–By Michael Pierce
GRITS TO GLORY: HOW SOUTHERN COOKIN’ GOT SO GOOD by Joe Johnston. Pelican Publishing, April 2018.
I must confess two things here at the outset.
First, I have known Joe Johnston for several years.
Second, I am a true son of the south. My parents were both from Arkansas, and all my direct ancestors came to Virginia, down through the Carolinas, through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas, and finally to Missouri. I like to tell people that some of my ancestors didn’t fare so well when they first came to Missouri. There were six Pierce boys who were in the 23rd Arkansas Infantry, CSA with General Sterling Price when he came into Missouri in the fall of 1864. Miraculously, they all survived the war.
For me, GRITS TO GLORY, from beginning to end, brought back many fond memories. Mom’s, dad’s, and my grandparents’ cooking. I was raised on beans and cornbread, mom’s meatloaf, all of their cakes and pies, turnips and turnip greens, and Alabama White Sauce when we barbecued. I remembered my dad and my Uncle Wesley making peanut brittle every time they got together, and I can still taste its crunchy sweetness in my memories. They’re all gone now, but their memories live on in familiar tastes and smells, and in my own cooking.
GRITS TO GLORY is a fabulous history of how Southern Cookin’ came to be. Joe Johnston has given us, in excellent detail, of all the various cultural influences that get stirred into the pot in the South. When you throw in the influences of American Indians, French, English, Irish, Scots, and African slaves into a giant melting pot, something delicious is bound to come out.
Joe gives us a look into the post-Civil War South, where food was scarce and, quite often, folks had to make do. Think of what we call Chess Pie, which originated with Aunt Jule Anne, formerly a slave in Virginia. She used ingredients at hand to make what she called Jeff Davis Pie for the Warren family and their guests shortly after the war. A week later she created the same pie for a church convention and, since Jeff Davis tended to be a tad unpopular for lots of folks at the time, she called it Chess Pie, and a legendary Southern dessert was born.
Sometimes what has become a classic Southern dish was the result of a simple mistake. My wife recently cooked up some ham and beans. You can’t have ham and beans without cornbread, so I started gathering ingredient. Martha White Cornmeal Mix, with Hot Rize – check. One egg – check. Bacon grease – check. Milk – this is where it gets interesting. All we had was almond milk. Put the bacon grease in a skillet and heat it on the stove while the oven preheats. When the bacon grease begins to bubble, pour in the cornbread batter. I had too much bacon grease, and it flowed up and over the top of my batter. When I took it out of the oven twenty minutes later, the top of the cornbread was slightly crispy and it hadn’t risen to its normal height. I realized I had made what my great grandma always called fry bread. It was delicious.
This book is also filled with lots of simple, profound wisdom, which made me think of both of my grandpas. They were country philosophers.
GRITS TO GLORY is the kind of book where I hated to reach the end. All those memories. All that good cookin’. If you’re a Southerner, this book will make you smile. If you’re not, it will help you understand.