In 1985, Craig Claiborne visited Bill Neal’s restaurant, Crook’s Corner, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and after sampling many dishes, asked Neal to prepare shrimp and grits for him in his kitchen the next morning.
Claiborne soon published the recipe in the New York Times, and the national craze for shrimp and grits was on. While the recipe has been replicated—usually with disappointing results—in restaurants across the country, this is Neale’s original:
6 cups cooked grits with cheese (I use a white cheddar) Tabasco sauce Freshly grated nutmeg White pepper 1 pound (454 g) fresh shrimp 6 slices bacon Peanut oil 2 cups sliced mushrooms 1 cup finely sliced scallions 1 large garlic clove, peeled 4 teaspoons lemon juice Tabasco sauce 2 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley Salt and pepper
Season grits to taste, but lightly, with Tabasco, a very little nutmeg, and white pepper. Hold in a warm place or in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Peel the shrimp, rinse, and pat dry. Dice the bacon and sauté lightly in the skillet. The edges of the bacon should brown, but the bacon should not become crisp. Add enough peanut oil to the bacon fat in the skillet to make a layer of fat about a quarter of an inch deep. When quite hot, add the shrimp in an even layer. Turn the shrimp as they start to color, add the mushrooms, and sauté about 4 minutes. Turn occasionally and add the scallions. Add the garlic through a press and stir around. Then season with lemon juice, a dash or two of Tabasco, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Divide the grits among four plates. Spoon the shrimp over and serve immediately.
I have before me an article out of one of those upscale magazines devoted to the South as an intellectual and cultural milieu. This magazine is printed on the finest paper, has photographs taken by talented people, and if you put it on your coffee table, you’re liable to impress someone with your je ne sais quoi.
Inside, an article on Southern food (ever-so-quaintly called “fixin’s”) targets “a grand grits revival.” The author cites grits pilaf, grits croquettes, stone-ground grits with morels, Southern fried grits, grits crackers, Logan Turnpike grits (God only knows what that is), and sweetbreads with grits as evidence of this renaissance.
People, this is chic commercial jive operating under the auspices of promoting a naturally progressive cuisine. Southern cooking is progressive; as new ingredients become available they’re assimilated into traditional recipes, often with good results, and as far as cultural assimilation is concerned, Southern cooking is a brilliant hodgepodge of distinct cultural influences, Native American, West European, and African, the tripod which forms the basis of the cuisine itself, and as new peoples with different traditions move into the region over time the such basic elements as grits as we know them will reflect these changes in wonderful ways we can’t begin to fathom.
But a shotgun wedding with French cuisine (or any other cuisine, for that matter) is much too artificial to be taken seriously. This effort seems more intended to get people to pay exorbitant amounts for a serving of grits than it is to create a compatible blend of ingredients. For better or worse, grits are versatile; they’re essentially starch, as are potatoes, rice or pasta. But can you honestly claim as the author does that adding “innovative twists and fresh accents” such as morels and/or sweetbreads to grits that you have a dish that “reflect(s) the changing nature of the South”?
I think not. For one thing, these recipes are the products of commercial establishments, of upscale restaurants designed to attract diners who have the time and money to eat at high-end tables. Recipes such as these tend to be the brainchildren of down-home boys and girls raised on their mothers’ or grandmothers’ good Southern cooking who travel to France where they stay in Paris or Provençe, sopping up the local hubris, naturalizing their schoolroom French and drinking themselves into a pixilated delusion of fraternity with the local Jaques Bonhommes on the local vin ordinaire.
While there, they of course become so enamored of le haute cuisine de la France that they decide to launch a personal crusade bent on transforming the cuisine bourgeoise of the American South into “exciting food.” This is to say, of course, food that people will pay a lot of money for because they are “infused with French accents . . . and render (sic) with some finesse.”
For another thing, these commercial recipes are subject to the whims of restaurants, which are notorious for posturing. They have to be. If such recipes reflect the changing nature of the South, then the reflection is of a superficial and ephemeral nature. If foods can indeed be considered a barometer for a region’s or a nation’s changing identity—and they very well can, if examined properly—then foods should reflect such profound and lasting changes as those brought about by shifting demographics and to a somewhat lesser extent technological advances.
To be trendy and fashionable our dishes must be finessed. Is Southern food in, you say? Well, yes, but then it does need sprucing up a bit, doesn’t it? Let’s take that plain fried chicken and serve it on squash waffles with peach salsa. Black-eyed peas? Let’s puree them, pat them out into cakes and fry them in olive oil and serve them with an herb-laden tomato puree. Grits? Yes, with morels, sweetbreads and jalapenos, deep-fried and served with cranberry chutney . . . This cooking is catchy to be sure, but I hardly think it’s significant.
Our best foods are narratives embedded in time and place, told by people for whom cooking is a conversation, not the monologue of a flim-flam chef manqué.
If there’s any mandatory dish for Southern breakfast buffets, it’s cheese grits, but there’s no definitive recipe. This one comes from the hand of the châtelaine of an old plantation house in Arkansas, which in my world gives it some distinction.
Bring 1 quart milk to a boil. Add a half cup butter and a cup of grits. Cook, stirring constantly until the mixture is the consistency of oatmeal, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add salt and pepper, and beat the mixture well with an eggbeater (a hand mixer works just fine). Add 3 tablespoons butter, stir in a half cup grated Gruyère, and pour into a greased 2-quart casserole. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan, and bake at 350 for an hour. This dish can be made the day before, serves 10, very good with game.
For six servings, cook one cup grits in one and a half cups water and one cup whole milk with a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of butter. Once done, add a half cup of shredded cheese (I like Edam or Gouda). Pour into an oiled casserole or skillet to cool until just warm. Make six depressions in grits about two inches apart with the back of an oiled spoon and break an egg into each hole. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and bake at 350 uncovered until eggs are how you like them (about ten minutes for hard-cooked).
Rick Louvain is a charmer from New Orleans who puts on more airs than a mountain range. He loves going to little urban supermarkets “to see what the Great Unwashed are consuming,” and insists on dragging me to my little neighborhood store for a scathing inventory.
Finding the produce aisle nothing more than a compost heap, his withering assessment of the floral department brought a tall bald queen around the corner clicking his nails like a scorpion, so Rick bought a rose and gave it to him in a thankfully effective gesture of reconciliation.
After declaring every can in the store a ptomaine grenade, we hit the meat section. I was jittery because the butcher on duty was my buddy Charlie, who has the build of a Sumo wrestler and the disposition of a lamb. After a sweeping forensic analysis of the meat section as a whole, we came to the discount section where he grabbed a flat pack of cubed steak for two bucks and grinned. Big ole Charlie was right next to him, humming to himself and marking down hamburger. Rick slapped Charlie on the shoulder. “Hey! Is this round steak?”
I tried to die three times.
“It surely is,” Charlie said with the most bountiful smile in the known universe.
“Great!” Rick said. “Run three pounds fresh through the tenderizer for me. We’re gonna get some stuff in the deli, we’ll be back in a couple of minutes.” Charlie winked at me when we got the meat, and I think he was thanking me for the customer, but I’m not sure. He goes out of his way to cut me t-bones to order, and that’s a certain sign of affection, if you ask me.
Once out of the store, Rick said, “We’re going to make grillades. This is what my gammy uses. She breads it, fries it, makes a roux in that, throws in some garlic and onion, bell pepper and celery, diced tomato, cooks it down in a casserole in the oven, food of the gods, and you’re cooking.”
“You never let up on me, Rick. I’m gonna die in your harness.”