Somewhere South with Chef Vivian Howard

Greg Johnsman’s Take on Instant vs. Heirloom

Photo by Baxter Miller

We asked Greg Johnsman, owner of Marsh Hen Mill (formerly Geechie Boy Mill), to offer his expert opinion on the merits of heirloom grits versus the instant variety. He had plenty to say.

As Vivian mentions in the episode, many of us only eat instant varieties of our favorite porridges. And understandably so. Instant oatmeals, grits, and other quick bowls of boiled and mushed grains are convenient for feeding kids before school and parents before the office. After a couple of microwaved minutes, instant porridges provide enough energy to jumpstart a long day of work or play. But, according to Greg Johnsman, owner of Marsh Hen Mill on South Carolina’s picturesque Edisto Island, nothing can replace the comfort of a bowl of your favorite porridge slow-boiled to a hearty thickness.

Johnsman is very familiar with instant porridges but is committed to making grits the old-fashioned way. His heirloom grains include revived strains of rice as well as stone-ground grits that are milled, bagged, sealed and shipped straight from his mill to your front door. His brand is popular among chefs who are interested in resuscitating forgotten grains that are as important to the South’s past as any shared history. We asked Johnsman a few questions about instant vs. heirloom grains. When we talked, he disclaimed, “[I] might not have the best answers, but the science is for others. I’m a miller and farmer and love what we do.” In our opinion, that makes him a qualified expert.

What exactly are heirloom grits?

To me, heirloom grits are an old-time variety, open-pollinated instead of hybrid [an offspring of two different grains]; a corn that has been saved and passed down. There are many more reasons but, they basically all translate to years of love.

What makes a grain "heirloom?"

I think the actual definition is so many years removed, but for me, it’s something passed down; not something I can get at any grocery store. 

What is the difference between instant grits, quick grits, and heirloom grits?

Instant grits are enriched. They are already cooked and dehydrated to make them cook really quick. In other words: blah, yuck!

Quick grits can be milled smaller for faster cooking or, similar to the instant variety, they are already cooked and dehydrated to cut down on cooking time. 

And I saved the best for last —  heirloom grits. They are milled only on stone. Heirloom grits are basically stone ground goodness! You separate the corn to remove any unwanted chaff [hulls].  The seeds are prized and passed down. They make a darn good bowl of grits. 

Do you ever eat instant grits?

I have eaten them a long time ago. I would even consider eating them again if they could taste as good as a  ‘Frito pie (when you put all the good stuff in the bag). I don’t think instant could ever be as good as ‘Frito pie, so they may be best used as putty or as a crack filler. 

In your opinion, what makes the perfect bowl of grits?

The perfect bowl of grits starts with a “memory bowl,”  either something you ate as a kid like a plastic bowl with a superhero on it or a handmade piece of pottery for the fancy grits. The bowl sets the stage. Then you take an heirloom grit that you have been growing for at least eight years and put a large spoonful in. That spoonful holds all the memories of growing and milling the grain. Finally “the shower” comes. Sometimes “the shower’ is some cheese, like smoked Gouda,  potlikker, pork sausage (cooked and crumbled), a can of diced tomatoes and green chilies. And grate a favorite cheese, like smoked Gouda, in there. Dump it all in the mix and serve. Oh! and lick the spoon when you're done!