Studying historic foods often means studying the English language, as the meanings of words and terms tended to change over time.
It wasn’t until the discovery of the New World and of its native grain, maize, that the word corn came to routinely refer to that grain. In Europe, corn meant the kernals of any grain – rye, barley, wheat, etc. Likewise, the word grit once refered to the minute particles of any grain. There were wheaten grits, millet grits, oat grits or groats, etc., but sometime during the late Victorian era the word grit took on the meaning of broken particles of corn, or maize.
To further complicate the study of grits, the gruel made from cracked corn was not always referred to as grits. In the North it was often referred to as samp, and in the South it could be small hominy. When the hulls are removed from dried corn by boiling it in a lye solution, and the resulting tender corn kernal is left whole the finished product was known as hominy or large hominy. Colonists learned to make it by observing Indian food preparation.
It shouldn’t be assumed that the word grits always referred to the cracked corn, and not to the gruel made from it, however. A survey of early cookery books, agricultural manuals, journal articles, and even novels will show the use of the word, granted perhaps not as often as samp or small hominy, but enough times to justify using it in a historic setting.
Avoid the use of always or never. The word grit could, but did not always, refer to corn. The gruel made from grits was sometimes, but not always called grits. Sometimes in reading historic accounts it isn’t clear what is being discussed, but looking to see where the account was published will sometimes help with the determination.
Before grist mills were commonly available, most families had a hominy block with which to crack corn. It was sometimes a hollowed out section of tree with a mortar that was raised and lowered by hand down into the hominy block repeatedly to pound the grains into small particles. Another version was similar, but instead of a mortar that was man-handled as previously described, a piece of log was tied to the limb of a tree so that the person pounding the grain could swing it down, and the limb would spring back and pull it back up.
In 1865, a wounded soldier in a hospital in Charleston, South Carolina wrote that their rations consisted of, “corn bread, rice, grits, and occasionally a little beef”. The footnote states, “Grits are cracked corn, or what some people call “samp”. His use of “corn bread” rather than corn meal indicates a cooked product, and if we are to follow that train of thought he is most likely referring to gruel made from grits. The fact that a soldier debilitated enough to be treated in a hospital would not likely be able to cook his own meals supports that logic. (1)
Another reference to cooked gruel being called grits was published in 1875 in an article titled, “Fifty Years Ago”.
Oh, no, I don’t like grits; the no-taste carries me away back to 1811 and ’12, when we had to eat them without salt…I never taste grits without seeing the old hominy mortar, or block, standing in the yard before Uncle Davis’s cabin. (2)
A reference published in 1834, “They finished up the hominy grits in their kettle” is one of many references to hominy grits. (3)
Mary Cornelius used the term Carolina hominy in 1846 in a cookery book published in Boston.
Wash a quart of the grits in several waters till perfectly clean, and put them into three pints of boiling water, with two teaspoonfuls of salt, and boil slowly half an hour; then take off the lid and let the water remaining evaporate. They must be stirred repeatedly. Eat with butter and molasses, or milk, or meat. If any is left, slice it the next morning and brown it on the griddle; or add milk, eggs and flour and make it into griddle cakes. (4)
The latter dish has been termed, at various periods in time and from various locations, fried mush or polenta.
The dish Mary Cornelius called Carolina hominy, was dubbed Carolina Grits, or Small Hominy by Eliza Leslie in several editions of her cookbook. She suggested adding butter to hominy, “white Indian corn, shelled from the cob, divested of the outer skin by scalding in hot lye, and then winnowed and dried”. (5)
Leslie’s description of samp was Indian corn pounded or ground, “till it is smaller and finer than the Carolina grits”.
The terms came about due to the popularity of grits in that state.
…a large covered dish of small hominy (for this bolted corn grits is the standard breakfast of South Carolina), piling plates of rice waffles, and johnny cakes, and sweet potato fritters, and corn flannel cakes, and fried young drum fish, and whiting, and mullet, completed this family breakfast. (6)
Elizabeth Collins, on the other hand, had this to say:
There is another dish worthy of observation, which is called hominy. The corn having been ground, and the grits well sifted through a wire sieve, which then divides the flour from the coarse grits, the former is reserved for making bread, and the latter transferred to a pot of cold water and let boil until the water is nearly gone; then the little water, which is only left to keep it from burning, is poured off, and the hominy is ready for the table. It is generally eaten for breakfast, when, if people choose to be stingy enough, the overplus can be deposited in a vessel with the flour, and mixed with a quantity of water or clabber, put to ruse until the evening, when a couple of eggs or a sweet potato must be well stirred in, and, of course, a little salt. Bake it… (7)
A family living in the Ozark mountains in 1858 called the gruel made from grits homony. Pounding corn produced “coarse grits, which are boiled soft, and it then bears the name of homony. Of this nutritious dish our meals generally consist, with boiled or fried bear’s bacon, and a decoction of sassafras tea”. (8)
The process of making grits and another name for them was discussed in Debow’s Review in 1845. “Wash a pint of grist (particles of flint-corn reduced to the size of the coarsest sand by grinding, the fine parts and husk being sifted off), in two or three waters, giving in each instance settling time. In pouring off the water, let the grits be well rubbed with the hand to separate flour. Put into a pot with one pint of water, and boil slowly for half an hour, stirring and skimming the mixture as it boils. It should come up on the table dry and gritty, and perfectly white”.
The size of the grains of ground maize varied depending on how it was to be prepared. The larger the grains the longer they took to become tender, thus cooking times in early cookery books are much longer than would be necessary with today’s smaller ground grits, and so-called quick grits take even less time to prepare. The larger the grits, the more likely references instructed soaking prior to cooking.
In general, the grits or larger parts of the meal, should vary from one-fourth the size of a grain of mustard to that of a grain of rice, according to the uses to which they are to be applied. (9)
The New York Tribune published an account of what the product was called in New York in 1854.
Then there is the article known at the South and West, where it is extensively used, under the name of hominy. Here it is called samp, and is sold at $2.50 a bushel, and one bushel is worth more than four bushels of potatoes. It is a good, palatable, wholesome, economical food. But a more generally acceptable article is called hominy here; at the West, grits. The first is hulled corn, the grains left nearly whole; the latter is hulled corn, cracked into grains about the size of bird-seed shot, or coarse gunpowder. It sells for three and three and a half cents a pound. Both are cooked by soaking and slow boiling for hours, in clear water, and when eaten as a substitute for vegetables, with meat, are seasoned with salt and a very little butter. Both are very good with meat gravy, or with sugar or molasses. (10)
An interesting account of hominy was recorded in a letter home penned by William MacKean, a Scot, who was touring America in 1875.
The box is filled cram-full, and the grindstone set in motion with considerable speed. The friction of the stone on the grain rubs the skin off, and, splitting the lobes asunder, sets the acrospire free. When the abrading action is continued long enough, which is not very long, the mixture is separated by sieves into human food and horse feed. The lobes, like misshapen pease, and resembling horn in their hardness and semi-transparency, are set aside to make ‘samp’, ‘grits’, and ‘hominy’, of which several elegant preparations for the table can be made. The bran and growths make valuable cattle feed, which is very fattening from the large proportion of oil, and is agreeably sweet to the taste, containing as it does so much sugar. The lobes are further prepared, by grinding merely, into grits or flour; or are cooked whole, and eaten like boiled pease. I have got all these dishes, which are excellent to my fancy, not only from their merits, but their novelty. Besides these, there are other things presented at table which we know nothing of at home. (11)
By the late 19th century grits were used in any number of recipes. Hominy was sometimes mixed with beans to prepare a dish of succotash. “When the hominy is half cooked, add one-fourth as many beans as there was dry hominy, and cook until both hominy and beens are tender. Salt, and serve warm with the usual dinner dishes”. (12)
Confused over what to call your morning grits? If it is any consolation, great grandpa was probably confused too. Perhaps the best way to close this discussion of the South’s favorite breakfast food is with a description penned in 1874.
Hominy, or Samp. The ‘samp’ of the New York market is the hominy of the South and West. It is made of the Southern white corn, and is hulled (for the market) by machinery. In the South it is usually pounded by hand, the grain being moistened a few hours previously, so that the hulls loosen during the operation; or if it is ground, the hulls are washed out. Some of the best that we have in the market is simply hulled, and not broken. It would be very appropriate to call it ‘hulled corn’, if people would understand what is meant by it. Unfortunately, the names of some of this class of goods are sadly confused. The hominy of the South and West is samp in New York (‘small hominy’ in the South) is very much the same thing as the samp of New England. This in the United States Commissary Department is designated ‘corn grits’. ‘Hulled corn’ and ‘corn grits’, then, would designate the articles appropriately. But, as a rule, we prefer to take words as we find them, and Webster’s definition favors the use of ‘hominy’ for the coarser, and samp for the finer article. So, as we prefer to be cosmopolitan rather than metropolitan, we would fain accept his authority. (13)
1. Abbott, A. O. Prison Life in the South. 1865. NY.
2. Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine. July 1875. Vol. XLIII. No. 7.
3. Harmon, Neil Swanson. The First Rebel. 1834. Philadelphia.
4. Cornelius, Mary. The Young Housekeeper’s Friend. 1846. Boston. Charles Tappan.
5. Leslie, Eliza. New Receipts for Cooking. 1852. T. B. Peterson.
6. Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe, Mrs. The Black Gauntlet. 1860. J. B. Lippincott.
7. Collins, Elizabeth. Memories of the South. 1865. Taunton.
8. Schoolcraft, Henry. Scenes and Adventures in the Semi-Alpine Region of the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas. 1858. Philadelphia.
9. Fifth Annual Report of the American Institute. 1847. Albany, NY.
10. Friends Intelligencer. July 14, 1854. Philadelphia.
11. MacKean, William. Letters Home During a Trip to America. 1875. Paisley [Scotland].
12. Household and Agricultural. 1874.
13. Household and Agricultural. 1874.