Speaking off the toque: Tom Williams, chef and owner of Fox Diner [2815 South Shepherd Drive, (713)523-5369] and Cafe Zorro [905 Taft, (713)528-9691].
Q. At Fox Diner, you emphasize low-country cooking, from the Atlantic coastal regions of the Carolinas, the home of Southern cuisine. In your opinion, what constitutes that Southern classic, true grits?
A. Southern food in general, but grits in particular, has gotten a bad rap in America. It is as if we are ashamed of our own food. Grits were always particular to the South because corn was grown in the South. In the same way that Northerners always put store-bought bread and potatoes on their tables, Southerners always have had biscuits, quick breads and grits.
Grits are not what you buy in a little blue cylinder; that is ground corn with no germ or hull or flavor, and is designed to have a shelf life measured in the equivalent of radioactive material. Grits, as I grew up eating them, are fresh whole-kernel corn or hominy corn with fresh germ and meal, separated, sifted, cleaned and mixed by hand so that the fresh corn flavor of the corn germ is preserved. There remains in this mix so much corn oil that the grits must be stored in the refrigerator or freezer so that they do not spoil. This is very unlike the lye-soaked dry product that you get in most stores. After all, unless you were very hungry, why would you eat that?
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Many people misunderstand the simple magic of grits altogether. Or they tell me that they had a terrible experience with them, commonly referred to as "the Denny's experience." Grits should have a texture not unlike rice pudding and can be as bland or as flavorful as the cook's hand. We make ours with half milk and half vegetable stock and finish them off with cheddar cheese. Any way that you make grits, however, they serve as a wonderful foil for rich sauces or plain items, and serve the kitchen more subtly than simply using potatoes or rice as a side.