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Since winning the 2008 election, septuagenarian Doris A. Jones has been mayor (annual pay: $4,600) of Waleska, a scenic city of 640 residents in northwest Cherokee County. Jones takes pride in Waleska’s main attractions: Reinhardt University and nearby Lake Arrowhead.
The first thing you notice about grits-making is that it’s really loud. I discovered this as I navigated the long gravel drive to Buckeye Creek Farm in Hickory Flat, near Canton. Even with the windows up, I could hear the roar of the 1937 Allis-Chalmers engine that powers Liz and Randall Porter’s 1941 mill. The Porters didn’t hear me coming, but it was easy to find them; I just followed the racket to the open-walled shelter where they were working. (Liz confessed that, had they known it would be so loud, they wouldn’t have used metal for the roof.) The din only added to the joyful work that was going on the day I visited a few weeks ago. The Porters and near-neighbor Tim Stewart of Rockin’ S Farms, along with his 7-year-old son, Jeb, manned several stations to shell, grind and bag a couple hundred pounds of dried heirloom corn they had grown that summer. “Randall and I can do it by ourselves,” Liz shouts to me over the din, “but it’s more fun if you’ve got someone with you.” Jeb fed ears into a sheller that separates the kernels from the cob while Tim operated the large hand crank. It looked like a good way to keep the local chiropractor in business. As a galvanized tub filled with kernels, Liz scooped them into the mill’s hopper. Everyone kept a close eye on the other end of the mill, where a screen separated the ground grits from larger fragments. (Liz saves those for a special purpose.) With Jeb’s help, Liz scooped the grits into large plastic bags and marked each with its weight. The two families ground about 200 pounds of corn that day. The same process could be used to make cornmeal or grits; grits are simply ground a bit coarser than the meal. This day, it was all about the grits. “Usually, it’s grits,” Liz says. The process was neat to watch, and here’s the cool part: You can see it, too. The two farms are hosting a “Grits Day” on Dec. 10. Visitors will be able to watch the whole process, and buy some custom-ground grits as well. On the day I visited, Liz took a break from the grind to give me a little tour of the remaining stand of corn in their fields. By fall, the dead stalks stand a good 12 or 14 feet tall, the dried corn drooping in its husks and ready for harvest. At five feet tall, Liz had to reach high to grab an ear and peel back the brown husks; inside the kernels glimmered a deep burgundy. Other ears revealed ivory or gold kernels. The Porters grind all the colors together. “It makes it pretty unique. I don’t like things to be the same all the time,” Liz says. The cooked grits are creamy with a base color to match, punctuated by little flecks of white, gold and reddish brown. The flavor is distinctively corny. On the other hand, the Stewarts’ bright yellow corn produced a beautifully even grind that looks like golden sand. It looked and acted like polenta, with a more distinctive texture than the Porters’ variety and a delicate, earthy flavor. (Back home, I did a side-by-side taste test; both were delicious and beautiful in their own ways.) And those larger fragments of ground corn? Liz shakes off the chaff and bags what’s left as a special treat. Those fragments make the most beautiful bowl of grits I’ve ever seen: little pearls of ivory and gold punctuated with red, an occasional whole kernel hiding in the mix like a toy surprise. Liz’s name for the grind: “Big Fat Grits.” “I just love them,” Liz says. “They’re different and there’s more texture. The thing about those too, you don’t get as many, so it’s more unique.&