Barbecue is nice, and fried green tomatoes have a catchy name. But if you want the dish that truly represents the South these days, skip them both and turn to another recipe entirely: shrimp and grits.
The shrimper's breakfast born on the tidal creeks of the Lowcountry has become the iconic dish of the South.
During the recent Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, we expected the jokes about North Carolina's food, weather and politics. We didn't expect that the convention's most popular nosh, served in everything from cocktail glasses to chafing dishes, would turn out to be the signature of another city — in another state.
"It's become the go-to dish that represents the South," says Matt Lee, who writes Charleston, S.C.-based cookbooks with his brother, Ted Lee.
"Shrimp and grits say 'Southern' in such a clean, elegant way," he said.
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 for the Democrats, 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."
Matt Lee has been researching the history of the dish for The Lee Brothers Charleston Cookbook, due next spring. The original version, he said, wasn't tomato or cream. It was a pound of shrimp sautéed 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.
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 on (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 of shrimp and grits that included ketchup. It originally was called breakfast shrimp. Because the original didn't include directions for cooking grits, called hominy in Charleston, we added directions from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook.
Tomato-based shrimp and grits
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 raw shrimp, peeled
1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon ketchup
Stir grits into a bowl of cold water and let settle. Skim off any hulls that float to the surface and drain the grits. Bring milk and 3 cups water to a boil over high heat in medium saucepan.
Add grits, stirring with a wooden spoon. Reduce heat to medium, add salt and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.
When 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 grits are done: Heat bacon fat in a skillet and add onion and green pepper. Cook gently until both are soft and the onion is golden.
Add 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.
Whisk flour with about 2 tablespoons water to make paste. Stir into sauce with the Worcestershire and ketchup. Cook slowly until sauce thickens.
Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve over the grits.
Makes 4 servings.
Note: While many Southern cooks once kept bacon grease on hand, most don't do that anymore. For this recipe, fry several slices of diced bacon in a skillet, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Use the bacon fat in the skillet to sauté the vegetables, then stir the diced bacon back into the gravy just before serving.