The yellow corn that Georgeanne and Freddie Ross mill into grits, cornmeal, polenta and masa is served by chefs at white tablecloth restaurants from Mississippi to New York.
Years before Memphis-born Georgeanne Ross came to be known as the Original GritGirl of Oxford she had a city girl’s perspective on growing food. “If it didn’t come from Kroger, I just never gave it another thought,” she said.
Then in 2001 the Rosses came into possession of a 1910 stone grist mill and a 1912 flywheel engine, which Freddie restored at their Scott farm. Once the mill was working, Georgeanne was on her way to starting what was originally called Delta Grind.
They ran the mill once a month “to just keep it all oiled up” and shared the cornmeal with neighbors. One elderly lady always sent back a pan of cornbread. “It was just out of this world good,” Georgeanne remembered.
One milling weekend the sound of the engine attracted a fisherman who was nearby on Lake Whittington. “Low and behold he was a chef at the University Club in Memphis and he wanted to know if he could take some cornmeal home,” Georgeanne said. “So we hooked him up with 10 pounds and a week later he called and wanted to order 50 pounds.”
On her next monthly trip to visit her family, she brought the chef his order. He gave her a list of chefs who also were interested in buying the cornmeal. “I just started laughing and said I’m not in this kind of business. He said, ‘Just go see them.’” The chef was sure her products were something “white tablecloth restaurants” would love.
She visited three chefs and got orders for cornmeal from two and grits from the third. “I told him I didn’t know if I could make grits. I’d have to go home and ask.”
She called her husband on the drive back home with the news about the orders. “When I got home he had the grist mill pulled up into the driveway and we got to working on what grits should look like.” They used Kroger grits as a model for the consistency and locally grown yellow corn which they buy at a co-op in Holmes County.
She made the 262-mile drive back to Memphis for the first delivery of grits.
“I took him 10 pounds but he didn’t like it because it was yellow and he wanted white.” That rejection put a damper on her new venture, but only temporarily.
“Two weeks later he called and said he was out of grits and had to use mine and they blew him away,” she said. The chef placed a standing order of 25 pounds a week.
Word about the cornmeal and grits spread. “Chefs don’t like to think someone’s got something better than they do,” she said. “It just took off from there.” The business grew to 81 restaurants over the next several years. But in 2008 her mother suffered a severe stroke and Georgeanne gave up the business to help her six siblings with her care.
She took off about a year, much to the chagrin of her chef customers, including John Currence of Oxford restaurant fame. He called regularly to coax her back into business and even offered to buy her a grist mill.
She said she told Currence, “I’ll get back in if I can just have your restaurants in Oxford and I’ll be happy. So he gave me all his restaurants and the word got out I was back in it.”
Freshness is key to GritGirl products, Ross said. “We use locally grown corn and stay in the current crop year.” The corn comes from a co-op in Houston, Miss., which is delivered to Freddie’s barn where she re-cleans every sack before it’s milled. Then it’s delivered or shipped within a couple of days. “I don’t use additives or preservatives. That’s just fresh cracked corn.”
She wants chefs to have only when they can use up between deliveries. “Don’t stock up,” is what she tells them. “We’ll turn around and do it again in nine days.”
Restaurant customers are in Ocean Springs, Hattiesburg, Oxford in Mississippi, as well as in Memphis, New York, Florida and Connecticut. “I only sell to white table cloth restaurants,” she said. “At $2.95 a pound, I’m not cheap but it’s all hand done and all fresh.” There are also a few retail customers.
Ross calls GritGirl a labor of love. “I’m not getting rich but I make a living,” she said. “And it keeps me out of my husband’s pockets. I wanted to be self sufficient so it’s liberating.”
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