The fourth annual NYC Food Film Fest is now well over, and as usual we’re terribly disappointed in ourselves for seeing fewer movies than we had hopes to. (That would be all of them.) But this past Sunday we were lucky enough to catch It’s Grits, a black and white cinema verite masterpiece made by South Carolinian and southern documentarian Stan Woodward in 1978.
Food is such a popular academic study these days that there’s even a section on non-cooking food books in Barnes & Noble. But back when Stan started on his film, going so deeply into a single-ingredient wasn’t par for the five-course prix-fixe. In fact, one of Stan’s relatives probably captured the mood back in the day when she told him it was a fine little film, but an awful lot of information about something like grits.
Grits, of course, are the southern and originally Native American dish made from cooking dried and ground corn kernels with water. And hopefully some butter and dairy, maybe even a little hot sauce. (It’s also plural: You can eat just one grit.) Like its European cousin polenta, grits is plain food, but it’s powerful, and Woodward travels the south to stop his countrymen and women to ask them whether they like grits, how they take them, whether they really know what they are.
(The answer to the first is always, always yes, no matter how the questionee might respond to the latter, which included things like, “with peanut butter and chow chow.”)
Woodward talks to grist mill owners and food writers who even back in 1978 were bemoaning the loss of real stone ground grits to the more instant kind, which decreases the earthy corn flavor along with the cooking time. (Happily, there are probably more back on line then than now.) And he talks to farmers, who grow the cobs and show us right on their front porches how they’re cleaned and ground into grits and cornmeal.
Perhaps most moving to those of us in the audience — gathered in Dumbo’s Tobacco Warehouse on that appropriately 90-degree day — was when Woodward came back to New York City one Christmas in the late 70s. There he cornered cops and street Santas and New Yorkers at an ethnic street food fair to ask them about grits.
(Woodward was once technically a New Yorker, coming up in the 60s to attend Pratt University. His first night as a New Yorker, he told me, was in an old flophouse hotel near the Clinton Hill campus. In fact he didn’t think he’d make it here, he said, until he went for a walk the next day and was totally smitten by the Brooklyn Bridge.)
But his big city get was Craig Claiborne, the former Sunflower, Mississippian who was then the food editor of The New York Times. Claiborne not only allowed Woodward to interview him, he insisted he come over to his house where he could prepare his family’s grits souffle from the stone-ground South Carolina variety Woodward had brought him. (Stan will send you the recipe if you order a copy of the movie, which you should!)
As Claiborne is shown stirring the grits into the boiling water, he says “people often ask me, ‘are grits party food?’ And I say, ‘yes, anything that is good is something you can celebrate.'” We couldn’t agree more.