Grits are a staple in southern cooking. They’re one of my favorite things to eat and can be enjoyed in different ways be it with butter, cheese, pepper jelly, an egg, or just on their own. I was born in North Carolina and have lived in Florida since I was five. Growing up, I didn’t appreciate southern cooking as much as I do now despite eating it for years. When I cook now, it’s often something we’d call southern. I found First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s recipe for “ERA Grits Cheese Puffs” on an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) flyer in the National Organization for Women, Tallahassee Chapter Records in December and I was eager to try it out.1 I ended up making it over the break for my family with our holiday meal. When I came across the flyer, my curiosity got the best of me so I wanted to figure out how grits became a southern-affiliated food, Rosalynn Carter’s connection with the ERA, and why grits in particular were featured.
Grits as a popular dish in the American South originates from a blending of culture and culinary practice between Indigenous Americans, European colonists, and enslaved West Africans. Hominy grits come from the Muscogee Creek preparation of “Sofki”: corn is ground, boiled in water, and then a liquid made from ashes and water are mixed in.2 It is believed that the English etymology of “grits” comes from the Middle English “grist” describing both the location where grains were ground as well as the grains themselves.3 Mills that grind grains are called gristmills (pictured below ) to this day. 4
As British colonists settled further south, they ate corn prepared in this way more and more after observing indigenous preparation of dishes like hominy grits.5 Maize introduced by Portuguese trade in the 17th century to West African cuisine saw similar instances of corn dishes with porridges, breads, puddings; corn sometimes replaced African grains like millet in quotidian cooking.6 Enslaved West Africans sold in the American colonies applied their culinary knowledge and contributed to Southerners’ diets.
Grits and other popular foods like collard greens, okra, and cornbread persisted in southern culture because they were cheap and filling. Enslaved people supplemented their dismal rations of salted pork and cornmeal with greens, sweet potatoes, chickens and hogs that they raised, as well as any small game that they could hunt.7 With these foodstuffs, they influenced the southern diet. Poor whites living in close proximity to enslaved people and white masters for whom the enslaved cooked came to enjoy the food they prepared. By the Civil War, poor whites and blacks subsisted on the same foods.8 While the Great Migration saw these dishes arrive farther North, the Great Depression severely limited the access to food across the nation in the early 20th century. Many Southerners continued to live on chickens, hogs, fish, and vegetable gardens (corn was marketed especially during WWI for its low cost).9 What do grits have to do with the Equal Rights Amendment though?
Jimmy Carter baked grits into the politics of his presidential campaign. Carter’s campaign in 1976 roused the Southern vote by appealing to White Southern Rural values with both his background as a peanut farmer from Georgia and his symbolic use of grits.10 Look no further than the “Vote Grits & Fritz in ‘76” campaign slogan- Grits referring to Carter and his roots, Fritz being Walter Mondale’s nickname.
Grits featured in the imagery of the Carter campaign, but not to such an extensive degree as peanuts. This pin in the Reuben Askew Papers offers some insight into the use of peanut imagery as a campaigning tactic.11 Patrick Anderson, Carter’s speechwriter in the 1976 campaign, also writes that the media referred to the campaign plane as “Peanut One.”12
Carter repeatedly called on that symbolism and its imagery in office. He named their dog Grits. Visitors to the White house regularly found grits on the menu.13 During Carter’s presidency, First Lady Rosalynn championed the Equal Rights Amendment. She carefully poised her support in the context of maintaining traditional values: “I feel it is especially important to explain that women like me support the ERA. I am a relatively traditional person…I am not threatened by ERA. I am freed by it.”14 This brings us to the recipe on the flyer. It’s my belief that First Lady Rosalynn offered a recipe for grits here as a way to gain southern support for the ERA in similar way that President Carter did for the 1976 election. Below, I’m going to share the recipe and talk about how it turned out!
The recipe, transcribed, is as follows:
1 cup regular, not instant, grits
4 cups boiling water, salted
3 tablespoons butter
½ lb sharp cheddar cheese, grated
Method: Cook grits in boiling water for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and beat in eggs, one at a time. Add butter and 6 oz of the cheese. Mix well. Place in 3 qt. Casserole. (dish?) Sprinkle with remaining cheese and bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Serves 8.”15
Here are the ingredients I used (butter not pictured). For the grits, I used the Quaker Old Fashioned Grits (non-instant). I cooked them in boiling water for 5 minutes, stirring regularly.
If you try this at home, don’t be like me and keep a trash can handy for this next part from the beginning. I removed my pot of grits from the stove and beat in the eggs with a whisk, one at a time, which went rather slowly until I situated the trash can next to me for all of the eggshells.
At this point, I added the butter and stirred in roughly 6z of grated cheddar cheese. From there, I poured the mixture into a casserole dish and sprinkled the remaining cheese on top before baking in the oven for 45 minutes at 350 degrees.
The final result:
Overall, the finished dish was a rousing success (shoutout to my mom for helping and taking pictures)! The texture inside was fluffy and the baked cheese on top gave it a slightly crunchy, cheesy outer crust. We had this for lunch with turnip greens and prime rib, but could easily be enjoyed at any time of the day. For such a large serving, the recipe isn’t too cost-prohibitive. The preparation is easy as well with the oven doing most of the work. I think next time I’d try adding some veggies in it. I’d also be curious to see how well vegan leavening substitutes or vegan cheese would work with this recipe.
1. “ERA Flyer Front,” National Organization for Women, Tallahassee Chapter Records, MSS 2008-033, Box 15, Folder 5, Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives, Tallahassee, Florida.
2. Mary R. Haas, Creek (Muskogee) Texts (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 192-3. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.fsu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=957678&site=eds-live&scope=site.
3. “Grist,” accessed January 6, 2021, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary/MED19532/track?counter=2.
4. Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Historic Rikard’s Mill is a truly historic site near Beatrice, Alabama. United States Alabama Beatrice, 2010. May 2. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2010639862/.
5. Frederick Douglass Opie, Hog and Hominy : Soul Food From Africa to America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 21. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.fsu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=584696&site=eds-live&scope=site.
6. Ibid, 14
7. Ibid, 36-7
8. Ibid, 38
9. Ibid, 85; Harrison, Lloyd, Artist. Corn – the food of the nation Serve some way every meal – appetizing, nourishing, economical / / Lloyd Harrison ; Harrison-Landauer Inc. Baltimore. United States, 1918. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2002711987/.
10. Zachary J. Lechner, “‘Fuzzy as a Georgia Peach’: The Ford Campaign and the Challenge of Jimmy Carter’s Southernness,” Southern Cultures 23, no.4 (2017): 64. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.fsu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsglr&AN=edsglr.A528075517&site=eds-live&scope=site.
11. “Jimmy Carter Peanut Pin,” Reuben Askew Papers, OS Box 6, Artifact Box 4, Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives, Tallahassee, Florida.
12. Patrick Anderson, Electing Jimmy Carter: The Campaign of 1976 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 80.
13. Erin Byers Murray, Grits: A Cultural and Culinary Journey Through the South, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 137.
14. Interdepartmental Task Force on Women, Honoring a Commitment to the People of America: The Record of President Jimmy Carter on Women’s Issues (Washington D.C.: The Desk of Sarah Weddington, 1980), 20.
15. “ERA Flyer Back,” National Organization for Women, Tallahassee Chapter Records, MSS 2008-033, Box 15, Folder 5, Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives, Tallahassee, Florida.