Shrimp and grits as a thing, a meal that’s worthy of attention, first crossed my radar in 2010 on a trip to Charleston, South Carolina. Grits weren’t something I much cared for prior to that experience, having never seen any that weren’t white and watery and unfit for anyone with taste buds. All of that changed in Charleston. Now I make shrimp and grits at home on nights when I want something special, full of flavor and great memories, connected to the modern South, a place entirely different from what outsiders assume it to be.
I revisited Pat Conroy’s novel, Beach Music, this summer. Conroy, born and raised in the low country south of Charleston, wrote about its terrible beauty in many novels. He even wrote a cookbook.
I say terrible beauty because if you’ve read a Pat Conroy novel you know that terrible things happen to good people and good things happen to terrible people and the settings and the people are beautiful, even when they are brutal.
This is a food blog where politics aren’t on the menu. But I can’t write about my experience of Charleston without confronting certain historical facts that have a direct relationship with the city’s culinary present. Most slaves entering the United States passed through the port of Charleston. By 1720 the Black population outnumbered the European population in South Carolina, a fact I plucked from a book called Black Majority, an academic, fact-based history of the colony of South Carolina by Peter H. Wood. It covers the period of the colony’s founding in 1670 to the Stono Rebellion in 1739, the largest slave rebellion up to that time in the British colonies in North America. It set the stage for the brutality that followed up to the Civil War.
The melancholic legacy of slavery struck me hard, viscerally, when I stood at Fort Sumter and felt neither pride nor moral superiority but sadness, grief, loss. By firing the first shot in the Civil War against the United States, South Carolina placed itself on the wrong side of history, and knowing that only deepens those sad feelings. It’s a tough legacy set down for the generations who followed.
Charleston’s historic role as a port of trade led to the development of a complex cuisine. Cooking methods, spices, and foods from Africa, the Caribbean, France, Spain and Portugal converged there. Charleston today continues that melting pot tradition with many of its people having come from away for work and study or a vacation that didn’t end. It seduces like few places can.
“Because even beauty has its limits, I shall always remain a prisoner of war to this fragrant, voluptuous latitude of the planet, fringed with palms and green marshes running beside rivers for thirty miles at a time, and emptying out on low-lying archipelagoes running north and south along the coast before the Atlantic’s grand appearance. The low country had laid its imprint on me like the head of some ancient king incised on a coin of pressed copper. The whole earth smelled as though a fleet of shrimp boats had returned for a day’s work on tides of rosewater and eelgrass.”Pat Conroy. Beach Music.
Before you begin, I suggest ordering your grits from Geechie Boy Mill, a family run company located on Edisto Island, South Carolina. I used their Jimmy Red grits when I made the meal I photographed for this post. If you can’t get good quality grits use polenta.
For the shrimp:
- 2 slices of bacon.
- 1½ pounds (¾ of a kilo) medium raw shrimp. Peeled and deveined.
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt.
- ½ teaspoon black pepper.
- ¼ cup flour (optional) spread out in a shallow bowl.
- 2 chopped scallions or green onions.
- 1 tablespoons olive oil.
- About a cup of sliced mushrooms. I use shiitake or cremini or a combination.
- 4-6 cloves of garlic.
- Juice from one small lime.
- 2 teaspoons of adobo sauce from canned chipotle peppers, or hot sauce of your choice.
For the Grits:
- 2 cups (375ml) chicken stock.
- 1 cup (250ml) water.
- diced dry cured chorizo, enough to make half a cup.
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt.
- 1 cup (142g) grits.
- 2-4 ounces (50-100g) shredded cheddar cheese. (up to you, depending on how cheesy you like your grits.)
- 1-2 ounces (20-40g) grated Parmesan cheese (more or less).
- 1 tablespoon of butter.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
- Heat a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat and cook the bacon until crisp. Remove to a plate lined with paper towel. Leave the fat in the pan.
- Sprinkle the shrimp with salt and pepper.
- Dredge the shrimp in flour and shake off any excess. If you are gluten intolerant, skip this step.
- Heat the skillet with bacon fat and sauté the shrimp until they become firm and pink. This will take 1-2 minutes per side. Remove to a paper towel lined plate.
- Sauté the scallions for a minute and then put them on the plate with the shrimp.
- Wipe out the skillet and pour in olive oil. Put it on medium heat. When the oil is hot, sauté the mushrooms until they release their juices and are browned. Add the garlic and cook another minute or two.
- Crumble the bacon and add it to the pan of mushrooms.
- Return the shrimp and scallions to the pan. Pour over lime juice and chipotle sauce, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Set aside and keep warm.
- Combine stock, water, chorizo and salt in a medium nonstick sauce pan and bring to a boil.
- Lower the heat to medium and slowly add grits in a stream, stirring.
- Simmer, stirring once in a while until the grits have cooked and begin pulling away from the sides of the pot (10-20 minutes depending on the grits you’re using).
- Stir in cheddar, Parmesan, and butter.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Spoon into bowls and top with shrimp.