Friday, April 17, 2009

Get Yer Grits On

I don't consider myself the jealous type. When I do feel pangs of envy, it usually revolves around photographs of food I would consider giving my right arm for in order to eat (which would really not set me back all that much considering I'm a lefty). That seems like a reasonable reaction though for any food lover. But then there are all the clothes in the J.Crew and Anthroplogie catalogs that I lust after. And the fantastic boots I saw this boho chic walking down State Street in. Who am I kidding? I've just incriminated myself. I knew I should've been a lawyer. . . . 

I guess it should come as no big surprise then that I was steeped in jealousy upon hearing the news my friend E.G. was on his way to Saint George, SC for the World Grit Festival — for work. Yes, that's right. He is getting paid to attend a whole weekend dedicated to grits. I thought his job with Quaker Oats was pretty cool anyway, but it's officially been elevated to a whole new stratosphere.

Although I try to be a good Southerner, I must admit that I was not familiar with this prestigious affair. I mean it's not just a regional event but a world event!  [Well done, Saint George!] So I immediately went about investigating. Apparently, in 1985, Bill Hunter, store manager of the town's Piggly Wiggly Supermarket, discovered some pleasantly shocking news. The quaint town of Saint George (population 2000) ate more grits per capita than anywhere else in the United States--and even the whole world! The following year, the World Grits Festival was born, and today it draws crowds of 45,000 people. Sadly I am not one of them this year. 

If, like me, you enjoy having some good trivia handy for cocktail parties, you may be interested in knowing that Americans eat a whopping 100 million pounds of grits each year. I'd wager a bet it's not all consumed south of the Mason-Dixon line. I'm sure the many Southerners sprinkled around the nation are happily buying up all the Quaker instant grits they can get their hands on. I recall the first time I tried to buy grits at my local grocery store in Santa Barbara. I had to repeat my request twice to the poor cashier who looked at me like I was asking for plutonium, but the manager, upon overhearing my plight, smiled and told me my beloved could be found on aisle 5 amongst the hot cereal. I must have stood in front of the ocean of oatmeal (seriously, how many flavors of oatmeal do we need?) for 10 minutes before the sky parted, the angels started singing and the rays of light beamed down upon the single box of instant grits. Grateful, grateful, that's what I was (even though the box was past its expiration date). And for the record: Cream of Wheat is not a substitute for grits.

I believe anything as popular as grits deserves its own festival. So each April the good folks of Saint George (about an hour west of Charleston) host the annual World Grits Festival, probably drawing both hardcore grits lovers and the curious. Aside from the obligatory grits-eating contest, attractions include grits grinding, the corn shelling competition and the crowning of "Miss Grits." There is also lots and lots of food involving grits to be had. But I was not prepared for the Great Grits Roll. 

In a nut shell, an inflatable swimming pool is filled with cooked grits and contestants have 10 seconds to dive in and coat themselves with as much grits as possible. Contestants wear big hats and loose pants with lots of pockets because the person with the most pounds of grits on their body wins the first prize (they weigh you before and after to determine this). Shut your eyes and picture solo mud wrestling but in grits--and with more clothes on. Seriously, I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried! 

(photos copyright of World Grit Festival)

I was very upfront with E. G. about my job envy. But then he dropped the hammer: As the Quaker Oats representative, he gets to serve as the Master of Ceremonies for the Roll and also . . . drum roll please . . . must take the inaugural roll! Now I covet his job no more, but do want to see the photos. And while I will forever remain a staunch grits lover, I now know I want to be wrapped in cashmere not dipped in grits when I die. 

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