Why Are Hominy Grits Made With Lye When It’s Corrosive?

Yes, but it has been thoroughly washed out before the grits ever get near your breakfast plate.

The word lye is related to the Latin for wash, and originally referred to the strong alkaline solution obtained by soaking, or washing, wood ashes in water. (The alkaline material in wood ashes is potassium carbonate, and because alkalis and fats react to form chemicals called soaps, early soaps were made from wood ashes plus animal fat.)

Today, lye refers most often to caustic soda, which chemists call sodium hydroxide. It certainly is nasty stuff. Not only is it poisonous, but if given the chance will dissolve your skin. It opens drains both by converting grease into soap and by dissolving hair.

If you soak corn kernels in a weak solution of lye, it loosens the tough cellulose hulls. It also separates the oil-containing germ, leaving only the starchy part or endosperm, which is then washed and dried and christened hominy. The anxiety-alleviating step in all of this is the thorough washing, which removes all the excess lye. The dried hominy is then coarsely ground into hominy grits, which are boiled and consumed below the Mason-Dixon Line.

A less powerful alkali than caustic soda is lime (calcium oxide), which also can be turned loose upon corn kernels to break them down, such as in making hominy.

Lime is so easy to make by heating limestone or seashells (calcium carbonate) that it has been known and used for thousands of years. Natives of the Americas used it for centuries to treat or cook corn. In Mexico and Central America today, corn is boiled in lime water, then washed, drained, dried, and ground into masa, the flour from which tortillas are made.

Unknowingly, the early Americans were improving both the flavor and the nutritional value of corn by treating it with lime. Corn is deficient in certain essential amino acids, and the alkali makes them more available.

Lime reacts with the amino acid tryptophan, producing a very flavorful chemical (2-aminoacetophenone) that gives tortillas their unique flavor. Lime also adds calcium to the diet, and perhaps most importantly, increases our absorption of niacin, an essential B vitamin.

A deficiency of niacin in the diet causes pellagra, a debilitating disease characterized by three D’s: dermatitis, diarrhea, and dementia. Pellagra was rampant in societies whose diets consisted primarily of corn, such as in polenta-consuming Italy and the rural American South, until 1937, when the disease was recognized as being caused by a deficiency of niacin. Because of their lime treatment, Mexicans and Central Americans have always been quite free of pellagra.

But back to the gritty details: Having been raised in the grits-deprived North, but being acutely aware of the fact that this book is being offered for sale also in the South, I hasten to praise a memorable brunch that I once enjoyed in the Cajun country west of New Orleans. It consisted of mimosas, fried eggs, grits, andouille sausage, grits, biscuits, grits, and café au lait. I was converted.

Want to know more about grits? Go to (where else?) www.grits.com. And that’s no lye.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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