A few months ago while visiting tables in the restaurant, I met a lovely couple from Australia who were visiting the United States. Their sightseeing brought them to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth and they stopped in for a "Southern lunch."
Our conversation turned to the difference in foods here and in Australia. A few years back I had written an article using a recipe that originally called for Vegemite. I scoured Savannah for Vegemite to no avail. Since Vegemite is king in Australia, I inquired into its taste and if we perhaps had something similar by another name. They couldn't think of anything, but said they would send me some when they got home.
I had forgotten the conversation until a package arrived last week from Australia. Inside was a lovely letter from Taylor and Georgia, a tube of Vegemite (which is made by Kraft) and a link to a website with recipes for using Vegemite.
Vegemite, a dark paste-like substance is made from brewer's yeast extract. Its flavor is very salty and a bit yeasty. Australians enjoy it as a spread on toast or crackers. The flavor is not bad, but it isn't something I could imagine eating every day. I do think it has great potential for seasoning other foods and I plan on using several of the recipes from the website they sent me. (www.vegemite.com.au)
At the end of the letter, Georgia asked for something in return - "Whilst in the United States, we really took a liking to a couple of things that we don't usually get in Australia. We were wondering if you might be able to give us a recipe for them: 1. Sausage Gravy (Georgia's personal favorite); 2. Grits (We can't get grits in Australia. Can you make this from scratch?); and 3. Fried Chicken"
Requests 1 & 3 are easy and a post, as they call it, will be sent soon with recipes for both of these items. The grits present a bit of a problem. Can you make them from scratch? I'm sure you can - but how? And thus began my chase of the white rabbit down into the hole. Roughly three hours later, I emerged with a bounty of info - but I shall spare you and just share a bit. But if you every want to talk grits - come see me.
Basic instructions: To make grits, you first have to make hominy. Hominy is made from corn (preferably dent corn) that has been dried on the cob, then soaked to separate the hulls from the kernel. The kernels are then ground in some sort of a mill. The ground kernels are then sieved through a fine strainer. The kernels that remain in the strainer are grits. The finer grind that falls through the strainer is corn meal. Not hard, so it seems, except the soaking process. Some say it takes two to three days to remove the hulls. While my explanation sounds easy, the process takes three to four days. The kicker is getting those pesky hulls to separate from the kernels.
Native Americans soaked their dried corn in a lye solution made from the ashes of their fire ash. Europeans settlers decided to eliminate this step - much to their detriment. In the early 1900s an outbreak of Pellagra, in southern states, where corn was the most predominant food crop, affected more than 100,000 people.
Pellagra caused the death of 1,306 South Carolinians during the first three months of 1915. Eventually it was determined that pellagra is the result of a lack of vitamins, primarily niacin. Soaking corn in an alkaline solution (such as lye) has now been shown to make niacin readily available.
In what I call an ironic twist - the first recommended treatment for Pellagra was a balanced diet or a small amount of brewer's yeast. Too bad they didn't have a tube of Vegemite! Today, our grits aren't soaked in lye, but our flour and many common products are "fortified" with vitamins - niacin being one of them, so no fear of an outbreak of pellagra if you eat too many grits.
After all this, I'm going to send my Australian friends a couple of bags of grits - one bag of stone ground and one back of quick grits. I may tell them how to make grits from scratch, but I will also give them some links for ordering them online.
I'm not sure if they had the pleasure of shrimp and grits whilst here in the South so I'll be sure to send them one. While there are so many different ways of doing shrimp and grits, I always go to this one when I want the taste without all the fuss.
Teri Bell is co-owner of Miss Sophie's Marketplace at the Mighty Eighth in Pooler. Go to sophiesmarketplace.com.
Shrimp & Grits
1 pound unpeeled, medium shrimp
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup quick-cooking grits
Â½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
Â¼ cup half & half
Â½ cup Vidalia onion, diced
Â¼ cup celery, diced
Â¾ cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Â¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon red pepper
Â½ teaspoon parsley
Â¼ teaspoon Old Bay
Peel and de-vein shrimp, combine with lemon juice and refrigerate. Cook grits according to package directions. When done, add half & half to grits and simmer until shrimp is ready. Combine onion, celery and shrimp in a non-stick skillet and sautÃ© until shrimp turns pink. Stir in flour. Add chicken broth, salt, pepper, parsley and old Bay. Cook stirring constantly until sauce thickens. Serve over grits. Yields 2 servings.