Food by VICE

A Real Hot Mess: How Grits Got Weaponized Against Cheating Men

Understanding the Black women who seized a common pantry item—and, with it, power.

by Cynthia R. Greenlee
Feb 14 2019, 2:30pm

Ilustration by Alex Cabal.

In her poem grits, Angela Jackson’s woman narrator stays up all night, seething and stirring.

all night

she watch the pot, cooked

her grits thick for hours

(not the quick kind) till grains disappear

into smooth with a slick

coat on top

hot enough

for a man to wear

(she said) on both

his faces.

Ten lines of tension: They pulsate with an untold backstory of betrayal real or perceived—and an act of violence the “she” may or may not commit. Jackson paints a conflictual portrait of a woman unraveling yet rational enough to plot. She’s stirring up a strike against a lover.

He means enough to her that his supposed duplicity keeps her angry. His absence keeps her awake, doing the impossible of keeping even long-cooking grits creamy for hours. The sticky, grainy mess will cling to his skin. She means to maim and mark him, so there will be no mistake that he’s unfit for fidelity or other partners.

The poem, published in Jackson’s 1998 collection And All These Roads Be Luminous, is part of a larger history of grits becoming a weapon in the hands of Southern, mostly Black, women.

As Erin Byers Murray, author of Grits: A Cultural and Culinary History of the South, notes, grits “aren’t always comfort. In some cases, they’re traumatic. Or even worse, used to cause pain.” Within Southern African-American culture particularly, the throwing of grits is often a woman’s tool of rage and domestic warfare.

Because this humble breakfast staple seems a novel instrument of vengeance and a well-known incident involved legendary soul singer Al Green, the idea of grits as a weapon has worked its way into Black film, literature, music, and a fair share of legal cases.

And it has a specific context. It’s usually framed as a particularly resourceful revenge, an extreme “scorched-skin” campaign waged against a unfaithful or abusive male partner. An October 1977 Jet magazine article whose headline asked “Should People Be Told About Their Cheating Spouses?” led with this: “‘If I ever caught my old man cheating,’ a pretty Chicago wife sneered, ‘I’d probably give him a late-night bath in hot grits and honey.’” Some relationship guides aimed at Black Christians mention attack by grits as a possible outcome when feelings turns sour. “When your mate feels violated, expect anything,” advised one, including “broken car windows, scratches all over your face, or even hot grits covering your body sticking to you as the hot water scorches your skin.”

Food is about relationships and power: who cooks for whom, who can leave the table without cleaning, who picks the strawberries, who pockets the profits. And not all relationships are healthy. The food served for pleasure can also serve as punishment. Take the origin story of Prince’s hot chicken in Nashville. Family lore has it that the chicken got its mouth-scalding heat from a girlfriend who objected to the late-night shenanigans of her partner. When he requested her special fried chicken after carousing without her, she slathered it in cayenne pepper, battered it, and fried it. The story has the apocryphal patina of a much-told tall tale—but if true, someone liked revenge served blindingly hot and with ample pepper.

But it’s Al Green’s story of being on the receiving end of tossed grits that may be most responsible for pop culture representations of harm by hominy. It’s almost as much of his legend as his songs that described the unpredictability of love, which will make you both do right and do wrong.

On October 18, 1974, the crooner had stripped naked and was preparing to bathe, when his new lover, Mary Woodson, entered the room and doused his back with a pot of hot grits.

Egg-sized blisters erupted on his skin, but Green was saved by the quick thinking of another woman who was also in the house, heard his screams, and pushed him under the shower’s cooling water.

Shortly before the bathroom scene, Woodson had asked the singer about his marital intentions. The two had only known each other for several months, but Woodson may have been uncomfortable about the other women in Green’s lifeand the other woman right there in the house. Then 28, Green was slim of hip, wide of smile, and never wanted for female company.

For his part, Green thought Woodson was “a real woman, not like all the giggling girls who flocked around me on the road.” She was moody but head-turningly beautiful, self-possessed enough not to chase him, and therefore attractively mysterious. According to Green, he evaded the marriage question while Woodson slowly stirred a pot of water and told him, out of the blue, she would never hurt him. Soon after, he was writhing in grits-induced agony. Woodson fled the room. She fatally shot herself in another part of his eight-bedroom Memphis estate, leaving a suicide note in her purse.

The unusual weapon and Green’s fame made the story a media sensation and the troubled Woodson a one-dimensional punchline. “Al Green” became a part of the cultural lexicon and an actual verb entry in Urban Dictionary. I’ve heard men half-jokingly warn other men that if they don’t shape up, they too might “get Al Greened” by a female partner.

Woodson had a history of self-destructive behavior and psychiatric care. She was a wife and mother who left behind a family, and she’d swallowed sleeping pills and slit her wrists days before her death. The story of Mary Woodson struck An American Marriage author Tayari Jones so much that just this month—almost 45 years after Woodson’s death—the author referenced Woodson in response to a tweet that asked, “Who is a woman, who growing up, you always thought was a public joke but upon getting older you realized her story wasn’t so funny after all?”

A Woodson-inspired character makes a brief appearance in Jones’ novel Silver Sparrow; the book’s Mary met the narrator and her family before the fateful, fatal night with the novel’s Al Green. Dressed in a homemade (but chic) pink pantsuit, the Mary of Jones’ novel came to Atlanta for a church conference and had her hair curled in a salon by the narrator’s mother, Laverne. Sitting in the chair, Mary talked about this “man I got” who sang with a healing touch, and she cuddled the feverish then-5-year-old narrator. Mary promised to stay in touch after getting to Memphis, but the narrator’s father nixed that, saying “there was something wild in her face.” In Jones’ telling, Mary threw the grits at the novel’s Al Green figure the next day.

Green’s hot grits encounter left him with second-degree burns, mourning Mary, and struggling to make sense of what happened. But it may have also inspired disgraced singer R. Kelly who, like Green, has made a career on blending the sacred and the sexual.

In his 1998 album R—which sold more than 12 million copies and included the anthem I Believe I Can Fly—the song Down Low Double Life tells a story of a man with “doggish ways.” Two women ultimately band together against him after the “damn Caller ID” outed his philandering.

Next thing the song’s subject knew, according to an interlude in the song, “I was asleep, they came in/woke me up pourin' hot grits/and all kinds of shit on me, man, okay beatin' me and shit.” The song is quintessential R. Kelly when he’s not in bump-and-grind mode. It’s in his other register: the rachet confessional. In this case, it’s the tale of a hapless man who can’t help himself. He just falls in and out of love and lust with multiple women. He’s both victim and responsible for this sticky situation.

But how do we understand the women on the other side of this equation, those who seized a common pantry item—and, with it, power? How do we understand their violence, female anger, and the responses that often downplay their grits-throwing as a merely a funny thing that happened? Popular references vacillate between portraying them as women pushed too far by male mistreatment, blatantly unhinged, or a particular kind of “crazy” that has little to do with actual mental health issues. Throwing grits at a male partner can be gendered justice, a weapon of the weak when that woman has been that man’s punching bag.

Throwing grits as a male partner can be gendered justice, a weapon of the weak when that woman has been that man’s punching bag.

I remember a long-ago kitchen conversation about a distant relative who had Al Greened her husband. The reactions varied. Kinfolks guffawed, hid chuckles, stared at the table silently. One—recently “saved and bathed in the blood of Jesus”—acknowledged that the husband in question was a “pretty-boy” pissant who fathered outside children, gambled away the grocery money, and had left his wife with a black eye. Still, his alley-cat morals didn’t mean he deserved to have his earlobe melt into his neck. But even Sanctified Cousin didn’t go hard in his defense, and the consensus around the dinner table was that the grits-tossing was the creamy, searing coda to a relationship that had long been an irredeemable hot mess.

By throwing grits at a no-good male partner, Black women became a female version of the “crazy nigger.” Explained by Nathan McCall in the modern-classic masculinity memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler, this term applied to someone with an “explosive temper, who took no flak from no one—man, woman, or child. He would shoot, stab, bite, or do whatever he could to hurt somebody who disrespected him. … We admired craziness as an esteemed quality, something to be admired, like white people admire courage. In fact, to our way of thinking, craziness and courage were one and the same.” While McCall’s “crazy culture” attached to urban young men who would fight over a salty look, a sneaker smudge, or bonafide insult, the grit-throwing woman earned a particular prestige when she abandoned the boundaries of “normal” behavior. People feared, admired, and wondered at her, but thought twice before crossing into her path.

The power—or fearful respect—to be gained from tossing grits could draw other consequences: spreading conflict to family and friends, negative responses in social circles, retaliation and injuries if her aim missed the target, media attention, and legal woes. Alexis Staton, a Maryland woman accused of burning her husband with hot grits in 2015 (which she later said was not “done deliberatedly” [sic] and was a response to his emotional, financial and physical abuse), lost her job and her children faced taunts at school, though she was found not guilty of assault and reckless endangerment. Despite the notion that grits-throwing is a woman’s crime of retribution, grits can be wielded by men—not just against them—and in situations of mutual aggression. A year earlier, 60-year-old Edward Holley of Orlando, Florida—dumped “scolding [sic] hot greasy grits” on a neighbor with whom he’d fought the night before. Thirty percent of the victim’s body was burned, and Holley was charged with attempted second-degree murder. The jury had to decide if malevolent grits-tossing met the standards for conviction: intent to commit the action, whether it was “imminently dangerous,” and showed a “depraved mind.”

The imminent danger of hot grits also meant they missed a potential recent film appearance. Tiffany Haddish, describing a monologue that didn’t make it into her hit film “Girls Trip,” listed all things she’d do to a man who wronged her friend: drugging him and burning a message into his penis, or resorting to hot grits. “Universal said they were afraid women would actually do this shit. So they didn’t put it in there ’cause they didn’t want to get sued.”

Tyler Perry had no such reservations. In 2009, hot grits made a cameo in the Tyler Perry film Madea’s Family Reunion. When engaged Lisa confesses that her fiancé has been hitting her, Madea shells out advice—mainly to turn grits, a stock pot, and a cast-iron skillet into an arsenal. A woman has to work with what she has, says Madea: “When you get tired of a man hitting on you, honey, ain’t nothing you can do but cook breakfast for him. … Bring him into the kitchen, and get you a big old pot of hot grits. And when it starts to boil like lava, after he done got good and comfortable, you say ‘Good morn-ting.’ Throw it right on him. Get you a pot like this. Take it and throw it. And you need you a skillet with a nice good balance weight on it. You understand? And as you throw it, you swat. Throw it and swat.”

Dressed in a bathrobe, Tyler Perry as Madea engaged in a quick, fluid two step. “You hear me? Throw it and swat. Venus and Serena. That’s called grit ball.”