A Side of Grits

You're not a real Southern girl unless you season your iron skillet. A new one, unblackened by layers of natural oils, just doesn't give food the right flavor. It takes years to season a fresh skillet; that's why daughters squabble over who's got rights to Mama's pan. But when starting from scratch is unavoidable, there's a trick every Southern woman should know: Just coat the skillet in lard or bacon grease and bake it in the oven.

"You know, that is really true," says Alabama-raised Deborah Ford, who wrote The Grits Guide to Life (Grits being an acronym for Girls Raised in the South) with her college friend Edie Hand. "An iron skillet in a Southern girl's home is one of the most prized possessions." Ford offers up tidbits on everything from cooking to flirting to table manners in her manual. And while it seems that only a real Southern girl would want a seasoned skillet, Ford says the book's not just for them.

"I guess my audience is Southern women," she says, "but it's also for women who have friends that are Southern, or something fun to give a Northerner. It's all about laughing at ourselves."

The idea for the book grew out of Ford's company, Grits Inc., a multimillion-dollar clothing business. The author made her fortune selling shirts with slogans like "Seasoned Grits: Grandmothers Raised in the South," "Southern Girls Have Great Minds: Mind Your Mama, Mind Your Business" and "Southern Girls Don't Drink -- We Sip…A Lot!"

Ford may be a career woman, but she's got an old-school view on the roles of the sexes. "I think being a feminist and being feminine are two different things," she says. "I'm not a feminist. I love being a woman, and I like for a man to be a gentleman…If you're a woman, you should act like a woman and dress like a lady."

Still, Grits winks at women who don't exactly conform to tradition. Take Grits Pearl of Wisdom No. 11: "For Grits girls, cooking is strictly optional. That's what restaurants are for, honey!" Or No. 21: "Some folks will tell you that if you've had any fun at all before the wedding night, a white dress is not permissible. Excuse me -- Grits know that tomorrow is another day! We can wear whatever color we choose. Isn't that right, Scarlett?"

Ford tries to acknowledge the ugly parts of Southern history, discussing the abuses that "half of our sisters" endured long past the days of slavery. She declares Rosa Parks a Grits: "It was the upbringing that these Grits shared that helped them persevere… Just ask Rosa Parks, a paragon of dignity and manners who had the good sense to realize, at the right moment, that enough was enough." The author's attempt at inclusiveness is commendable, but one wonders whether Parks would have wanted herself lumped in with, say, Scarlett O'Hara.

The truth is, Ford's at her best when giving instructions on how to make a proper mint julep, use a finger bowl or eat watermelon in a sundress. In a wise move, she'll be sticking with lighter fare in her next offering, a Grits guide to entertaining, in which she'll teach hostesses how to throw over-the-top parties. As every good Southern girl knows, writes Ford, "understatement is for Yankees."

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Cathy Matusow
Contact: Cathy Matusow