Barbecue is nice, and fried green tomatoes have a catchy name. But if you want the dish that truly represents the South these days, skip them both and turn to another recipe entirely:
Shrimp and grits, the shrimper’s breakfast born on the tidal creeks of the Lowcountry, has become the iconic dish of the South – and an attraction all the way to Portland, Maine.
During the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolinians expected the jokes about the state’s food, weather and politics. They didn’t expect that the convention’s most popular nosh, served in everything from cocktail glasses to chafing dishes, would turn out to be the signature of another city – in another state.
“It’s become the go-to dish that represents the South,” says Matt Lee, who writes Charleston, S.C.-based cookbooks with his brother, Ted Lee.
“Shrimp and grits say ‘Southern’ in such a clean, elegant way,” Matt Lee said.
Maybe this election year was destined to be the year of the grits. Even Mitt Romney declared in March that he had started one day of campaigning in Mississippi with “a biscuit and some cheesy grits.”
(That’s cheese grits, bubba – cheesy sounds like something you’d make with Velveeta. But we’ll give you credit for trying.)
For those who come from outside the South, grits inevitably inspire a little hesitation. To quote Joe Pesci’s character in “My Cousin Vinny”: “What the heck is a grit?”
But for the caterers and party planners who were asked to “tell the story of Charlotte and the South” at welcoming events for the Democrats, shrimp and grits was a no-brainer, said caterer Jill Marcus of Something Classic, who served it several ways at several parties.
“They wanted to taste what Southern food tastes like,” she said.
“That was one of the dishes we make that is Southern, and it was easy to do on a large scale.”
It was also a chance to correct some impressions, she said. Many visitors from the Washington area had already formed a negative opinion about grits.
“They said, ‘I didn’t know I liked grits.’ I said, ‘Well, if you do them right .’ “
What’s right, according to Marcus? “Butter, cream and cheese. And you have to start with good grits.” She uses stone-ground, heirloom-corn grits from Geechie Boy Mills on Edisto Island, S.C.
Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy uses antique milling equipment to make his grits. He credits Charleston chef Sean Brock with bringing a new attention to the authenticity of Southern ingredients.
Shrimp and grits has caught on so much around the country that Johnsman says he even sells grits to a restaurant in Portland.
“You don’t realize the Southern contingency in Maine,” Johnsman said. “And because of the novelty, they take a little more liberties. They might use lobster instead of shrimp. It blows me away.”
Given its history, we shouldn’t be surprised that shrimp and grits has traveled so far. It may have started at breakfast in Charleston, but it made the jump to the national scene in Chapel Hill, in the hands of the late chef Bill Neal.
Neal was a native of South Carolina, so he knew the original, a breakfast of shrimp sauteed in bacon grease and butter and poured over grits. But at the restaurant Crook’s Corner in the 1980s, he dressed it up and served it as a dinner dish.
Today, Bill Smith Jr. is the chef at Crook’s Corner, where he continues Neal’s legacy as well as creating cuisine of his own. He gets asked about the dish all the time, but he says he never gets tired of making it.
“It sounds sort of hokey – it’s sort of Mayberry-sounding,” he said, referring to the fictional Southern town that was the setting for the “Andy Griffith Show” in the 1960s. “But it’s really good. It’s like a sophisticated Italian supper.”
Long before Neal adopted it, shrimp and grits had already gone through transitions.
Lori Pearson, of Charlotte’s Savor Cafe and a native of Charleston, remembers two versions – a dressier one with cream and a simpler version that was more like a tomato-based gravy.
“We grew up with people who shrimped for a living,” she says. They made the tomato version, although she now serves the cream-based kind at her restaurant.
Matt Lee has been researching the history of the dish for “The Lee Brothers Charleston Cookbook,” due out next spring. The original version, he said, wasn’t tomato or cream. It was a pound of shrimp sauteed in a half-pound of butter, flavored with salt and pepper and served over hominy grits. The shrimp were tiny, very fresh creek shrimp that exuded their juices to make the sauce.
In the 1950s, the sauce changed to a tomato-based gravy that involved ketchup, Worcestershire, bacon grease and flour.
Lee thinks Bill Neal restored the original by keeping the bacon but losing the ketchup.
Today, he says, chefs all over the South are doing what he calls “shrimp and grits 2.0,” with all kinds of riffs.
At Halcyon: Flavors of the Earth in Charlotte, chef Marc Jacksina does an Asian-inspired version that involves Korean kimchee and shrimp braised in dashi, a Japanese fish broth.
Lee loves that Charleston has shared something that’s caught on so well with the rest of the South.
“We’ve loved our (N.C.) barbecue for a while now and that’s not really a Charleston thing,” he said, laughing. “So the score is settled.”
TOMATO-BASED SHRIMP & GRITS
Culinary historian and author Matt Lee thinks the classic Junior League book “Charleston Receipts” was one source of a version that included ketchup. It was originally called “Breakfast Shrimp.” Since the original didn’t include directions for cooking grits, called hominy in Charleston, we added directions from “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook” (Norton, 2006).
1½ cups stone-ground grits
1½ cups whole milk
4 cups water, divided, plus a little more to finish the sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons rendered bacon drippings (see note)
2 tablespoons chopped onion
2 teaspoons chopped green pepper
1½ cups small, peeled, raw shrimp
1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon ketchup
Stir the grits into a bowl of cold water and let settle. Skim off any hulls that float to the surface and drain the grits. Bring the milk and 3 cups water to a boil over high heat in a medium saucepan. Add the grits, stirring with a wooden spoon. Reduce heat to medium, add salt and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. When the grits begin to thicken, reduce heat to very low and cook, stirring often and adding more water if needed. Cook 35 to 45 minutes, until grits are fluffy and creamy. Season with salt and pepper.
Begin the shrimp gravy about 15 minutes before the grits are done: Heat the bacon fat in a skillet and add the onion and green pepper. Cook gently until both are soft and the onion is golden. Add the shrimp and cook, turning several times. Add enough water to make a sauce. (The book directs: “Do not cover the shrimp with water or the sauce won’t have enough taste.”) Simmer 2 to 3 minutes, just until shrimp are cooked.
Whisk the flour with about 2 tablespoons water to make a paste. Stir into the sauce with the Worcestershire and ketchup. Cook slowly until the sauce thickens. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve over the grits.
NOTE: While many Southern cooks once kept bacon grease on hand, most of us don’t do that anymore. For this recipe, fry several slices of diced bacon in a skillet, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Use the bacon fat in the skillet to saute the vegetables, then stir the diced bacon back into the gravy just before serving.
CROOK’S CORNER SHRIMP & GRITS
From “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking” (UNC Press, 1989 edition). Chef Bill Smith Jr. of Crook’s Corner says they still make it according to Neal’s original recipe, but they skip the nutmeg that he included in the book. (Supposedly, Neal didn’t use it either.)
4½ cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup grits, preferably stone-ground
¾ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
Butter, Tabasco and white pepper to taste
1 pound fresh shrimp
6 slices bacon
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup finely sliced green onions
1 large clove garlic, peeled
4 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
GRITS: Bring salted water to strong boil in a saucepan. Slowly sift the grits through one hand into the water while stirring with a whisk in the other hand. When all the grits have been added, continue stirring and reduce heat to low until only an occasional bubble breaks the surface. Continue cooking for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Beat in a good quantity of butter, Tabasco and white pepper, then stir in the cheese. Hold in a warm place or in the top of a double boiler over simmering water.
Peel shrimp, rinse and pat dry. Dice bacon and saute lightly in a skillet, until edges are browned but bacon isn’t crisp. Add enough peanut oil to the skillet to make a layer about 1/8-inch deep. When hot, add shrimp in an even layer. Turn shrimp as they start to color, add the mushrooms and saute about 4 minutes. Turn occasionally and add the green onions. Add the garlic through a press and stir around. Season with lemon juice, a dash or two of Tabasco, parsley and salt and pepper.
Divide grits among four plates. Spoon the shrimp over the grits and serve immediately.