Grits and Grunts
The $150 a plate dinner
By Geoff Dobson
The other day at morning coffee, the conversation turned to a proposed very expensive fund raising dinner. No one admitted that they were planning on attending.
Years ago, someone in New York, undoubtedly a member of the “400,” commented that there are those who sponsor charitable dinners, get all the credit for the money raised, but never put their own money in it.
They get to dine for free and sit at the head table.
The money comes from those who pay the $100, or $150 a plate to listen to a boring after-dinner speech and feel good that they had done something for charity or to help someone’s political campaign.
The writer noted that in 1969 after having his arm twisted, he had attended a $100 a plate dinner for a political campaign. The arm-twister wanted to make a good showing that he could turn out a whole large table in support of his candidate.
The meal was a shrimp curry. This was before curry became the national dish of England. The writer’s wife, after finding out that the writer was going to the dinner, asked whether any of the other wives were going. She could not understand why none the wives were going, until she found out the cost.
More recently, the writer, this time with spouse, attended another benefit dinner which allegedly featured Cajun dishes. Now the wife loves Cajun cooking and is somewhat of a purist, having attended, albeit briefly, a Cajun cooking class in New Orleans and returned home with an ample supply of filé powder and Captain Mike’s.
One of the dishes at the benefit was cheese grits. The grits had apparently been made by pouring a commercial can of cheese sauce into the grits. It was the type of cheese sauce that comes in Number 10 cans and bears a striking resemblance to library paste.
Thus, the conversation turned to the subject of grits. The two Yankees that normally attended the morning coffee were absent and everyone had favorite memories of grits – grits served plain with pepper and butter, proper cheese grits, grits with sausage gravy, grits with eggs, grits with ham and red eye gravy.
One recalled a café called “Grits and Stuff” which featured grits with just about anything imaginable. Also remembered were grit cakes served with syrup. The writer fondly recalled “grits and grunts” and grits and mullet. ‘Grunts are most often found in the Florida keys and are frequently pan fried as opposed to mullet which would generally be floured and deep fried.
In Junior High, the cafeteria served grits and mullet every Friday. If one was still hungry, bread along with a large bowl of peanut butter mixed with honey was put out.
Mullet used to be Florida’s ubiquitous dish. It was inexpensive and readily available. There was no excuse in coastal Florida to go hungry. All one needed was a cast net.
Not only was mullet a staple of school cafeterias, but of political rallies. A typical political rally usually held on the grounds of a country church, featured dinner consisting of fried mullet, grits, baked beans, and swamp cabbage.
The cost was minimal, raised money for the church, and, unlike today’s $150 a plate dinners, didn’t cost the person attending an arm and a leg.
A standard menu item on restaurants in coastal Florida was mullet and sometimes mullet roe.
Fancier restaurants might also have other fish such as pompano baked in parchment with a shrimp, crab and white wine sauce, originally a dish featured at Antoine’s in New Orleans. The steam from the sauce would puff up the parchment packet like a balloon. The waiter would then make a show of cutting an X into the packet and folding the edges back.
About once a year, the writer’s parents would make a 60-mile trip in the family Hillman Minx to a fancy restaurant where my mother would order the pompano.
Local fish seem to have disappeared from menus. The pompano in parchment gradually gave way to grouper and now grouper seems to have disappeared.
All too often the “fresh catch of the day” is tilapia, a fresh water fish most often from China.
At one time, the State of Florida tried to promote mullet. Many persons from the northeast had an aversion to mullet, since in the Northeast there is a bait fish with the same name.
Having observed the successful Hawaiian campaign to change the name of “dolphin” to “mahi-mahi” to overcome a perception that people were eating Flipper, the State began a program to promote “Lisa”.
Now, of course, mullet is rarely seen on a menu. The State has instituted protections for mullet which makes commercial fishing more expensive and difficult.
Grits remain a staple for breakfasts. It is now rarely seen on dinner menus.
Minorcan Sausage Grit Cakes
• 1/4 cup Quick-cooking grits
• 1 tbsp Butter
• 1/2 cup Cooked; crumbled Minorcan Sausage
• 1/2 cup Grated sharp cheddar cheese
• 1/4 cup Flour; seasoned with white pepper
• 3 Eggs; lightly beaten
• 1/2 cup flour seasoned to taste with white and red pepper
Cook grits with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in sausage and cheese and cook three minutes more. Pour grits out into a buttered flat pan. Set aside to cool and firm up. Using a biscuit cutter cut out cakes. Dredge cakes in seasoned flour, dip in egg wash, then dredge again in flour, Heat oil in a skillet, add grit cakes and pan fry, turning once, until browned on both sides. This recipe yields four cakes.
A simpler form of grit cakes can be made by packing down leftover grits in a loaf pan, refrigerating overnight, turning pan over and slicing grit slices, dredging in egg and flour and frying. Serve with syrup.
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at email@example.com