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Ode to Shrimp and Grits

June 14, 2011

“One of these things is not like the other; one of these things just doesn’t belong.”  It was something like this old Sesame Street song that played in my head when I first heard the name of what is now one of my favorite dishes: Shrimp and Grits.  I like shrimp cooked just about any old way (except with coconut, of course), and I am a bona fide Southern boy – meaning, I like my grits just about any way, too, except with sugar.  But together?  That didn’t seem to fly. 
On the other hand, when I first heard about shrimp and grits, I was living way across the world, and it was certainly not served in any of the restaurants we were eating in.  Shrimp we could get – we were less than a day’s drive from the Red Sea.  But grits were nowhere to be found unless we brought them ourselves in our suitcases.  Until we moved back to Stark-Vegas, I could only imagine how this new-fangled dish might taste.
Turns out, it’s not such a new-fangled dish.  Shrimp and grits, as most restaurants call it these days, was originally called breakfast shrimp, or just shrimp grits.  Its origins are from the Low Country of South Carolina, particularly around Charleston.  Local fishermen, especially during shrimp season, would season their grits with a little bacon fat and serve with fresh caught shrimp.  The earliest published recipe, called “Hominy and Shrimp,” comes from a Charleston area cookbook printed in 1934, and seems to have been around for at least half a century or more before that.   
Let’s be real, though.  The dish we enjoy at dinnertime in upscale restaurants these days is not likely the same as the basic breakfast those Low Country shrimpers were eating about every morning.  We can thank Craig Claiborne for that.  Claiborne was the New York Times food editor for three decades, and a native of Sunflower, Mississippi - so I’m guessing he knew his grits. He wrote an article in 1985 about the shrimp and grits served at Crook’s Corner restaurant in North Carolina, and over the past 25 years the original recipe (spicy sautéed shrimp over cheese grits spiked with bacon, mushrooms and scallions) has evolved into a myriad of adaptations throughout the fine dining establishments of the South. 
I was pleased to discover upon returning to Mississippi that I would not have to travel far to try some.  At least three places in Starkville alone serve it, and each is unique.  Harvey’s has a Cajun kick to the shrimp and a tangy sauce, while Central Station Grill boasts oven-roasted tomatoes and serves their grits fried up in a cake.  Chef Tyler tosses sautéed spinach in his extra-creamy grits and wraps the shrimp in bacon.  If you are willing to drive a little further (and clearly, I am), the Ritz Café in West Point uses MSU’s edam cheese and a little sweet corn to set their grits apart, and bows to the original recipe by throwing in some apple wood bacon.  Go south a bit and you can experience two vastly different interpretations in Louisville.  Lake Tiak-O’Khata serves theirs with shrimp both in and on top of the cheese grits; the Market Café tosses the shrimp with lots of sausage and bacon – gotta love the pork supplements. 
Now to go north.  Chef John Currence serves shrimp and grits at two of his Oxford restaurants.  City Grocery has been serving it for a long time, I think – that may actually be where I first heard about it.  But his Boure’ restaurant was the first place I tasted one of his interpretations.  When I was giving my order to the waitress, she and college buddy Bill debated on my behalf whether or not I should try it, given that I had not tried the City Grocery version yet.  She assured me the Boure’ variety was good, just different.  I like different, and I did not have the frame of reference they were concerned about, so I ventured forth confidently and was greatly rewarded.  The shrimp were there, but oh, they had so many friends: andouille sausage, garlic, onions, tomatoes, corn and sweet bell peppers in a Creole cream sauce – all that ladled over a garlic-cheese grit cake.  I would have licked the plate clean if I could have.  And I did eventually get my chance to try City Grocery’s rendition a few months later.  It seemed to have ingredients very similar to the original Crook’s Corner recipe – I left nary a grit on that plate, either.
South Carolina’s declaration of grits as the official state food quotes: “A man full of grits is a man of peace.”  Toss some shrimp on top, and my peace runneth over.
 
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist.  The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff.  He    welcomes your comments at eatsoneate@gmail.com.

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