Spiritmatters Monthly October 2011


“No self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits.”
Growing up in the South, I have eaten my fair share of grits. They have always been a staple of my diet and even today I find myself reaching for the bag of grits on the shelf when I am looking for a hot comfort food that goes with just about anything. Many Northerners know about the South’s love affair with grits because it was a crucial part of the plot in the popular film “My Cousin Vinny.” Grits are a tradition in the South that European settlers learned from the Native Americans and in ages past many poorer Southerners survived on grits and not much else.
In the early 1900s, a horrible disease known as Pellagra (which is a niacin deficiency) became epidemic in the South, particularly in the poorer regions. Originally it was thought that Pellagra was caused by some germ or toxin in corn, but that explanation didn’t make much sense given that corn had always been a staple in the Southern diet. Why was this strange disease becoming a problem all of a sudden? Because the traditional method of making grits involved soaking corn kernels in lime water (the mineral lime, not the citrus fruit) before grinding them. This simple step makes niacin nutritionally available in corn, and therefore Native Americans and early settlers could survive on a diet of corn without many ill side effects. In the early 20th century, with the advent of so many new farming and milling methods in the South, the traditional method of preparing corn, including the preparation of grits, was replaced by what was thought to be a more sensible and faster method of just grinding the corn without soaking it. The results were disastrous: by 1916 approximately 100,000 Southerners had developed Pellagra and many died for the simple reason that they dispensed with an old tradition that they didn’t understand. The Native Americans didn’t know anything about niacin or specifically why soaking the corn in lime was important, they had just learned (undoubtedly through trial and error) that this was a step that needed to be taken.
I am always suspicious whenever any individual or group dismisses tradition lightly. It is a particularly nasty side-effect of so much wonderful innovation: we fall into the habit of thinking that the new way of doing things is always the better way, and it simply isn’t. Believe it or not, people have been having good ideas for a very long time. In our desire for creativity and innovation, we often forget the importance of wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge that comes largely from time and experience. If creativity is a spark, then wisdom is a slow-burning ember. We need wisdom because it keeps us from having to learn every one of life’s lessons the hard way. Tradition is one way in which the wisdom of our ancestors is handed down, but we have fallen into the belief that we must understand a tradition in order for it to be of value to us. We did not understand the purpose of washing corn kernels in lime water before milling them, but that doesn’t mean that tradition had no value. By dispensing with the tradition we were forced to learn the hard way just how important it was.
If the Pellagra outbreak in the South can teach us anything, it should be the danger of modern arrogance. Modern arrogance is the idea that we have only really figured the world out in the last 60 years or so and that every idea, every tradition and every practice of previous generations should be regarded with suspicion or condescension. Modern arrogance teaches us that people in the past were superstitious, ignorant and backward and that we, in contrast, are more enlightened and more clever. It just isn’t so. Next time you look at a medieval cathedral remind yourself that this building was built without power tools and calculators. How many of our modern buildings do you think will still be around in 500 or 1000 years? I am all for progress and innovation, but it should be done with humility and respect paid to tradition. We forget that traditions have had to stand the test of time, which is usually a far more severe judge than we could ever be. Give traditional ideas and methods a chance and don’t easily dismiss them. We may not understand everything our ancestors did, but that is probably more a sign of our ignorance than theirs.

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