Politicians get the damnedest cravings. In San Francisco for a fund-raiser last month, President Obama made a stop in Chinatown to score dim sum takeout. In Memphis, Rick Santorum devoured ribs for the cameras, and Newt Gingrich took a few public licks of Moose Tracks ice cream in Muscatine, Iowa. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, now has a taste for grits.
Campaigning in the South ahead of Tuesday’s Mississippi and Alabama primaries, the Republican frontrunner came clean last week about his conversion. "I'm learning to say 'y'all' and I like grits,” Romney told a crowd in Pascagoula, Mississippi, last Wednesday. A day later, he told his audience in Jackson, Mississippi, “I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits. ... Delicious.”
A headline in The Atlantic Wire called Romney’s new taste for grits his “Southern pander.” Not surprisingly, commenters on the pro–Ron Paul site Daily Paul were just as skeptical. DiggyMo sniffed scandal, raising the specter of Gritsgate: “Where are the pictures of Romney eating 'grits'?" Another, meekandmild, seemed to be advocating a little grits-flinging direct action: “People in the deep south go to a Romney rally and take a bowl of Grits with you.”
And rp4pres, tacitly noting that Romney’s from Massachusetts, took the candidate’s shoutouts as a cue to refight the Civil War, describing “pandering like that from a Northerner” as “fighting words.”
It’s true—grits are one of those foods that divides South from not-South as sure as a drawl. Joe Yonan, the Washington Post food and travel editor currently on leave in Maine to write books, says New Englanders are generally “horrified” by them. Yonan was born in Georgia, grew up in Texas, and moved to Boston in 1989. The trouble, he says, is that Northern grits are often so poorly made: Cooks fail to season them properly, or manage to make them pasty or lumpy.
And though grits in the South often contain cheese, one thing Southerners never do is call them—as Romney did—“cheesy grits.” They’re “cheese grits.” Always.
But can’t we all just get along? Emily Wallace, a food writer for the Independent Weekly in Durham, North Carolina, says grits are one of the few foods that transcend class, race, and politics: Every Southerner eats them. And they can be excellent anywhere—Wallace has even had awesome grits in Romney’s birth state of Michigan.
She doesn’t even care if Romney’s conversion to grits is recent, given new urgency by Southern nominating contests. “If Romney likes grits, that means at least we agree on one thing,” Wallace says.