Growing up, I recall lots of lazy Sunday mornings, with plenty of time for sleeping in, watching cartoons, and doing pretty much anything that didn’t involve homework. My parents would be drinking coffee in their bathrobes, while my father lorded over the newspaper, doling out sections as he saw fit. Every now and then, he’d abandon the paper and make his way into the kitchen to cook up a super-sized brunch-for-one (although sometimes he could be convinced to make extra) that always had one essential component: grits.
You see, he was a southern boy, trapped in my mother’s yankee hometown in upstate NY. Back in those days, my mom did nearly all the cooking, grilled beast notwithstanding, so anything that managed to draw my father into the kitchen surely must have been the holy grail of breakfasts. Perhaps these meals were his way of reclaiming those southern roots; but I bet it was also simply a matter of knowing how well his belly would be rewarded for the time he put in at the stove.
Not a single plate or bowl was ever big enough to hold the always massive pile of buttery grits, fried eggs, toast and bacon; instead, he’d requisition one of my mother’s huge porcelain serving dishes, which on these occasions would lead a double-life as my father’s private breakfast trough. Pig slop it was not, however. Those early exposures to grits fed my lifelong love for this simple porridge.
A couple of years ago, I was strolling through a farmer’s market in DC and came across the booth of a fellow member of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (WCR), Anna St. John, who runs a local catering company. We’d met a few times before, and I was curious to learn more about what she was tasting and selling at the market. Among other things, she pointed to a lumpy cloth bag and insisted that I “HAD to try these.” At over $7 for a 2-pound bag, Hoppin’ John’s grits felt a little rich for my nonprofit slave’s budget, but she convinced me these were more than worth it, and I knew I could trust her tastebuds. Mind you, I’ve tasted my fair share of grits, including on the menus of some of New York’s top restaurants, so the bar was already pretty high for me.
Anna recommended that I follow the cooking instructions included in the little recipe book inside the bag. I heeded her advice, and what resulted were the creamiest, most mouthwateringly-delicious grits this grit-lovin’ girl has ever had the pleasure of eating. I almost couldn’t believe it. It was as if I’d never tasted the real deal before—they were that good. Turns out the “John” behind Hoppin’ John’s is John Martin Taylor, a cookbook author who’s considered a legitimate authority on regional southern cuisine. His grits are “natural, whole-grain, stone-ground, and mountain-grown,” according to his website. The corn is heirloom dent corn, which is apparently the traditional corn of the south, so it’s not a modern hybrid nor genetically modified. Like I said, the real deal. Quaker, eat your heart out. His grits can be found in some of the country’s finest restaurants, and in the DC area, you can find Anna selling them at the Palisades and Kensington farmer’s markets.
Alas, I’m nearly down to the last of my current bag of Hoppin’ John’s, so I’ll be seeing Anna soon for my next fix. Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying grits three ways this week, as you can see below: grits smothered in greens; hot, buttered grits; and fried grit cakes ‘n eggs. Alas, the grit cakes turned out to be kind of a failed kitchen experiment (I’ll spare you the photographic evidence); next time, I’ll be sure to cook out more of the liquid so they firm up better for frying. That said, messy grit cakes topped with a fried sunny-side-up egg are still pretty damn good.
Now go get y’self some Hoppin’ John’s grits!