Photo by Jessica CalkinsIn retrospect, I realize my formative years were like something out of a novel by Carson McCullers or maybe Harper Lee. Raised in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina, my two younger brothers and I were looked after during the day by an African-American lady named Onie (pronounced Oh-nee).
Though Onie did not believe in sparing the rod on three rambunctious boys—I can still feel the sting from the last whippin' she gave me—I loved her all the same. Whenever Onie came over, I knew we'd have something good to eat. The woman weighed nearly 300 pounds, and I believe she wanted everyone else to weigh 300 pounds. Considering my now-ample girth, the evolution of which began while I was still clinging to Onie's apron, I'm inclined to say she was successful in her ambitions.
Onie cooked for us the foods most Americans never enjoy. She taught me the love of chitlins (pig intestines), for instance. My parents claim I'm mistaken, but no one forgets the first time they smelled the rank odor of chitlins on the stove. She'd also make us something she called hoe-cakes by frying up patties of leftover grits. As she served the butter-blackened fritters, she'd ask me on the sly, "You know why they call them hoe-cakes, chile?"
"No. Why, Onie?" I'd respond.
"'Cuz hos got to eat, too!" she'd chuckle. She really enjoyed telling herself that one.
I don't think I figured out what the hell she was talking about until I was a teenager. And it wasn't until long after Onie passed away, probably from diabetes—which is to Southern bodies what Sherman was to Atlanta—that I discovered two facts about hoe-cakes: they are so-called because they were cooked in olden times on a hoe, and they are supposed to be made from corn meal, not grits.
Basically, Onie had made me fried grits. In the morning, she'd make a mess of 'em, and whatever we didn't eat, she'd leave in a covered pot until midday. Then she'd scoop out the glutinous mass with her hands, shape them into little hamburger-shaped patties, cut a hunk of butter onto a hot skillet, and cook them until they had a brown-black crust.
I still eat grits, of course; it's part of the legacy of being a son of the South, right along with collective guilt over Jim Crow. Not everyone in Dixie picks up on the latter—as one sees in the just-a-boiling controversy over Orange County Register columnist Steven Greenhut; there are just too many dumb rednecks.
Whenever I get a hankerin' for the Land Time Forgot, I'll grab a box of Albers Grits from Ralphs, make some for myself in the morning and finish off the rest Onie-style in the afternoon. Johnny Rebs in Orange serves grits as a breakfast side plain and with cheese. But Albers does me fine. The company has its roots in Portland, Oregon, but their grits taste as good as any grits you'll eat down South.
For the uninitiated, grits are ground hominy; that is, hulled corn kernels smashed into white granules. Preparing them is a breeze: boil three cups of water, add a dash of salt, stir in three-quarters cup of grits, cook for five minutes, and voila, you're left with three cups of grits to eat as you please. As grits are quite bland, you can sprinkle on bacon bits or Tobasco for flavor. For those with a sweet tooth, try honey or maple syrup.
I prefer them as Onie would make them for me, with runny eggs I'd let bleed into a serving of grits with butter. As with most corn products, Native Americans get the credit for showing the rest of us how to make grits in the first place. Whether they knew how to make hoe-cakes the Onie way, I have no idea. But you certainly can by just frying up the leftovers. As Onie might say, hos ain't the only ones that got to eat, chile.
Johnny Rebs, 2940 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 633-3369.
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