By Celia Barbour
By and large, I am what is known in the marketing world as an Opinion Leader when it comes to my family’s eating habits. I decide what is good, and my family decides to like it. (Though, to be sure, this process hits the occasional snag.) But grits are a different story. My husband, Peter, is a genuine southerner, raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina, by a Charleston-old-family mother and a very-happily-transplanted father. And he eats grits.
He eats grits, our three children eat grits, and now I eat grits, too, having been won over by their enthusiasm for this eminent corn porridge.
It wasn’t that I’d never encountered grits before. Growing up in Indiana (which is quasi-Southern by temperament, if not by geography) grits were around, but to me they were a novelty food, like hush puppies — not something you’d make every day. But then I met Peter. In the 17 years since our fates entangled, his go-to homemade weekend breakfast has included a large pot of grits to go with the scrambled eggs and bacon.
At the table, he fills his plate with grits, then crumbles his bacon over it, along with some grated cheddar cheese. Then he mixes in the scrambled eggs, too, creating a plateful of chaos the sight of which used to make me shudder. For many years, I ate my scrambled eggs on toast, properly, with a dainty little dollop of grits as accompaniment. When the kids came along, they chose, for some confounding reason, to follow Peter’s lead, not mine. Eventually, I gave in. What choice did I have? And I have not gone back.
We don’t even make toast on these mornings anymore.
Yet while Peter and I are now very nearly on the same page with regards to grits (our only difference being that he will eat the Quaker brand and I will not), quarrels continue to rage throughout the grits-loving world. These mostly have to do with nomenclature — though grits are called “hominy” in parts of the South, many food historians argue that true grits are not made from actual hominy, but rather from plain dried corn. Moreover, some people blur the distinction between grits and polenta. The difference is real, but irrelevant, unless your corn is ground with a millstone.
As for me, I am an open-hearted, diversity-embracing kind of gal these days when it comes to grits. Not least because grits themselves have been getting better and better, part of this country’s broader movement towards heirloom foods and artisanal practices. Grits are traditionally made from dent or flint corn — which is to say, corn varieties that are suited for drying rather than eating as a vegetable. (In the United States, less than one-half of one percent of the acres devoted to corn are used to grow sweet corn, the kind you eat on the cob; the rest is field corn, used to feed animals, make ethanol, and produce things like corn oil, corn starch, and Doritos.) In recent years, many Southern producers have started growing traditional dent and flint varieties and cold-grinding them to make grits with real bite and flavor.
And still the wars rage! Purists say that the only truly respectful way to serve such grits is cooked with cream and topped with butter. But I’ve had grits topped with shrimp and gravy many times since meeting Peter, and if there is a finer way to serve grits, I do not know it. Indeed, made well, it is one of the most delicious dinners I know.
Dinner? Wait a minute! I’m told that shrimp and grits is a breakfast dish, and should always only and ever be a breakfast dish, since it was first served to shrimpers in the mornings before they headed out onto the waters.
To which I say: Oh be quiet and eat. And trust me: You will like it.
Shrimp and Grits
Make the shrimp stock first — unless you’re short on time, in which case you can substitute equal parts chicken stock and beer (but it won’t be quite as good).
1 pound shrimp
½ cup andouille sausage or bacon, diced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 medium shallots, minced
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons butter
1½ tablespoons flour
1 recipe shrimp broth, hot (see below)
2 scallions, thinly sliced
- Peel and devein the shrimp, reserving the peels. Return shrimp to the refrigerator while making the broth. (If you’re not making the broth, heat 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock to a simmer.)
- In a large skillet over medium-low heat, brown the bacon or sausage until crisp, about 10 minutes. Push to one side of the pan. If there’s not much fat in the pan, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Raise heat to medium high, and add the shrimp, turning them as they cook. After 2 minutes, season the shrimp with salt and pepper, and add the garlic, shallot, and jalapeno. Toss to combine. Cook until shrimp are opaque, 3-5 minutes total, depending on size. Transfer the contents of the skillet to a platter.
- Return the skillet to the heat; reduce to medium-low. Melt the butter; when it sizzles, whisk in the flour. Cook, stirring constantly, about 4 minutes. Gradually spoon the hot broth or stock into the flour mixture, whisking vigorously after each addition (if it starts to look like it’s separating into clumps, keep whisking and adding small amounts of stock until it becomes silky). When all the broth is incorporated, add the shrimp mixture back to the skillet and stir; heat just until warmed through. Serve over grits, topped with scallions.
For the grits
3 cups water, plus more as needed
salt and pepper
1 cup grits
¼ cup cream
1 cup grated sharp white cheddar
1 tablespoon butter
- In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Very slowly pour in the grits, whisking constantly. Return to a boil, then reduce heat to a bare simmer and cook until tender (this can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 75 minutes, depending on the grits), stirring regularly and adding more water as needed.
- When the grits are tender, mix in the remaining ingredients. Keep warm until ready to serve.
For the shrimp broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
Reserved peels from 1 pound shrimp (see above)
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 ribs celery, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 cup beer
1 plum tomato
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
salt and pepper
- In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the shrimp peels, onion, celery, and garlic, and sauté, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft and beginning to brown, about 10 minutes.
- Add 2 cups water plus all the remaining ingredients except the salt, bring to a simmer, and cook at a low simmer about 1 hour. Strain, discard the solids, and return the stock to the pot. Continue cooking until reduced to 1 cup; keep warm.