Illustration for article titled Kiss my instant grits: Confessions of a shamed Southerner
Photo: Ken Wheaton

When the microwaved water hit the bowl, it was the smell that struck me first. Quaker Instant Grits Country Bacon Flavor. The scent is not of bacon but of wet “bacon” bits. Because that’s what it is. Says so right on the box: “Artificially flavored with imitation bacon bits.”

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But what it really smelled like was memories, like childhood. As a kid growing up in Louisiana, instant grits was one of my favorite breakfasts. I loved instant grits.

And then I found out I was raised wrong.

This was according to an authoritative source on Southern upbringing, the 1992 film My Cousin Vinny. You know the scene. It’s the “yutes” scene. During this scene, Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) has Sam Tipton (Maury Chaykin) on the stand and, in an attempt to trip Sam up, asks him if he was cooking regular or instant grits. Sam responds with indignation: “No self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits. I take pride in my grits.”

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It’s an excellent—and hilarious—bit of movie lawyering. But what stood out to me was the claim that no self-respecting Southerner used instant grits. Up until that point, I’d always considered myself a self-respecting Southerner! I don’t think I was even aware that there was any kind of grit other than instant. Hell, I don’t think I knew what a grit was. Reader, I was 19 years old when I came to this realization.

But the benefit of being 19 is you move on pretty quickly. I didn’t really think about grits—instant or otherwise. I left the South and moved around the country, sometimes eating instant grits, sometimes restaurant grits, and finally settling on “quick grits” for home use (they’re like instant, but slower) mostly because instant was hard to come by. Until years later when social media came around and “real” Southerners started shaming anyone who even so much as looked at an instant grit.

But you know what? Mama served me Quaker Instant Grits. And Mawmaw served me Quaker Instant Grits. And I’ll be got-damned (as we say) if you’re gonna cast aspersions on Mawmaw, may she rest in peace.

There’s probably some smart-ass Southerner reading this right now thinking, “Your Mawmaw must not have loved you all that much if she was serving you instant grits.” Well, you know what else? Both Mama and Mawmaw were working women. They had to get kids out the door for school and themselves to work, so they didn’t have 20 to 30 minutes to fuss over real grits in the morning. America’s best food scientists had come up with a host of shelf-stable products to make their lives easier and damned if they weren’t going to do just that.

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I clearly get worked up over these imaginary arguments. And after recently getting very angry at a host of imaginary people, I decided I was going to get myself some instant grits. That’d show them. Who’s them? Who knows? Who cares? What was important was that I was going to eat some instant grits. All of the instant grits, especially the flavored ones.

For the uninitiated, grits are a porridge-type food made up of ground corn. They’re borderline flavorless, much like rice or pasta. There is a flavor, but you have to think really hard to notice it. Grits are a delivery vehicle for salt. Or butter. Or cheese. Or “shrimp and.” (I’ve heard tell of people who make grits sweet, but if you want to entertain yourself with crazy people go watch Tiger King on Netflix.)

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Truth be told, it had been a long time since I’d eaten instant grits. And let me tell you the first thing I noticed about instant grits: They’re gritty. With a name like grits, you expect them to be gritty. But I’ve learned from eating proper grits that they can be downright creamy. The first time I had proper grits, my initial reaction was, “What’s wrong with them? Where’s the grit?”

I’ll tell you where the grit is. All the grit in the world, it turns out, is in instant grits. Instant grits are grittier than a dirty beach. Instant grits are grittier than a crime novel set on the mean streets of New York. Instant grits are grittier than the Philadelphia Flyers’ mascot.

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For my little jog down memory lane, I had to do some online shopping. If I look hard enough in Colorado, where I live now, I might be able to find a box of Original, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted the Quaker Instant Grits variety pack, which contains Original, Butter, Cheddar Cheese, and Country Bacon flavors. Once I got my hands on it, I decided I’d rank the flavors. Here is that ranking:

Country Bacon

Still my favorite. Does it taste like bacon, country or otherwise? No. It barely tastes like bacon bits. But the salt, artificial smoke, and slightly chewy texture of the bacon bits complements the grit of the grits.

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Butter

The butter flavor is barely a flavor at all. I almost question the need for its existence. Just add your own butter! How hard is that? Anyway, if you close your eyes and try really hard, you can detect a far-off taste of artificially buttered movie popcorn.

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Cheddar

The cheddar flavor used to be number two for me. Whereas butter flavor is almost nonexistent, the flavor of this one smacks you in your face. In fact, it assaults the eyeballs with its lurid hue. Its flavor and color are somewhere on the spectrum between Doritos and a packet of uncut cheese powder from the box of Kraft Mac & Cheese. That’s not to say it’s bad. If that’s your jam, you’ll love it. But I grew out of that flavor profile around the time I registered to vote and realized that life was a pointless slog.

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Original

No flavor. No offense. If you’re recovering from food poisoning, this might be a good option for tasteless calories. Otherwise, drop half a stick of butter in it or some cheese.

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While “researching” this piece, I also bought a box of Cheese Lovers Variety Pack because a) I’d never heard of it and b) cheese. Surprisingly, the American Cheese flavor was the best of the box, followed by Three Cheese (which lists actual cheeses in the ingredients: Parmesan, Romano, and cheddar). I would put American Cheese above Bacon and Three Cheese right below it. Then I’d take original Cheddar out back, give it a good shaking, and say, “Why can’t you be more like your siblings?!?”

Real grits, with the telltale melty gloop strand that you don’t see in instant
Real grits, with the telltale melty gloop strand that you don’t see in instant
Photo: Ken Wheaton
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I thought this experiment would rekindle my love for instant grits, that I might do some blind taste-testing between real grits and instant grits and discover that people can’t even tell the difference. To that end, I bought a sack of real grits and, for the first time in my life, cooked some up. To be fair to instant grits, I didn’t get fancy. I used water and followed the cooking instructions on the packaging. I then tried the grits plain, with salt, with butter, and with real cheese. It will surprise no one at all that real grits blew instant grits completely out of the water. Putting aside flavor, eating grits is largely about mouthfeel. Real grits done right are silky. And you can literally see the difference before it gets anywhere near your mouth. When you factor in flavor, it quickly becomes clear that the artificial flavors taste nothing like the real thing.

That said, don’t turn your nose up at instant grits. They’re a quick way to deliver a fair amount of calories (which only last month would have sounded like something a doomsday prepper would say). Real grits are better and overall cheaper, but if you don’t have 20 to 30 minutes or if the thought of washing a grit pot (think rice, but worse) might be the thing that sends you completely over the edge, you could do worse than instant grits. Heat up some water in a kettle or in the microwave, pour it over, and voila.

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As much as I loved the variety pack growing up, I’d say skip it—unless you are literally stocking a doomsday shelter and are thinking of flavor in a dairyless world. Otherwise go with boxes of the original and dump in butter or cheese for a satisfying, warm bowl of gritty sustenance.

Ken Wheaton is the author of The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival, Bacon & Egg Man, and Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears. Born and raised in Louisiana, he now lives in Colorado.

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