I became aware of my mom’s Southern roots quite young, while sitting at the breakfast table. I learned to eat fried eggs, over easy, alongside a big helping of grits. I even learned to mix the eggs and grits together, apply a generous slab of butter, then top off the mixture with salt and pepper. I think Mom made grits not only because she liked them but they reminded her of Florida and family. I don’t remember Dad being a big fan of grits, but it became a special occasion for Mom and me when we had grits, kinda like our own little secret grits fan club.
Sunday dinner was almost always Southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans followed with cherry pie. I still haven’t tasted fried chicken that is as good as Mom’s. She fried it in a big black skillet, and used lard to cook with. The chicken was almost covered by the crackling, popping grease and the skin was golden when the pieces came out of the pan. I had a double treat because Dad didn’t eat the skin, so I got his too. All that grease sure doesn’t do the heart any favors, but it sure tastes good! Fried chicken is still a favorite of mine. They need to change the name of Pizza Ranch to Chicken Ranch. That is as close to my mom’s chicken as I have had.
I knew grits were a staple in the South, having spent time with relatives in Florida. They could be and would be served with any meal by Mom’s family. I didn’t realize what a part of life they were in the South in general until we traveled to Florida in 1969, going east to Ohio then turning south through Kentucky. Having breakfast in cafes from then on always meant a bowl of grits automatically came with your order of food, some places even served grits with evening meals. I looked forward to the grits and had fun the whole time trying to convince Kristy, our two-year old, to try them. I don’t remember if she ever acquired a taste for them.
Many years later, two Florida cousins came to visit their South Dakota kin, and I was anxious to show them our state. One morning while in the Hills, we were having breakfast at a Perkins restaurant. I usually had oatmeal for breakfast, and suggested the cousins have oatmeal also. You would have thought I was trying to poison them. “ I can’t stand oatmeal”!, cousin Janice said. “Why not”? I asked. “I don’t like the feel of it in my mouth”, she said. “What? You can eat grits that have the consistency of wet sand, but you can’t eat oatmeal”? She didn’t know how to explain it, just that oatmeal made her gag. I told her to try putting some oatmeal on a plate with a couple of over-easy fried eggs, mix them together, add butter, salt and pepper, then maybe she would like it. She didn’t see the humor in that suggestion.
Today, having supper at a Cracker Barrel automatically means having grits, usually a double order and extra butter. I relish the chance to refresh my “taste” memories, which leads to the memories of when my mom shared her Southern upbringing with me. I remember her teaching me “Southern” manners and making sure I called my aunts and uncles ”Ma’am” and “Sir” when we visited Florida. I remember the syrupy accent Mom’s brothers and sisters had, and how Mom would revert to that accent when we were down South. I am proud of that heritage, and can’t think of it without remembering Mom’s grits and eggs.
Gary Heintz owns an insurance agency in Pierre and writes a column for the Capital Journal. He is also co-producer of the annual Dakota Western Heritage Festival, being held September 13 -15, 2019.