The Healing Power of Cheese Grits

The food at my family's annual Appalachian reunion always brings us together, no matter how much we disagree. With Covid-19 keeping us apart this year, I'm sharing the recipe for my Mamaw's cheese grits—a common dish for common ground.
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I shouldn’t be half-quarantined in scorching Brooklyn, masks and Lysol by my front door. I’m meant to be consulting a greasy recipe card, packing spices into Ziploc bags and winging my way to Pineville in the leafy Eastern Kentucky mountains—the land of Daniel Boone, kudzu, and coal. I'm supposed to be coaxing water to boil in a quaint Depression-era log cabin, inhaling the perfume of a thousand wood fires, and wriggling my feet on the rag rug as I stir a cylinder of five-minute grits. I should be whipping eggs and milk with a rental fork and sprinkling shredded cheddar from the Pic Pac grocery. I'm meant to be piloting a fragrant cargo of steaming, garlicky goodness to the mossy picnic shelter at the Pine Mountain State Park. There, hugs and laughter of nearly 80 relatives would greet me at the Locke Family Reunion I’ve attended since I wore pigtails.

These things won’t happen this year. A postcard confirmed weeks ago that the reunion, held since 1950, was Covid-cancelled.

Too bad. I have never been so hungry, both for the steely Southern love that they serve in those mountains and for my Mamaw’s cheese grits. Her grits are delicious—the stuff Brooklyn dreams are made of. They're also magical. In my decades of eating and making them, I've seen them connect friends and strangers alike, bringing together people of different backgrounds and polar ideologies.

They do it every year at our reunion, where the descendants of six siblings, children of coal miners from the Appalachian holler of Kettle Island, trek in from all over the country for loads of food and family time. I come in from New York, where I work as a lawyer. Other relatives head in mostly from the south, where they are teachers, contractors, and health care workers. My brother Will drives an 18-wheeler.

My home, the Appalachian mountains

My home, the Appalachian mountains

We are bound by common heritage, but otherwise, we don’t agree on much. The directional signs read Lock(e) Reunion—two spellings. Here, debate is as popular as the pulled pork, particularly when national issues come up.

Last year, we wrangled with immigration, health care and gun control. No doubt we’d chew on civil rights and defunding the police if Covid-19 hadn’t sidelined our homecoming. We’d compare the protests streaming below my Brooklyn windows to those blanketing my brother’s Louisville neighborhood. We’d lament the viral enemy gripping our nation and malaise bruising our hearts.

Our politics and circumstances differ, but we don’t cancel or shame. I credit that to spectacular food, like Mamaw's grits. When that grits lid lifts off, rancor melts into cheesy, fatty family harmony. Good food does that, and I've seen these grits wield their culinary power around the world.

For years, when the community homeless shelter rotated to our Brooklyn church, our sons served grits. Dining with the 12 men, we discussed our grandmothers using the common language of food—a kinship between New York’s working poor and my old Kentucky home.

The original six siblings who started our family reunion 

The original six siblings who started our family reunion 

My husband, an architect, once served the grits at a pitch to real estate brokers and got three jobs that day. When my son, Winn, fled with the recipe to quarantine in Maine with his girlfriend, he charmed her Northeastern family with our Appalachian masterpiece.

When Clavia, the woman who helped raise my sons, makes her annual jaunt back home to Trinidad for Carinval, she convinces me to stash frozen trays of my family's cheesy goodness in her luggage. I Sharpie greetings on the foil and imagine her neighbors dancing to Soca music while gobbling grits on a steamy West Indian evening. Mamaw would have loved that.

Much has changed in the kitchen since Mamaw, who passed away in 1993, was stirring her pot. The Quaker is still on the grits tub, but Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are leaving the pantry. Americans are engaged in a dialogue about race and equality not seen since Mamaw packed pimento cheese for the journey to Pineville in the 1960s. At the reunion today, biracial cousins pick mountain laurel where my brother and I used to roam. Some hosted an Indian wedding this summer. My son Culton introduced a lemony kale salad with hemp seeds to the buffet last year.

And the grits endure.

Now, I’m sharing the family recipe. America could use a little of our Lock(e) reunion magic this summer—a balm to heal our aching hearts. A common dish for common ground.

The dish is vegetarian and can be kosher, halal, gluten-free, organic, or vegan. It can go low fat, if you must. Ingredients are cheap and available. Cook it or tweet it. Eat it on your block, country road or cul-de-sac. It’ll be making it in my own Brooklyn kitchen, practicing for next year.

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Mamaw's Kentucky Cheese Grits

1 1/4 cups quick-cooking grits

1 stick butter

12 oz. package (about 3 cups) grated sharp cheddar cheese

3 eggs, slightly beaten

1/3 cup milk

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

5 to 7 strong dashes of Tabasco sauce

Cook grits in salted water according to package directions. Remove from heat. Add butter and cheese and stir until smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk eggs and milk. Whisk in the remaining spices. Add egg mixture to the grits. Stir until melted and smooth. Add more spices as desired. I add more garlic and hot sauce. Pour into casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees for at least 1 hour or more, until it stops jiggling. Let grits rest for 10-15 minutes before serving or they will be runny. Easily doubled (or tripled, or more). Freezes well.