Best known today for its wine, the island of Madeira, 625 miles southwest of Portugal, was once a stopover for merchant and slave ships of the “triangular trade,” traveling between Africa, America, and Europe from the 1600s to the 1800s. Many crypto-Jews, called conversos or bnei anusim (the forced ones), lived on Madeira, where they first encountered one of the tastiest items coming from the port of Charleston: corn grits.
Until this New World food arrived, Jews—and most everyone else in Europe—ate gruel or porridge made from chickpeas, beans, barley, rice, or wheat for breakfast, and sometimes dinner. But corn grits changed the menu. (In Italy, these grits were ground a bit rougher, and later became polenta.)
Jose Meirelles, owner of Le Marais kosher steakhouse in New York City, is a native of Madeira, so it’s no surprise that his restaurant serves grits. On a recent visit to Le Marais, I tasted a dish made with fried corn grits and kale and garlic, which Meirelles pairs with steak skewers as a special. Since I prefer not to deep-fry at home, I have converted his recipe into a corn grit kale kugel. It is delicious with brisket, fish, or chicken—and even for breakfast with smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.