You know it’s spring in south and central Georgia when the grits trees are in bloom.
True grits, as the late Atlanta humorist Lewis Grizzard would attest, are not INSTANT: “The idiot who invented instant grits also thought of frozen fried chicken, and they ought to lock him up before he tries to freeze-dry collards.”
After a hearty breakfast of grits and red eye gravy, true Southerners drive south on I-75 through Macon into what was once Stuckeys and pecan praline country toward Tifton where, years ago, Captain Tift once built a saw mill in support of his family’s shipping business.
The captain was also into turpentine, tobacco, pecans, sweet potatoes and grits. Northern historians, thinking grits were made in factories, overlooked Tift’s grit orchards, so you won’t find them in your grade school history books. But those orchards flourish today and every year on March 25, the kind of people who might take exception to freeze-dried collards, head into the lush agricultural lands of Georgia’s coastal plain in search of evergreen trees with large white flowers.
Years before the white man knew there would one day be a Southern state named Georgia, the Apalachee Indians discovered that the natural result of crossing a Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) with a Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) was the Grits Tree (Quercus grandiflora Zea mays).
Like pearls in oysters, Grits are created in the soft tissue of the tree’s magnificent flowers. In the late summer and early fall, Grits fall like rain from the trees where Grits Sweepers gather them into windrows that look like dunes of snow. They dry in the sun until they are ready to be vacuumed up and cast before swine in the form of bacon, ham, and breaded pork chops.
But in the spring, it’s the white grits flowers that attract the attention. The kind of person who would eat freeze-dried collards or who thinks red eye gravy is the airline food served on long, over-night flights, will mistake a grits flower for a magnolia blossom. Magnolias have a musky, cloying scent. Grits flowers smell like Waffle House.“Sitting under the grits tree” is a phrase that goes back to founding of Georgia Grits Day on March 25, 1901 in honor of the birth of Georgia Brown beneath such a tree near Tifton. Sitting under a grits tree is about jazz and having babies and eating red eye gravy on a hot summer afternoon when it seems like every breath of air between Macon and the Florida border smells like breakfast at a Waffle House.
There’s no love better than the love built with true grits. It’s Southern love and you can’t get it in a factory and you won’t find it in the hashed browns part of the country. Every March, we celebrate true grits, not the movie, but the food and all it stands for.