It had to happen eventually. Grits have now entered the discourse of American politics at the highest level.
I’m not talking about “grit” as in 1969 Western classic “True Grit”, which won John Wayne his only Oscar (and which was remade by the Coen Brothers in 2010, a version I still haven’t seen). “Grit”, as personified in both movies by lawman Rooster Cogburn, is the quality of being tough, determined, courageous, persistent. Hard core, you could say.
Finns, it would seem, know this quality well, since they have a word for it (sisu) that everyone who moves here encounters soon upon arrival. You can’t overestimate the importance of sisu for Finns. In the Finnish national psyche, the word sums up the essential character of Finns that has allowed them to survive, even thrive, in a harsh land. Being so fundamental to the country, sisu has naturally been evoked often enough in political life here, similar to the way the concept of “exceptionalism” is constantly bandied about in American politics.
|Grits in the morning. Photo: Sashafatcat|
But what I’m talking about now, “grits” (always plural), is a food. It’s porridge made from ground corn (maize, to the rest of the word) that is symbolic, in a trivial way, of my native Southern US. Growing up in the South, grits are a part of life.
When I was living in Athens, Georgia, working as a lab tech, I once met my boss for breakfast at a little downtown café that served a typical fare of eggs, bacon, and – as Southern tradition dictates – grits, whether you asked for them or not. My boss, a botany professor and native of California, remarked about my sprinkling sugar on the heap of grits on my plate. I joked that I eat grits “like a Yankee”, meaning that I adulterate them with something other than margarine or red-eye gravy. I went on to explain that this is the only way I can eat grits. My boss responded flatly, “I don’t even try.”
Actually, I don’t mind grits at all, and in fact I’m sure they’re healthy food. It’s not that grits are bad; it’s just that they’re a bit bland by themselves. Hence, my uncivilized abuse of this Southern delicacy.
All of sudden, grits were in the news last week. Republican candidates are currently vying for the hearts and minds of Southern voters, and they are doing this by showing how they are one with local folk using the time-honored tactic of eating what the local folk eat.
I doubt Finish politicians face the same kind of gastronomic scrutiny and pressure to eat, in front of the cameras, such regional dishes as black sausage in Tampere or kalakukko (“fish rooster”) in Kuopio. US candidates aren’t so lucky. They routinely have to eat the most ridiculous food on offer at any number of county fairs across the land, including I’m sure the now-famous “fried butter on a stick”, first cooked up at the State Fair of Texas. Candidates who are seen turning down such real-people food, risk being labeled elitists.
Critics once ripped into Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry when – campaigning in the birthplace of the venerated Philly Cheese Steak sandwich – he had the gall to order his with Swiss cheese, instead of the de rigueur Cheese Whiz. It showed, so claimed the purists, that Kerry didn’t have the common touch.
To prove his own bona fides, everyman George Bush, Sr., used to make a big deal about his fondness for the Southern treat of pork rinds (crunchy fried pig skin, which actually isn’t that bad).
With the primaries looming in Alabama and Mississippi today, grits are now on the menu – again whether you want them or not. And you’d better want them. Newt Gingrich, who is hoping his Dixie roots will win over voters and make his campaign slightly less embarrassing, summed it up thusly, according to the Wall Street Journal Blogs: “If you don’t understand grits, there’s a pretty high likelihood you don’t understand the rest of the South either.”
I think that’s a joke, whether he meant it that way or not. But über-Yankee Mitt Romney, desperately trying to come across as down-home as possible, is taking no chances. Last week he bravely admitted that he has now tried for the very first time the South’s answer to oatmeal. With cheese, as it turns out.
Not to be outdone, Newt Gingrich trumpeted his grits credentials by reminding Alabama voters, "I just want you to know that as a Georgian, I understand grits. I even understand cheese grits.”
Good to know. May the biggest grits eater win!