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2000s Archive

Kiss My Grits

Originally Published October 2000
If you want to mess with tradition, says southerner John T. Edge, make sure that it’s your own.

Thirty-plus years into our intermittent national love affair with southern cooking, the coordinates on our culinary map are out of plumb. Somewhere along the way, gourmet grocers tossed kiwis and kumquats into southern shopping carts.

There’s scrapple in my freezer case, broccoli rabe in my produce aisle. Lord help me, but I’ve even been served collards perfumed with anchovy paste. And of the southern foods for which a death knell has been sounded—fried green tomatoes and salmon croquettes among them—I grieve the most for shrimp and grits, a dish of elegant simplicity, long popular in the Carolina Lowcountry. Thanks to a legion of trend-happy restaurateurs, the dish’s origins as a fisherman’s breakfast are now obfuscated, its subtleties consigned to memory.

At first blush, we southerners appear to dote on sturdy fare. Truth be told, though, ours is a fragile cuisine. Gumbo doesn’t travel well north of I-10. Skillet-fried chicken requires a slow hand, an experienced eye. In the best kitchens there is a delicate balance at work, an empirical attention to source, technique, and historical precedent. And so it is with shrimp and grits. The simplest—and by my estimation, the best—recipes call for little more than sautéing small river shrimp in butter until pink and then serving the whole affair over a pool of creamy stone-ground grits. The most complex— and by my estimation, the worst—recipes substitute oversize tiger prawns for river shrimp and stoke the grits with extraneous flavorings, including chives, chèvre, and, heaven forbid, pesto.

The beginning of the end can be traced to a singular occurrence. In 1985 Craig Claiborne, then the food editor at The New York Times, visited Crook’s Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. After sampling chef Bill Neal’s version of shrimp and grits, Claiborne wrote a praise-filled article that included the recipe. In Neal’s capable hands, the dish was taken to new heights. Neal was a native of South Carolina, a student of southern foodways. He had license to toy with the foods of his youth, and so mushrooms and garlic were added, nutmeg sprinkled.

The problem is that in succeeding years, a host of New Southern restaurants have taken to one-upping Neal’s creation. A few weeks ago, I spoke with a chef working in central Georgia. “I was born in Canada,” he told me, “but I just fell in love with southern food when I moved down here.” Need I even tell you? He put Swiss cheese in his grits and seasoned his shrimp with a dry rub better suited to Boston butt.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of well-executed innovation. I’ve savored egg rolls stuffed with New Orleans–style red beans and rice. I’ve tasted a Reuben sandwich made with fried catfish, coleslaw, and country ham. I’ve eaten grits couscous. I liked it all.

For me it’s a question of provenance. Even if I’m sitting in a San Francisco diner, I want to know that a Cajun stirred my crawfish bisque. Tell me there’s a native of Savannah dishing up that plate of red rice in Manhattan and my defenses drop. Show me the dot on the map where your journey begins and I won’t question your destination.

Vibrant local cuisine depends on educated, engaged eaters, willing and able to spot a fraud at 50 paces—somebody like, say, my mother, a native of the Lowcountry. I remember telling her some years back about an entrée of shrimp and grits strewn with Swiss chard that I had eaten in a tony D.C. restaurant. She fixed me with a look at once curious and sad. “Son, that’s not shrimp and grits,” she said with a smile. “You’re talking about something different.”

I realize that my plaint smacks of the provincial. I guess that’s my point. I wish to revel in the provincial, to celebrate the diversity of southern cuisine. My aim is not to slap some sort of gastronomic restraining order on chefs intent upon experimentation. No, my only request is this: When you next heft your skillet to the stovetop, bent upon taking liberties with shrimp and grits, take a moment to consider from whence the dish came. There’s no need to add a quarter wheel of Jarlsberg to the grits, or to shower the shrimp with shavings of hickory-smoked beefalo. My mother thanks you. I thank you.