“A day without grits is a day without sunshine.” ““ Southern saying
I first moved to New York from the south over eight years ago, a piddly amount of time if you think about it in the larger picture, but also a chunk of time that has caused me to question how the hell it goes by so fast. As the years have jumped by, I’ve spent most of my holiday time celebrating by working and watching other people enjoying their holiday, which has included everything from waiting tables to dressing up like a bottle of French wine. These long days, which could make for an entire collection in and of itself, would eventually end and I would go home to and try and figure up some semblance of a holiday meal, usually following the great tradition of booze + Chinese food. It has served me well.
As the years passed, I felt less and less like an adult-with-a-capital-A living in this pattern, and more and more disconnected from not only my family, but from Southern culture. It’s a tricky feeling: it’s easy to romanticize the South when you aren’t necessarily living in it, potentially looking over the warts and what it actually means to be Southern. Still, it doesn’t stop me from aching a little bit inside when I’m reminded that I’m far from home in more ways than just distance. I do miss my home, despite the unsavory aspects. My family, who views holidays merely as reasons to eat, will often gather themselves up and suck enough liquor down to wait patiently for collard greens and neck bone gravy. At some point, homemade moonshine or ouzo gets broken out and, like the kids say, shit gets real. As Julia Sugarbaker once famously said, “This is the South. And we’re proud of our crazy people. We don’t hide them up in the attic. We bring ’em right down to the living room and show ’em off. See, Phyllis, no one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.”
I couldn’t agree with Ms. Sugarbaker any more. Southern culture is synonymous for two things: eating and drinking. And we do it real well. So for whatever is lost in distance, is always regained in food, which is why I swear by shrimp and grits for whenever I’m feeling worn by “holiday” cheer.
First, a bit of back-story. Shrimp and grits is a classic low country southern dish. Low country is different from “the South.” We are Southern, no doubt, but we run up and down the southern coastline, mainly stretching from lower Georgia to mid-North Carolina. This is always debatable (Florida and Virgina always try to nudge in and I say no), but the way I have always heard it justified is that something about this stretch being under the sea level, which attributes to our “colorfulness” (code word for bizarre). Our food comes out of the tradition of most Southern food: poor folk food, a mixture of French, Minorcan, Yamacraw, Greek, Caribbean, and the community that deserves the bulk of the credit, African-American. There’s debate around when the first actual shrimp and grits came to be. Many accredit it as a Gullah staple, some contribute it to a Yamasee dish of hominy and boiled shrimp that was standard fare, and some consider it created by seasonal shrimpers who used leftover shrimp to eat otherwise plain grits that were cooked with bacon grease. Like most historical tales of how food came to be, I believe all three.
To make this recipe requires three different parts: cooking the shrimp, cooking the grits, and making the roux (gravy, y’all). If you are feeling really industrious, you can peel your shrimp the night before, set aside in the fridge and then boil the shells to get an extra kick for your grits broth – it’s an extra step that I’m going to leave out of the recipe for now. This recipe is my Yiye’s – my grandma. We couldn’t say Yiya (Î³Î¹Î±Î³Î¹Î±, the Greek word for “grandma”) when we were little, because we were raggedy Southern children. But for now, let’s not waste anymore time, shall we?
Low Country Shrimp and Grits Recipe (Yiye’s Savannah Style)
1 ½ lb of shrimp, peeled and de-veined
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
Juice from 1 lemon
Chopped green onion and parsley (these are accoutrements ““ lovely and delicious ones, but purely extra)
6 cups chicken (shrimp shell, if you were inclined) broth. If you want, you can also substitute the broth with heavy salted water, but the broth gives it a better flavor and if you’re going to do this, go all out.
2 cups quick grits (usually called minute grits)
2 cups cheddar cheese
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
½ cup of heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
1 stick salted butter
¾ cup of Spanish yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ cup seafood or chicken stock
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Bacon grease from 1 cooked pack of bacon (you will have to cook this separately from everything else)
¼ cup heavy cream
Touch of Worcestershire sauce
Touch of white wine or a light beer (again, this is an extra that if you are like my family and cook with booze as all good people do, it gets thrown in there at the end)
1. Put shrimp in a large mixing bowl and cover with Cajun seasoning, salt and pepper, lemon and the chopped green onion and parsley. Set aside.
2. Pour stock in a large pot and bring to a boil. Slowly add the grits and stir over a low heat for around five minutes. Around the five-minute mark, the grits will start to become thicker and softer. Add cheddar cheese, garlic, and heavy cream. Continue to stir for around two minutes or until grits are thick. Turn heat off and set aside and add salt and pepper to taste. A tip: try not to make too salty. It’s better if they are on the plain side, as your shrimp and roux will be salty.
3. In a large pan, combine butter, onions, bacon grease, and garlic. Cook on low and sautÃ© until garlic and onions are both transparent. Add shrimp and sautÃ© for around 2 ½ minutes or until bright pink. It’s easy to overcook shrimp, so take care to cook them at a maximum of three minutes. Once shrimp are done, turn heat on low, and remove only the shrimp.
4. Now, add your flour to the fantastic leftover that sits in your pan. Turning the heat up to a medium low and gently stir for around ten minutes. The color of the roux should turn to a nice light brown. Be careful not to let the roux stand or to turn the heat up ““ roux burns easily and burnt roux tastes like garbage. Once the roux has cooked for about ten minutes, add your cream, stock, Worcestershire sauce and your wine or beer. Stir, taste, and now add hot sauce to your liking. Turn heat off.
Now comes what you have labored over so generously. Scoop yourself a nice heap of grits, add your shrimp and generously ladle yourself some roux over your grits. If you feel like being a real ass to your digestive system, add some boudin sausage or some chorizo.
Now enjoy. Really enjoy.
When I eat shrimp and grits, I feel at home again. Southerners do not fear fat, butter, and gravy. We love it. We sweat it. It runs in our blood, which I think makes for another part of why we are the way we are. The smell of this dish brings me back to being home, where it’s not only heavy and humid, but salty and pungent from the low tide marsh. It tastes like home because it’s home to me, especially during the holidays when the combination of loneliness, separation, overworking, and the goddamn Christmas music and cheer have gotten on my last goddamn nerve.
So while some folks do turkey or dressing, I like to hold my own with shrimp and grits, celebrating my family and my roots, rather than a bunch of folks landing up on a rock and becoming the worst neighbors ever. It might not be the most secular or even the best way, but it’s one that’s keeping me company and feels more like something worth celebrating than some of the other options out there.