When Mississippi bluesman Little Milton famously sang “Grits Ain’t Groceries” in 1969, he used the phrase not as a real statement, but as a metaphor to suggest something preposterous.
“If I don’t love you baby, then grits ain’t groceries,” wailed Milton, speaking from a time and place when ground corn was still a daily staple on plates across the South.
The residents of St. George couldn’t agree more.
A little history Back in 1985, a grocery broker commented to the local Piggly Wiggly manager that the orders placed for grits seemed abnormally high for a town of 2,000 inhabitants. A bit of unofficial research confirmed that the residents of St. George indeed consumed more grits per capita than any other place in the world.
Thus appointed, the word grits-eating champions founded the World Grits Festival, a celebration that now swells the weekend
population of the tiny town to 45,000.
This weekend marks the festival’s 27th year, a point of pride for the locals who prepare for their annual influx of visitors all year long.
“People in this town eat a lot of grits,” confirmed Faye Utsey, the event’s publicist.
“I cooked some up this morning for myself.”
Over the past quarter-century, the festival has expanded into the world’s grandest excuse to pig out on ground corn. Vendors sell grits-based creations up and down the street, some drawing from the inspiration of previous years’ winning grits recipes. The list includes Gooey Butter Grits Cheese Cake and Savory Grits Pie. Recipes are posted on the festival website.
Carnival rides are in full swing, local art is on display and the Grits Queen rides down the street in full regalia during Saturday’s parade.
‘Eat grits!’ Also Saturday, there’s a 5K race, followed by line dancing and contests for corn shelling, hula hooping and, of course, grits eating.
Charleston-based musician Cory Jarrett, a St. George native, recalls his junior high-era experience in that competition.
“All of the contestants were served an enormous bowl of grits and a huge cup of water. As the judge enthusiastically said, ‘On your mark, get set, eat grits!’ everybody grabbed their spoon and began shoveling grits into their mouth at top speed,” Jarrett recollects. “That is, everybody except for the guy sitting next to me with his arm crossed and wearing a confident smirk. With under a minute left to go, he calmly grabbed his cup full of water and poured it into his grits to create a soupy consistency. He then raised the bowl and chugged the entire thing in four seconds flat, slamming his empty bowl down and releasing a deafening, victorious belch. I looked down at my shirt, covered in grits, and decided it was my first and last attempt at competitive grits eating.”
Rolling in the Grits If speed-shoveling grits into your mouth doesn’t sound appetizing, there’s also the ever-popular Rolling in the Grits contest.
Participants dive into an inflatable 10-foot-by-5-foot pool filled 2-feet deep with grits. Weighed before and after their roll, a cash prize goes to the contestant who accumulates the most grits on their body.
“We put about 24 cases of grits in there, and it takes the better part of two hours to mix them up, depending on the temperature of the day,” said Roger Gaither, who coordinates the festival’s sponsorship with Quaker.
“The record is 46 pounds, but that year is was very cold and we had mixed the grits early, so by the time the roll came around, you could stand a paddle up in them.”
The kids’ grits rolling contests occur Saturday, with the adults diving in at 1 p.m. Sunday. There are no set restrictions on how a person can attach the grits to himself, including stuffing sweatpants and oversize shirts.
“You absolutely do have to bring a change of clothes,” laughs Gaither. “After they get out, we hose them off. People get pretty gnarly in the grits.”
‘Old-fashioned fun’ Although he couldn’t offer an exact figure, Gaither said that the amount of grits used throughout the weekend for food and events measures in the tons, all donated by Quaker.
In addition to all the silly fun, the World Grits Festival also serves a community purpose. Proceeds raised by the festival benefit a scholarship fund that sends six St. George area high school students to college each year.
The Grits Queen beauty pageant, held in March, raises money for six more scholarships.
Grits Fest publicist Utsey said it’s a favorite weekend of the year, bringing together the community behind a common celebration. She looks forward to the “old-time grits meals,” including fried chicken and grits with tomato gravy, as well as just seeing families come out and enjoy themselves in the streets.
“It’s just good old- fashioned fun, from the wheel barrow race to the corn toss,” Utsey said. “There’s just a lot of fun things for the average person to come out and do.”
This year, the festival is putting added emphasis on the live music schedule, with free concerts in the street 6-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 1-4 p.m. Sunday.
North Charleston’s CoastRunner Band plays the first night, along with NU Attitude out of Bonneau.
On Saturday, the Rick Strickland Band plays just before Charleston regulars the Jefferson Coker Band.
Sugarloaf Mountain Boys of Cayce close out the festival Sunday.
With such a grand affair surrounding a staple food adored across the South, can St. George still lay claim to its title as world grits eating champions?
“There are some towns in Georgia that claim they eat more grits, but I don’t know if anybody’s done any research on that,” Utsey said.
Gaither, who also emcees the grits rolling contest, said St. George’s claim remains undisputed by Quaker, who allocates a sizeable budget for the festival each year.
“They never blink or bat an eye (about the annual donation),” Gaither said. “It’s crazy. It’s a lot of grits. People really like to eat ’em.”