‘Quaint’ mountain corn lore still persists

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Many new residents to the Dark Corner area—from Northeastern and a few Midwestern regions particularly—continue to find some of our persisting mountain lore “quaint.”

One of the first questions they ask is “Why are grits so prevalent on every breakfast menu? Exactly what are they, and why are they more popular than home fries or hash browns?”

Simply put, grits are small particles of corn, and corn is the staple grain of this mountain area and much of every Southern state. It is grown for eating, drinking and feeding.

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The very best grits are produced by a water-powered corn mill. They are slow cooked with salt and pepper (to taste) and served plain, with butter, or covered with a red-eye or white gravy. They are not served with milk or sugar in them. That’s what is done with other ground grains, like wheat or barley.

As a young boy, I remember telling my mother that a friend’s family must be poor. “Why do you think that?” she asked. “When I spent the night with Johnny, they had to fry some potatoes with our eggs for breakfast. They didn’t have any grits.”

Very few natives still use ground corn for making a long-time favorite,  moonshine, for drinking or for mixing medicinally with honey and spices or herbs. If you can’t find one who does, you can buy a pretty good tasting bottle at Dark Corner Distillery in Greenville. It’s a craft product that is distilled in a copper pot still the same way it used to be produced here in the Corner.

(Dark Corner moonshine won first place in blind taste tests at both the 2014 American Craft Distilling Association Convention and the International Whiskey Convention to become the “World’s Best Moonshine,” by the way.)

Ground corn is still widely used in the feeding of both dairy and beef cattle and other domesticated animals, as well as creatures of the wild.

One of my neighbors keeps a supply just to feed dozens of wild squirrels that swing limbs to reach off-the-ground feeders. He enjoys watching the squirrels sit on their haunches and turn the corn particles over and over before eating, while tormenting his fenced-in dogs.

Several other neighbors use bags of ground corn to “seed” an area that attracts deer in season.

There is one other use of finely ground grits that bears mention, however. Some folks swear that they are effective particles to scatter near fire ant hills. Supposedly, ants will carry the particles back to the hill, and when the grits combine with saliva, the ants will swell up and burst.

According to Clemson extension experts, mature fire ants drink only liquids; they are incapable of ingesting solids. The larvae can combine solids with saliva and possibly are killed.

When folks say there are no ants in the hill after putting out grits, extension agents agree. The mature ants aren’t killed; they only move to a new location.