Southern delegates go ga-ga for grits

Every Wednesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) leaves his prayer breakfast a little bit disappointed.
No, not in God — things are OK with the Big Guy — but in the meal itself. Cooks here in Washington just don’t make grits like they do down in Alabama.

Every Wednesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) leaves his prayer breakfast a little bit disappointed.

No, not in God — things are OK with the Big Guy — but in the meal itself. Cooks here in Washington just don’t make grits like they do down in Alabama.

“There’s not always enough salt,” Sessions says. “That’s why Yankees think grits are no good. They don’t make them the same here.”

In its basic form, the South’s favorite breakfast staple is nothing more than ground-up corn kernels. However, grits reach soaring levels of taste-bud bliss when prepared with salt, butter, cheese or meat.

With a smooth consistency more like Cream of Wheat than oatmeal, the porridge is so popular with Southerners that it’s served for breakfast alongside scrambled eggs in congressional cafeterias on Capitol Hill.

Sessions says Senate cafeteria grits don’t compare to the “superb” cheese-and-sausage grits that he loves devouring back home. But Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) enjoys the grits in the House Members’ Dining Room — as long as there is a lot of butter involved.

Grits gained notoriety last month when the Center for Science in the Public Interest asserted that a House-passed food-uniformity bill could preempt an existing Alabama law regulating grits’ nutritional content. That could cause grits’ vitamin quantity — and perhaps its taste — to change.

However, the National Uniformity for Food Coalition, a group of agricultural and grocers associations and retail food stores, ran a counteranalysis and found Alabama’s grits law to be safe.

Plenty of grits-loving Southern congressmen hope the food coalition is right. Grits are too precious to be messed with.

Although he usually eats a heart-healthy bowl of Cheerios with fat-free milk for breakfast, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) has ordered grits in the Dirksen cafeteria, and he sometimes orders them in restaurants on the weekend. Most recently, he ate grits with poached eggs and bacon in Louisville, Ky., while he was in town for the Kentucky Derby.

Cochran says grits are to Southerners what potato breakfast side dishes are to folks from Northern states.

“Grits are a common part of the diet in the South,” he says. “There are people who didn’t have the money to eat fancier foods. Grits are inexpensive to buy, and, instead of potatoes, grits became the starch to complement sausage and eggs, or bacon and eggs and biscuits.”

The Southern identity is so tied up in grits that Sessions says his wife, Mary, even has a T-shirt that says “GRITS” in big letters. But for Mary Blackshear Sessions, grits has an alternate meaning, as an acronym for “girls raised in the South,” taken from the name of a popular Southern-belle-themed book series.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) likes his grits with a little salt, pepper and butter, says spokesman Lanier Avant, who emphasizes there’s nothing worse than soupy grits. Thompson has such a bad hankering for quality servings of grits that he gets bags of the uncooked corn bits sent to him from Mississippi. Home-cooked grits are almost as good as the ones he gobbles down at Bully’s restaurant in Jackson, Miss.

“It’s almost blasphemous to be from the South and not eat grits,” Avant says. “Part of the difficulty in coming to Washington is that nobody serves them. Even if you can get them, it’s not the same.”

Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) agrees. He says the way grits are prepared in Washington is “for sure a violation of good Southern taste” if not “a violation of the honor code of the South.”

Berry likes his with melted butter — not margarine — alongside two fried eggs sunny side up and the homemade sausage that’s only available in Arkansas’s 1st Congressional District.

Although he settles for the House cafeteria grits when he’s in Washington, Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) prefers his grits bayou-style, with shrimp, especially at Two Sisters restaurant in Jackson, Miss.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) is a fan of the simple salt-pepper-butter grits combination, says spokeswoman Katie Boyd. In Shelby’s opinion, the Waysider diner in Tuscaloosa, Ala., serves them best.

When they can’t get quality grits in Washington, lawmakers aren’t above cooking them themselves. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) tries to prepare grits at least once or twice per week, preferring to stir them into over-medium fried eggs and adding and a few drops of Tabasco or pepper sauce if he’s feeling particularly saucy.

“I’ve eaten grits my whole life, and I continue to eat them now,” Alexander says.

This Southern gentleman admits to knowing his way around a kitchen, and he has even taken grits to the next level by turning them into Southern-tinged dessert item. Alexander knows a recipe for “ice cream grits” in which he must cook the grains in whipped cream with sugar and cinnamon instead of just boiling them in water.

There are always exceptions to Southern lawmakers’ affinity for grits. Despite being born in Waco, Texas, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) doesn’t like grits, neither here nor down south.

“She loves oatmeal,” says Johnson spokeswoman Paloma Zuleta.