Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

How Charleston's Humble Shrimp and Grits Became the Signature Dish of the South

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

How Charleston's Humble Shrimp and Grits Became the Signature Dish of the South

Article excerpt

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 during the Democratic National Convention, 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 Ms. 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. Shrimp and grits 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 says. "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 is a native of Charleston.

She 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.

TOMATO-BASED SHRIMP & GRITS

1 1/2 cups stone-ground grits

1 1/2 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

1 1/2 cups small, peeled, raw shrimp

1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon ketchup

Stir the grits into a bowl of cold water and let settle. …

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