Let’s get some bias right out on the table: I love grits. Not just eating them, although that’s a big part of it; what I really love is that, in our hyper-globalized economy and society, there are still some things that you DO eat in one part of the country, and most definitely DON’T eat in others. And grits, perhaps the most iconic “southern” food, are one of these items. Put simply, grits are ground corn; coarser than cornmeal or polenta, grits are typically boiled in water and traditionally served at breakfast. Part of my personal fascination with grits is the complicated process to produce such a seemingly simple item. And in western NC we are blessed by the presence of several historic mill operations, along with tradition-minded keepers of the flame who are continuing practices at the convergence of agriculture and industry. In so doing they are also finding innovative ways to get stone-ground items onto the plates and into the shopping bags of western NC residents.
To convert whole corn kernels to grits you need a grist mill, which historically were water-powered hubs of economic activity in rural communities. Typically small-scale operations, these mills served their local farming communities, grinding all types of grain into flour, meal and feed for livestock. Before moving back to the mountains, my wife and I lived on the site of a former grist mill in Hillsborough, NC, just outside Chapel Hill. With milling operations there dating to at least the early 1800s, the site has been lovingly restored by the long-time owner, a former UNC professor, who painstakingly repaired the large stone dam, sluice, and foundation of the mill building. Simply the scale of the dam (easily 25 feet high) conveyed the vital importance of such a facility in a rural farming community. Several mills dating to the 1800s still stand in western North Carolina, including the Dellinger Mill on Cane Creek in Mitchell County and the Francis Mill just outside Waynesville; both of these mills have been recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.
Historical grist mills relied on water power and, more specifically, waterwheels. Bob Vitale of Waterwheel Factory, located in Franklin, is a leading expert in the mechanics and engineering of water-powered wheels. A computer scientist and media production specialist by training with “an eye and ear for alternative energies,” since 1998 Bob has run a business dedicated to building and restoring wheels, and has traveled the country (and to several continents) to install wheels. Bob has been involved in projects with many of the most-noted historic mills in North Carolina, including the Francis Mill, and has also been active with the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills, or SPOOM. As Bob puts it, before steam power or electricity were widespread, water power represented “the combustion engine of the time.” Engineering books in his collection from the mid to late 1800s focus heavily on waterpower system design and efficiency, and millwrights needed a broad-ranging skill set, including knowledge of machinery, engineering, business savvy, and tact to navigate numerous transactions and relationships.
While the wheel supplies the brawn, the heart of the mill is the pair of millstones that do the work of grinding corn into flour, meal or grits. John and Jennie Lovett run Falls Mill, a water-powered mill west of Chattanooga built in 1873, including for many years grinding white corn grits for restaurants and individual customers. A former mechanical engineer, John is fascinated by old machinery and has spent much of his life restoring “persnickety” 19th-century machines (the Lovetts also operate a museum of manufacturing equipment at Falls Mill). A wealth of knowledge, John shared the finer points of the milling process. Grinding flour versus meal or grits comes down to the spacing between the two millstones; minute adjustments can result in drastic differences in grain size and texture. Screens or a contraption known as a grit separator sort the meal into its various categories. Mill stones need to be sharpened periodically to ensure a clean grind and to remove buildup of oils that can negatively affect the grind. According to John, stone grinding (as opposed to more modern roller mill grinding) has been shown to result in better quality grits, as the slow, steady stone grinding process keeps the kernels at a cooler temperature, resulting in a less adulterated, more natural product.
A key to the grinding process is selecting corn that is dry enough to grind. Whether dried completely on the stalk “in the field,” in cribs or in modern dryers, for optimal grinding corn still on the cob should possess a moisture content of about 13%. John Lovett said that he could tell “by picking some kernels off the cob and gritting them between your teeth” whether a load of corn was ready for grinding.
Most original water-powered mills have been forced to close down as advances in technology, transportation, and regulation squeezed smaller mill operations. Health inspectors tend to frown on, as Vitale puts it, “holes in the building the size a raccoon can go in and out of,” which many water-powered mills, of necessity, have. Fortunately, in our region keepers of the milling tradition have continued to grind, cranking out products for consumers and chefs. In Old Fort, the McEntire family run Peaceful Valley Farm and Gristmill, a fifth-generation operation that produces stone-ground grits and cornmeal from heirloom varieties, along with wheat and rye flour. In Weaverville, Barkley Mills at Southern Cross Farm is a water-powered mill built in 2012, employing old-time techniques to stone-grind flour, meal and grits from corn grown onsite.
An emerging leader in this effort is David Bauer of Farm and Sparrow and All Souls Pizza, a master baker who mills his own flour, meal and grits and also supplies other customers. David readily admits that he “hadn’t had good grits or corn until I moved to North Carolina.” Upon arrival, he quickly met John McEntire, who he counts as a friend and mentor in learning about heirloom corn varieties and the intricacies of milling. In his own baking and at All Souls, David’s emphasis is on using heirloom corn varieties native to the region, with colorful names like Bloody Butcher Red and Cherokee Gourdseed.
I asked everyone I spoke to for this story about a personal conundrum: identifying the precise difference between grits and polenta (a staple of northern Italian cuisine, and a much more common way to see grits listed on a dinner menu). John Lovett opines that “when we were running it, polenta was about halfway between meal and grits – really, it was close to the corn meal mush that was a common food for poor folks.” David Bauer agrees; a reaction he hears from many old-time millers is “the difference is $5 a pound,” meaning the only real difference is the branding and marketing. As he puts it, polenta is a “cultural reference;” while the two have actual differences (including historical roots in flint versus bent corn, no doubt a dissertation waiting to be written), for practical purposes the two are ground corn of slightly differing consistencies.
From a menu perspective, it’s safe to say that grits are hot right now. Most diners have by now become quite familiar with shrimp and grits, a lowcountry favorite that serves as a gateway to many grit first-timers and a jumping-off point for cooks and chefs in search of new ways to use this staple of the southern breakfast table. Innovative chefs are finding other ways to weave grits and polenta into menus, and customers are noticing. David Bauer shares that the most common reaction he hears is diners saying “this tastes like corn, not like mush. People are noticing things having flavor, that they “didn’t expect to have flavor.” Likewise, chefs are delighted that the inherent flavor in stone-ground corn means they don’t need to add cheese, bacon and seasoning to “dress up” a dish.
The enjoyment doesn’t need to be limited to dining out. When you get your hands on some genuine stone-ground grits, here are a few recommendations: I’m still partial to them for breakfast, and I’ve found that cooking them in milk only adds to the richness. Grit bowls, using freshly cooked grits as the base for topping of bacon, sausage, peppers or other accoutrements, are typically a hit. And a true personal favorite comes a day later or for dessert that night: save enough leftover grits to store in a container, slice into sections, and fry in bacon grease or other fat for grit cakes. If for dessert, my suggested topping is pure, dark molasses. Pure heaven in western NC.
Noah Raper Robins, a native of Madison County, grew up on a farm and is passionate about all things local, particularly food and drink.