does in the country, you’ll want to scrape off the horse shit without fuss.