Virginia Willis Goes Crazy for Corn

Photo courtesy of Virginia Willis.
Photo courtesy of Virginia Willis.

by Virginia Willis

In this series for the Southern Foodways Alliance I am examining iconic Southern foods that so completely belong to summer that if you haven’t relished them before Labor Day, you should consider yourself deprived of the entire season. My plan is to share a little history and a few recipes that I hope you will enjoy. We kicked off the series with homemade ice cream. Coming up, I’ll feature tomatoes, squash, peas & beans, okra, peaches, and finish up right before Labor Day with a barbecued Boston butt. This week, we’re going crazy for corn!

Corn is not only an iconic Southern food—it’s All-American. Granted, as a country, we have perhaps become overly dependent on corn. But instead of the unpleasantries of industrial agriculture, let’s focus on buttery juices dribbling down your wrists, old-fashioned miniature plastic corn forks jauntily stabbed into the ends of the cob, and bacon fat melting in the cast-iron skillet, ready to receive freshly cut, milky kernels for creamed corn.

Southerners rich and poor, black and white, have historically consumed the same foods that sustained settlers as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries: corn, pork, game, and food harvested from the wild. The importance of corn cannot be overstated. Corn was eaten fresh in the summer, and dried to be ground into meal for baking and boiled for grits in the fall and winter.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Willis.
Photo courtesy of Virginia Willis.

My grandfather always preferred to plant his corn patch in the fertile black soil at the river’s edge. He taught me that when corn is ripe and ready to be picked, the silk at the top of the ear should be dark brown, almost black. When the corn came in, everyone worked. He’d harvest the corn and haul it up the road, depositing a minor mountain under the carport. Once a black snake made the pile his home for a bit, which provided for some serious excitement. More than anything, I remember everyone sitting in the metal chairs on the screened-in porch and shucking corn deep into the evening while the crickets chirped. At some point my sister and our cousins would be let free to run around the yard and catch fireflies while the adults would continue whittling down the mountain of corn.

We would eat boiled corn on the cob with nothing more than salted butter. To enjoy the summer harvest throughout the year, my family would put up gallons and gallons of quart-size freezer bags of creamed corn. And, only much later did any one ever consider grilling corn or topping it with herb-enhanced compound butter. Today, I am sharing a recipe that blends fresh summer corn with grits. The layering of corn flavor is tremendous. I hope you enjoy this continued exploration of the iconic foods of summer.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Virginia Willis

Photo by Ellen Silverman.
Photo by Ellen Silverman.

Stone Ground Grits with Corn and Greens

Adapted from Bon Appétit Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations, Ten Speed Press. 2008.

Serves 4 to 6

The key to the intense corn flavor is the layering of the elements of corn – unrefined corn oil, fresh corn, then grits, which are ground corn. Only use fresh corn in season for this recipe. As soon as corn is harvested, the sugar in the kernel begins to convert to starch and the corn begins to lose its sweetness. To store corn, leave on the husks and store it loosely wrapped in damp paper towels inside a paper bag. Refrigerate and use it within twenty-four hours.

Note: There are gadgets to cut corn off the cob, but a sharp knife will do the job well. Most people will stand the corn vertically to the cutting board and the corn will fly everywhere. Instead, set the ear of corn on its side and, using a chef’s knife, slice away the kernels on the four sides, squaring off the round ear. The kernels will fall away, but not having far to go, will not scatter. Then, stand the ear on one end and cut the away the “corners” of the cob. Finally, scrape the milky remainder on the cob into a bowl with the back of the knife.

For the grits:

1 tablespoon unrefined corn oil

1 sweet onion, grated

Scraped kernels from 2 ears fresh sweet corn (about 1 cup)

2 cups 2 % milk

2 cups water

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup stone-ground grits

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (about 3 ounces)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

For the greens:

2 tablespoons canola oil

3 medium cloves garlic, mashed into a paste with salt

1 medium bunch kale, collards, turnip greens, or mustard greens (about 1 1/2 pounds), cleaned, tough stems removed and discarded, and leaves very thinly sliced in chiffonade

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper


In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until transparent, about 2 minutes.

Add the corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until the kernels become soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the milk, water, and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Whisk in the grits, decrease the heat to low, and simmer, whisking occasionally, until the grits are creamy and thick, 45 to 60 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and slightly damp ribbons of greens; season with salt and pepper. Cook until the greens are bright green and slightly wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Set aside.

When the grits are tender, stir in the reserved greens, butter, cheese, parsley, and chives. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Virginia Willis is the author of cookbooks Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all. She is a contributing editor to Southern Living and a frequent contributor to Taste of the South. Willis has appeared on Food Network’s Chopped, Martha Stewart Living Television, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay.