Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Youse Wants Grits With That?" Why the Church is Like a Bowl of Hominy.

The first time a waitress in the American South asked me if I wanted grits with my breakfast order, I politely declined. I had heard the term before, generally in movies and in the context of life in America’s urban ghettoes. They fell into the vague category of “soul food”, and thus in my mind they belonged on the same plate as other austerity foods like chicken wings and potato skins.

I first tasted grits for myself when my wife and I were guests in a Virginian home and could not politely refuse. My wife hated them, but I was curiously drawn to both the culinary possibilities and the sense of experiencing the underside of the American dream that grits historically represent.

Hominy grits are the large white maize husks that are left on your plate after corn-on-the-cob, dried and coarsely ground. You mix them with one part to 3-4 parts water and/or milk, and boil them for several minutes until you have a semolina-like paste studded with tiny fibrous particles of husk. Sounds disgusting but actually it isn’t. You just need an open mind in order to get started.

Early on in American history, the east coast Native American tribes saved the lives of the European settlers (a bad move from their point of view, given the later turn of events) by teaching them how to grow maize. And as slavery took hold of the southern colonies, the rejected husks became the staple diet of millions of African Americans. It undoubtedly saved many of their lives, just as many concentration camp victims owed their survival to being fed on potato peelings; sometimes oppressors do not realise they are throwing their victims the most nutritious part of the crop.

Nowadays, grits are a regular part of the menu in pretty well every working-persons’ diner in America. Up in the industrial north people tend to eat them sweet, with maple or blueberry syrup. Down south more people eat them salty, sometimes with cheese. North and south, most people today swamp them with butter. When cold, they set like the closely related polenta (made from the yellow kernels) and can be sliced, and griddled or even shallow-fried. The internet predictably boasts a number of grits-focused websites to which the surprisingly numerous people who have a real fetish submit all kinds of unusual recipes.

This last fact gives the key to what grits are all about: they are simply a nutritious but flavourless stodge which takes on the flavour of whatever you stir in. In other words, cheese grits taste of nothing but cheese; maple syrup grits taste of nothing but maple syrup; you could easily come up with an amusing and original recipe of your own (like, say, curried prawn and lemongrass grits) which would taste of nothing but… er… curried prawns and lemongrass.

This makes grits a surprisingly apt picture of post-modern Christianity. In these strange times, the Church as a worldwide movement is rapidly becoming a doctrine-free, morally-neutral, spiritually flavourless base into which people can stir whatever seasoning or sweetening ingredients they like: church with spiritual gifts; church with social justice; church with ritual; church with sacraments; church with alpha . . . the list is endless. In each case, as with grits, we can all too easily forget that the nutrition is more important than the added flavouring.

The Church is the body of Christ. It is always nutritious, because whatever mistakes its members make, Christ is always present. Even the most over-flavoured churches are always studded with nourishing fibre in the form of God’s Word, God’s Spirit, and the lives of those faithful servants for whom Christ is at the centre of their lives. May we never let the added flavouring obscure the presence and voice of Christ in the diverse churches, communities and fellowships that meet in his Name.

1 comment:

  1. Jill Fox from Texas has put me to rights on the social standing of grits. She says:

    Grits aren't just working class, ethnic comfort food any more! They're actually appearing on the menus of some of the more chic (and expensive) restaurants. And, since they are low fat and low calorie, they are also included in many diet plans! But I loved your article and appreciate the attention you're bringing to this southern staple....Peace and love!

    Jill, thanks for your interest and I'm glad you enjoyed the article.