In small towns, street festivals are social occasions, for which young men and women typically wear the outfits in which they want their rivals and crushes to see them. This weekend, Tiffany McGirr showed up at the World Grits Festival in St. George clad in oversized sweatpants, flipped inside-out and hitched up by a pair of suspenders.
McGirr was one of 10 competitors in an annual contest that’s somewhat imprecisely referred to as “grits rolling.” Contestants who dive into an inflatable tub filled with 27 cases worth of instant grits can roll in the stuff, if they choose: They can also thrash, paddle and chew. But the point of the 10 seconds spent in the pool is grits collection. Competitors are weighed before and after their rolls: Whoever’s stashed the most grits in his or her shirt, pants and pockets wins.
“Where are you going to put the grits, ma’am?,” emcee Ric Rush of WEZL asked one teenage participant in tight jeans.
“Same place I did before,” she replied saucily before diving into the goop and scooping it into the hood of her wrong-way facing sweatshirt.
So long as the grit clings, it counts. That’s why some women vigorously shampoo their hair before the event, and why veterans like McGirr flaunt the fuzzy insides of their sweatpants. Open cuffs and shirtsleeves are duct-taped to keep valuable grits from escaping.
Once the grits are acquired, they’re hard to shake. In a pre-contest meeting, an organizer stressed the importance of hosing off after exiting the tub, telling a gently off-color story about orifices that involved a former Miss Grits. It’s not uncommon for rollers to emerge to cheers muted by all of the grits clogging their ears.
The grits aren’t considered ready for rolling until the preparer can stand a paddle up straight in the spongy, corn-scented mass. Even though the preparer has lately been lobbying to experiment with the base – “I want to do a flavor one year,” he says. “Like shrimp.” – plain grits have prevailed since the festival started in 1985. The recipe’s ratios change each year, according to the weather: More heat calls for more water. This year, it took an extra 25 minutes for the cool grits to reach the right consistency.
Contestants were willing to wait. A few of the first-timers were native St. Georgians, who’d grown up with dreams of competing in the adult division. One year, the field included an 80-year old woman who was intent on swimming in grits before she died. (Most contestants are selected via radio contests and random drawings, although Ned Barry has rolled 28 times.)
For Payton Rivers, Sunday’s contest was personal. Her stepfather likes to brag about his winning roll, which produced more than 38 pounds of grits.
“Aw, you need to shut your mouth,” Rush said as Rivers stepped onto the oldfangled beam balance scale to her mother’s happy whoops. “You are no longer the grits champion at your house!”
Rivers weighed in at 40.5 pounds heavier than her starting weight. But, as Rush pointed out, “a lot of those grits came from Tiffany’s drawers.” McGirr’s sweatpants-and-suspenders strategy proved so successful that she had to refill the tub after being dragged out of it.
“If she’s too heavy for two men to get on the scale, just go home,” Rush said. “It’s over.”
The scale revealed McGirr had put on 66 pounds of grits weight, shattering Barry’s unofficial world record.
“She did this in honor of her mom!,” Rush cried. “This is remarkable!”
For her performance, McGirr received $200 and a chance to address the crowd of about 100 people. Rush kept cajoling her to acknowledge the underlying nastiness of the grits tub; his son once threw up after a grits swim, he prompted. Yet in a town which launched a festival not because it was a top producer of grits, but because the local Piggly Wiggly determined its citizens were top consumers, the notion of being sickened by grits didn’t stick.
“It’s awesome,” McGirr said.
The World Grits Festival will be held again next year.