October 31, 2012

Shrimp and grits becomes iconic dish of South

By Kathleen Purvis / McClatchy Newspapers

(Continued from page 1)

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Shrimp and grits has become a signature Southern dish and high cuisine.

McClatchy Newspapers

"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."


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.

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