One of my all-time favorite foods in the ZCoB
by Ari Weinzweig
While Reubens, brownies, espresso, cream cheese, and coffee cake are foods Zingerman’s is known for around the country, one of the most delicious things you can buy in the ZCoB is one that we rarely get written up for. And yet, if I had to make a shortlist of top picks to choose from for my day-to-day eating enjoyment, this would certainly be one I’d select. A bowl of hot Anson Mills’ grits, topped with cheese and butter—and for me, a mess of freshly ground Tellicherry black pepper—is one of those simple, and really awesomely wonderful things to eat. For breakfast for sure, but also for lunch or dinner.
Why are Anson Mills’ grits so good?
Whether you get them at the Roadhouse, the Deli, or your house, the Anson Mills’ grits are a textbook example of what we’ve been working to do for nearly 40 years now at Zingerman’s. Find amazing sources—or make our own at the same level of excellence—keep it simple, and end up with something so good that once you eat it, it sets the standard. The grits cover all the bases beautifully. They’re great as a main course or as a side dish. They can be the star, but they don’t mind taking a backup role when another food is being featured. They go with everything from fish, to meat, to vegetables, to cheese. If you like sweets, you can top them with some maple syrup or sorghum. They heat up well when you have leftovers. They’re nutritious. If you’re making them at home, they’re easy to prepare.
There are a number of things that go into making the Anson Mills’ grits so special. They are made primarily of Carolina Gourdseed, an old variety that’s exceptionally flavorful, and bred to ripen in the field on the stalk, not in a silo. (Just as stem fruit is 50 times better ripened on the tree, the same is true for corn.) The old varieties like this one yield about a quarter to a third of modern strains—the cost of producing this kind of corn is about 4 to 12 times that of commercial corn for grinding!
The milling plays a big role in the quality of these grits as well. Most commercial milling today starts with steaming corn kernels to get their hulls off. In that process, the germ is removed, along with most all of the flavor. Commercial corn is then ground with steel roller mills where friction can heat the grain to above room temperature. The heat basically “cooks” the corn during the milling, killing all the live enzymes and what’s left of the flavor. By contrast, Anson Mills never lets the corn get above 58°F. CO2 is used to keep oxygen off the corn, preventing oxidation and protecting flavor (this is much the same as is done with wine by using nitrogen). The freshly milled corn is sifted into four different sized particles and then re-blended—the diversity of texture creates a more interesting eating experience. The corn’s natural germ is left in, radically enhancing the flavor. Good grits (like these) are a fresh product—we ship them and store them under refrigeration.
The ways we offer Anson Mills’ grits at Zingermans.
The main result of all this is that the grits taste incredibly good. You can get them at the Roadhouse or the Deli for breakfast by the bowl. Try them with eggs on top—there’s something magical that happens when you break the yolks into the grits. At the Roadhouse, the grits are also on the dinner menu as a side dish. They come on the plate with South Carolina (mustard-sauced) Ribs. Fish and Chips are really fine, there’s also something special about the combo of Fish and Grits. You can get them for lunch or dinner as Smothered Grits—topped with sautéed corn, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, and a good bit of grated old school Monterey Jack from Vella Cheese in Sonoma. My top choice would be something I learned from a Texan living in Ann Arbor years ago—grits mixed up with a good amount of fire-roasted New Mexico green chiles, more grated Monterey Jack, and a good bit of freshly ground Tellicherry black pepper. I’d happily have them that way for either breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
You can also buy the Anson Mills’ grits uncooked, by the bag, to make at home. We also ship them. What we serve on site at the Deli and Roadhouse are the Anson Mills’ “quick grits”— they cook in like half an hour. (Not really all that “quick” compared the two minutes commercial grits take.) We also have the exceptional Anson Mills’ long cooking grits—if you have a couple hours to let them simmer very slowly, they’re even more amazing. There’s also a limited supply of the Anson Mills’ Jimmy Red grits made with an old varietal from James Island off the coast of South Carolina.
In the context of what I wrote above about beliefs, it’s clear Glenn Roberts at Anson Mills has altered the beliefs of many people—me included—about grits. Where negative stereotypes of bad grits were quite common, we now have a world-class product to put on our tables. Emma Goldman once wrote that “Revolution is but thought carried into action.” Glenn has made that a revolutionary reality in the world of grains. I appreciate his work every time I taste these terrific grits.