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Joined at the Grits

Fri, 09/01/2023

A true story…..

The woman stood awaiting her turn at the butcher counter, looking around at the aisles and their displayed goods.  She liked this market.  As opposed to the corporate food chains in the area, this family-owned grocery group made a decided effort to stock each of its locations with items that would appeal to local community tastes.

Hence, the store in the area’s predominantly Italian neighborhood boasted a striking olive bar, an impressive collection of cheeses, and numerous interesting varieties of pasta not found elsewhere.  The store in a neighboring largely Jewish area offered NY Deli-style delights ranging from hot corned beef and pastrami to a notable collection of different pickles. This store, the one she was in, reflected the mixed area’s tastes for Caribbean, Latin, and traditional Soul Food cuisines.

That was what had drawn her there today and she was next.

“I’ll have three of those,” she said to the butcher, pointing to the large, succulent-looking smoked pork hocks that sat on a porcelain tray in the glass-enclosed counter.

It was then that she heard a voice behind her.

“Excuse me,” she heard someone say.

Turning, she faced an African-American woman of about sixty or so years of age.  “Yes?” she said.

“Well, the older woman began while pointing to the tray of hocks, “I hope you won’t think this out of turn, but what are you going to do with those?”

“My husband is going to make greens and beans,” the woman replied.

“Is he Black?” the older woman asked.

Smiling, the younger woman replied, “No.  As a matter of fact, he’s Italian.”

“And do you like it?” her new companion asked.

“Yes,” she replied.  “Very much so…and so do the kids.”

“Are you Italian too?”

The woman smiled again.  “No,” she replied. “I’m half English and half German.”

The older woman seemed surprised. “I guess I didn’t know they had collards in Italy or Germany,” she said.

“I don’t think they do,” the younger woman admitted. “My husband uses escarole.”


“Yes.  It’s very good.  It’s the way his Sicilian grandmother made it.

The older woman shook her head.  “I guess it’s true,” she said, “you DO learn something new every day.  I hope you won’t mind my saying this, but I had no idea Italians ate smoked hocks.”

As the butcher handed her the paper-wrapped hocks, the younger woman turned and said, “I’ll tell you something else: they’re popular in Germany too.” She winked.

The older woman laughed. 

Both still smiling, they went their separate ways, two strangers brought together by the common appeal of food….


While the story above is charming enough in its message of common humanity and the frequently surprising, but transcendent appeal of certain foods across cultural, ethnic, and national boundaries, there is an underlying truth that may not at first seem apparent, for the fact is that common circumstances frequently lead widely divergent people to similar answers and results.  One such example is the resemblances that developed between the cuisines of southern Italy and the southern U.S.

While some readers may think this is a wild assertion, consider this:

You’re sitting at a table.  Dinner is served.

The main course is roasted pork.  The veggie is greens and beans.  The side is a porridge made from corn meal.

Where are you?

If you said you were at a Soul Food restaurant –or even better, at Grandma’s- you’d be wrong

Because this meal is straight from a Sicilian kitchen.

The roast is Coscia ‘i Maiali Arrustutu, a pork roast by another name. 

As referred to in the story, the “greens” in the greens and beans is escarole. 

And the porridge, while it isn’t the familiar white grits, is its Italian cousin, polenta, made from yellow corn meal.

In other words, the meals are essentially the same. 

Yes, we know that the tomato sauce so identified with Italian cooking isn’t a staple of Southern or Soul cuisine.  But stewed tomatoes ARE.

And escarole is a cousin to lettuce, with a mild, slightly bitter flavor.  So how is that all that different from mustard greens or chicory?  For its part, dandelion is found on six continents and is used in both Soul and Sicilian cuisines.

Soul Food is known for its slow-roasted pork, frequently shredded and served as “BBQ.”  Well meet its Sicilian cousin, Porchetta, which has the added benefit of being herb-stuffed. 

As a variation on Greens and Beans, have you ever had Grits ‘n’ Greens?  Then say hello to the Sicilian version, Polenta di grano e verdura.

Oh, and hush puppies? Those scrumptious pieces of fried cornmeal batter?  Meet their Sicilian cousin: panelle…made from chickpea flour, but essentially the same.

The list of similar dishes goes on and on.

But it is the How? and Why? of this story that makes it so interesting.

A moment ago we suggested that common circumstances frequently lead widely divergent people to similar answers and results.  So let’s look at Sicily and the American South.

The climates are similar.

The economics are similar, with both being, for a very long while, the poorest parts of their respective nations, and just like the American south, the economy of Sicily was traditionally based upon agriculture…and a lot of poor farmers who had to make do with what they had. 

But most importantly, WHAT WAS AVAILABLE is remarkably the same in both places: corn, locally grown greens, beans, rice, and chickens, and pigs.

Finally, being populated largely by people who could not afford to waste anything, the people of these regions used everything…so yes, hocks (and other parts) were not uncommon. We know of one Sicilian grandmother who, until her dying day, was flavoring her tomato sauce with pigs’ feet and tails…..

It should also be mentioned that the technologies for preserving meat two-to-three hundred years ago was shared by both regions: you either salted meat or you smoked it.

So it is any wonder that dishes like greens and beans (flavored by a piece of smoked pork) took root in both areas?  It is a surprise that ground corn –hominy white in the American South and yellow in southern Italy- became a staple and an inexpensive substitute for wheat-based bread?  Are we startled that easily grown, local greens like collards, escarole, or dandelion became common?

But here’s the point: just as no Sicilian worth his salt would ever sit down to a dinner of chicken or pork, polenta, and local greens without a glass of vino, why is the idea of paring wine with our favorite Soul Food dishes so unusual? 

What we’re suggesting –and this is an idea we will soon be fleshing out further on the forthcoming Grapes, Grits, and Greens website- is that adding a glass of your favorite varietal to your next dinner of Alabama Pulled Pork and greens, or shrimp and grits would be a splendid idea.

Something to think about.

Just don’t forget the stewed tomatoes…………