Ours is a world filled with injustice. Poverty. War. Natural disasters. The world of breakfast food is no exception. While oatmeal, the glommy, tasteless slop some of us sensible breakfast eaters dread, is heralded as one of the best breakfasts health-conscious diners can enjoy, grits have been maligned, regarded as less-than, relegated to kitschy shrimp-and-grits recipes that only showcase a limited range of the hot cereal’s abilities. In the meantime, there are countless breakfast eaters choking down gulps of hot, over-sweetened oatmeal, wishing there was a better way.
There is, and it’s time that we speak up about it. In many parts of the country, grits have simply not gotten their due. I myself was blind to the joy of the corn-based cereal until I moved, as a child, to the South. My family’s first stop in Georgia was not to our new home but instead to a Waffle House, a culinary staple of the state. Most of the menu items were familiar: waffles, eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, hashbrowns. But then I noticed something on the menu that I’d never encountered before. “What are grits?” I asked my parents.
They answered. I was intrigued. I ordered the grits and out they came, jiggling, in a thick white bowl. A pad of butter was melting on top, creating little yellow rivulets of fat throughout the carb-laden dish. To my bland, picky, 10-year-old palate, it was a dream—once I sprinkled an ungodly amount of salt and black pepper on top, I devoured the entire bowl within a matter of minutes, forgetting about my chocolate chip waffle completely. I ordered another bowl. I felt like maybe living in Georgia wasn’t going to be so bad.
The visit to Waffle House had awoken a monster in me. I started craving grits all the time. I needed them. When my mom would try to prepare me a bowl of Quaker oatmeal, I would grimace and pout, knowing that there was a superior hot breakfast cereal out there waiting for me, neglected. Soon, the Quaker oatmeal was replaced with little packets of instant grits, some dotted with little dried bacon bit pieces.
Over the next few years, I started to notice a pattern: Many if not most of my friends, even those who had been born and raised in the South, found grits to be unappealing, always coming in second place to oatmeal, the superior choice. Perhaps it was the era’s obsession with ultra-sweetened dishes; although oatmeal can be savory and grits can sweet, popular instant oatmeal brands tend to focus on the sweeter end of the spectrum, while grits are more commonly found in a savory flavor. But times have changed: We are officially in the age of the not-too-sweet dessert, so why would we want an ultra-sweet breakfast?
Or perhaps it was the idea that oatmeal is inherently healthier than grits, which isn’t necessarily true. According to Livestrong, oatmeal offers more fiber and protein than grits do, but grits contain more micronutrients that you need in your daily diet. (They both contain similar numbers of calories per serving.) And if you’re buying the pre-packaged versions of oatmeal and grits, you may find that you’re actually eating a lot of sugar in those little oatmeal packages—sugar that’s generally not going to appear in similar pre-packaged instant grits.
For me, though, grits’ superiority over oatmeal is all about the flavor. The ground-up corn is mild and serves as a blank canvas for whatever other ingredients you like to put on top, but it has noticeably more flavor than oatmeal on its own. Butter is an essential addition; the dry grits really need some fat to give them a smoother texture and extra richness. But then, you have limitless possibilities; shrimp is an obvious choice, but it’s not the only one. You can keep your bowl of grits simple with some eggs or sausage, or make a lighter version with some sauteed tomatoes and kale. Hot sauce with a vibrant acidity can cut through all that starch and acid to give every bite a little more oomph.
Oatmeal people of the world, I support you. You can enjoy your bowl of snotty brown sludge if that’s what makes you happy. Who am I to judge? But for those who just can’t get on the oatmeal bandwagon, there is a hot breakfast cereal for you out there, just waiting for you to discover it in all its glory. It does not require the purchase of an $8 jar of agave nectar. It does not ask you to chop up handfuls of berries first thing in the morning when you’re bleary-eyed and undercaffeinated. And best of all, it’s even easier to make on the stovetop if you’ve decided to level up from the packaged stuff. It’s time for grits to get the widespread love they deserve.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.