Tacoma loves its traditions, its history, and those elements that define it as uniquely Tacoma – those “gritty” pieces that add up to make us the Grit City. But did you know there’s a little more grits in that Tacoma grit, especially when we look back at Tacoma’s festive traditions? And by grits, I do in fact mean the food.
Much in the same way Scrooge confronted the ghost of Marley by declaring “there’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” we at Post Defiance relish the opportunity to reveal the true origin of Tacoma’s Grit City moniker.
A Brief History of Grits and Cereal Milling in Tacoma
Its well known that the South prides itself on its grits where the dish originated as a Native American preparation. Corn was a staple of the Native American diet, and grinding it to a coarse meal was a great way to preserve it. Now (according to wikipedia) three-quarters of grits sold in the U.S. are sold in the “grits belt” – a region of the South stretching from Texas to Virginia. In fact, the state of Georgia declared grits its official prepared food in 2002.
But Tacoma also has its own unique relationship with the classic corn porridge, stretching back to its days as a Western-expansion boomtown. Prior to the establishment of European settlers in the region, agriculture for Northwest American Indian tribes was minimal as the mild climate allowed for a flourishing hunter gatherer culture. But as the commerce and composition of the Tacoma area began to change, this simple staple began its humble ascent.
During the early 1840s, pioneers pushed up the Columbia and Cowlitz rivers and settled all the way to the area known as New Market (now Tumwater) where Colonel Michael Simmons built the first American-owned Western Washington mill in 1846. Great grandfather to Bing Crosby, Miller Clanrick Crosby, later bought the Simmons mills (and Bing was born in Tacoma in 1903).
By 1847, Thomas M. Chambers established another mill just north on Chambers Creek which remained in operation for many years. Within 20 years, the Commencement Bay area boasted three flour mills, six saw and /or woodworking mills, and a tannery. As trade and access to foodstuffs grew, the way was paved for Tacoma to boom.
Tacoma’s population grew dramatically between 1880 and 1890, swelling from 1,098 to an overwhelming 36,006. A growing citizenry came with a growing appetite, and flour and cereal mills sprang up to meet the demand.
Grain trade was huge, becoming a significant source of commerce before the next major industry, lumber, was established. Tacoma had a mile-long grain warehouse on the waterfront, handling wheat production and export originating from Washington.
But the Tacoma boomtown dwellers weren’t entirely satisfied by cereal meal made from wheat. Many had immigrated from the East and South and longed for the customary foods of their homelands. With clear and growing demand, enterprising millers determined that corn meal must be made available.
In the late 19th century, a German immigrant named Bernhard Albers saved the money he earned working for a Pacific Northwest wholesale grocer with the goal of going into business for himself. Convinced of the opportunities in Portland, Oregon, he persuaded his four brothers to join him. In 1895, with $15,000, the brothers and another partner formed a milling company. By 1899, they formed the Albers Bros. Milling Company, and Albers Cornmeal was born.
Of Booms, Booze, and Opportunity
The boom towns of the American west had a well-deserved reputation for a certain degree of lawlessness, and Tacoma was certainly no exception. Where flaunted luxury was a moving target, the warm comfort of 19th century hedonism was clear and accessible: alcohol, sporadic religious revival, pay-as-you-go sex – the bedrock of frontier civilization – all ruled the city.
Only in the right conditions can such uncivilized behavior gain any sort of societal acceptability. In some places, that devil-may-care attitude faded as quickly as it arrived, but in others like Tacoma, it lingered and left a lasting brand.
Grits – raw, mealy, hearty, absorbant grits – earned a special role in rough-edged Tacoma. As local newspaperman Paul DiAnno wrote, “After a hard day working the frontage at Dickman Lumber, a certain measure of rye whiskey was acceptable and required. And when the jug must at last be set to the shelf, what better to calm the belly than a steaming bowl of lightly salted grits?”
After all, a bowl of grits is cheap – as cheap as horse or chicken feed. Grits required no refrigeration or preservation, and could be served as long as some sort of hot liquid was at the ready. The mills around Tacoma were happy to feed the demand.
By 1911, Tacoma had the Puget Sound Flouring Mills, the Tacoma Grain Company, Watson & Olds, Albers Milling Company, and the Cascade Cereal Mills. The city continued to grow, supported by endless lumber demand, maritime trade, and railroad commerce.
Over the next 30 years, the Albers Brother’s Milling Company continued to thrive and grow absorbing other mills along the west coast, including Carnation Wheat and Carnation Oats. In 1929, the Carnation Milk Products Company, makers of Carnation Evaporated Milk, purchased the Alber’s Brother’s Milling Company uniting two family owned west coast companies known for their dedication to producing products of the highest quality.
By that time, grits had become a standard foodstuff in Tacoma, proudly symbolic of hard work and regrettable decisions. A small fleet of cart vendors lined the muddy margins of the waterfront roads and Pacific Avenue on weekend nights, peddling hot grits to hard-working revelers.
“So, for all its boom and bustle, Tacoma got the nickname of Grit City because of the homely meal that helped sustain it,” Blaze Bayley wrote in a contemporary article for the Ellensburg Sun.
As fortunes improved and a strong economy took root in Tacoma, some of the common workers found success and considerable wealth. “But that didn’t mean their tastes had changed entirely,” says Northwest historian Janick Gers. “Respectable restaurateurs were quite often asked whether grits were on the menu, and had to oblige.”
That set the stage for the most definitive anecdote in Tacoma’s love affair with grits. In late December of 1921, one of the mill managers threw a gala holiday event on Pacific Avenue, with the help of the newly formed Downtown Lions Club.
Rows of long tables crowded the street’s entire width for several blocks, some beneath the shelter of large canvas circus tents. According to Janick Gers, carolers were led in song by twelve-year-old Robert Murray, a Tacoma boy who had just won national acclaim for singing the highest notes ever hit by a human voice (story here).
And what was on the menu that cold but glamorous night? Grits, of course. “Cauldrons overflowing with grits were stationed every 30 yards down Pacific Avenue,” Gers says, “And festive condiments were set out so that each citizen could accessorize their grits in their own particular way. Some remember sprigs of rosemary, bowls of colored sugar, pitchers of iced cream, blocks of yellow cheese… It’s hard to imagine an event like this getting approval from any health department today!”
More than any other event, that massive Downtown Christmas Party in 1921 established the tradition of Christmas Grits in Tacoma. The dish gradually began to disappear from breakfast menus as cereal milling became a less prominent industry in Tacoma, but for a few, Christmas Grits are still a special part of local holiday cuisine.
Christmas Grits Today
In 2007, the pivotal blog Exit133.com began hosting an annual Grits Potluck, complete with taste judging and prizes (Exit133 Grit City Holiday Potluck), which continued with great popularity through 2009 (Grits City Social 2009… Are you Gritty Enough). A few Post Defiance writers attended, but were not fortunate enough to win the highly competitive contest.
Families all over Tacoma still pass down cherished Christmas Grits recipes – some simple, some exquisite – which merrily emerge on Christmas morning. In fact, it can be difficult to find grits on the shelves of Tacoma’s grocery stores if one delays their holiday grocery shopping too long.
The fun and festive nature of Christmas Grits is indeed one of our stickiest links to our city’s rough-and-tumble past.
Just as we keep the gritty spirit alive by passing along the story of Christmas Grits, perhaps you will be inspired to share it with your loved ones. Consider making that proud tradition a part of your holiday celebration this year. If you’ve never prepared grits before, you will find a lot helpful insight from these great recipes we found at AllRecipes.com:
Merry Christmas, Grit City. Eat your grits and stay warm.
*All historical information represented in this article is less fact and more the collective imagination of the Post Defiance editorial board. (Although Bing Crosby’s great grandfather was in fact a Puget Sound area miller!)