Shrimp and Grits — Down-Home Comfort
Down-home comfort has caught fire in the last 10 years or so with the classic low-country dish Shrimp and Grits. It's being served in white tablecloth restaurants from Savannah to Seattle. Perhaps the epicenter of the shrimp and grits phenomenon is Charleston, S.C. Charleston is one of the most-popular travel destinations in the United States, an absolute magnet for foodies and tourists, and home to some of the country's finest restaurants. My friend and mentor Nathalie Dupree, who now resides in Charleston, has an entire cookbook devoted to shrimp and grits. She writes: "Shrimp and Grits, one of the South's most beloved foods, leaves a lingering taste and a folkloric mystique that borders on the mythical. Each community and ethnic group along the region's shorelines brings its own cultural influences to the dish."
All true and made even more interesting that the now-lofty combination of shrimp and grits was a lowly porridge eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner by coastal residents, black and white. Folks harvested shrimp from the tidal waters to augment their diet. Grits, or ground corn, is simple country food and a touchstone of Southern cooking. And that is usually where the similarities end. There are recipes with bacon or sausage, grits with and without cheese, sauces with roux-based brown gravy, and those with peppers and onions. My grandmother, from South Carolina, made a tomato-based sauce for her shrimp and grits, so that's what I grew up eating, and that's what I am sharing with you.
It's easy to forget there is a shrimp season. All that many of us know is that there are shrimp in the seafood case. The best season for Atlantic and Gulf shrimp is roughly late summer through early winter, but that varies year to year and state to state. Check with your seafood shop or department to make sure you are buying sustainable wild American shrimp — not pond-raised imports.
Georgia-born, French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has cooked lapin Normandie with Julia Child in France, prepared lunch for President Clinton and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. A Southern food authority, she is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y'all, among others. Follow her continuing exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.