I recently observed that you can't swing a cat in a Charleston restaurant without hitting a plate of fried green tomatoes. If this is not literally true, it's only because you'd hit a bowl of shrimp and grits first. In the past twenty years, the classics of "Lowcountry cuisine" have been officially canonized on the menus of local restaurants, and shrimp-and-grits tops the list. Like fried green tomatoes, though, shrimp and grits are a relatively recent newcomer to the fine-dining scene--especially in their current incarnations.
Fried green tomatoes achieved a bogus status as a Southern classic due to the movie version of Fanny Flagg's novel, but the pedigree of shrimp and grits is a little more genuine. Quite likely, shrimp-and-grits have been eaten in the Lowcountry of South Carolina for centuries. It's just that until the 1990s nobody made a big deal about them, you couldn't find them in restaurants, and they were really less a "dish" than two things served together, like ham and eggs or chicken and rice.
I did some digging but couldn't turn up any old recipes for shrimp and grits together nor even any references to them in diaries or journals. The best I could find were some recent food writers who look back to shrimp and grits as a breakfast dish. For example, John Martin Taylor writes in his Hoppin' John's Lowcounctry Cooking"Until recently families all over the Lowcountry partook of 'breakfast shrimp,' as the dish is often called, every morning during shrimp season." No one ever explains why people stopped eating breakfast shrimp, but I've never seen it served for breakfast in anyone's home here in Charleston (on restaurants' brunch menus, yes, but not in an actual home).
So how did shrimp-and-grits become the iconic Lowcountry dish? Abe Grant, who ran Abe's Shrimp House on Hilton Head Island from 1968 until 2000, claims to be the first person to put shrimp and grits on a restaurant menu, and from what I can tell he might be right. But, it was a few Charleston restauranteurs who seem to have put it on the culinary map.
When Donald Barickman opened Magnolia's in downtown Charleston in July 1990, he made the unusual choice to serve not French or Italian cooking--as most of the city's high-end restaurants did--but rather "Southern cuisine", focusing the menu on traditional regional foods such as collard greens and grits, the latter of which he called "the almost forgotten staple of the South". Barickman is often credited with sparking the "New South" culinary movement that took ingredients and recipes formerly found only in meat-and-threes and local home kitchens and putting them on the white tablecloths of upscale restaurants.
His version of shrimp and grits includes shrimp sauteed with chicken stock and Italian sausage and served over stone-ground grits cooked in chicken broth and cream, all of which is topped by a spicy Tasso ham gravy, and this style of preparation has become standard not only in the Lowcountry but throughout the South. Barickman wasn't alone in introducing shrimp-and-grits to the fine dining world--82 Queen was serving them at least as far back as 1992--but he was certainly one of the first.
So, shrimp-and-grits may not be a total newcomer on the scene, but it went uptown only in early 1990s--about the same time that fried green tomatoes became such a hit. In my mind, though, there's a huge distinction between fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits that you have to take into account: shrimp and grits are really, really tasty, while fried green tomatoes are just plain awful.
Now, if there is such a thing as old-school shrimp and grits, it would probably be just sauteed small shrimp served over grits made in plain old salted water, with maybe a little butter or onions to flavor things up. The New Southern style gussies things up by adding lots of cream, butter, and/or cheese to the grits and serving the shrimp in a thick, spicy sauce or gravy. Barickman's version, which comes with a tasso gravy, is less a true Lowcountry dish than a fusion of ingredients from different parts of the South prepared with modern restaurant cooking techniques. Tasso is a highly spiced smoked pork shoulder and a Cajun specialty. Shrimp is definitely a Lowcountry classic, but rice was the staple Charleston grain. Grits is more properly a backcountry food, and the New Southern style of preparation is more akin to polenta than what you'd find in Grandma's kitchen.
But that's no strike against it, in my mind. I've been a fan of New Southern style shrimp and grits ever since I first had them (which, if I recall correctly, was at Mr. Friendly's New Southen Cafe up in Columbia sometime in the mid-1990s), and I've spent quite a bit of energy learning to duplicate the various recipes at home. If you want to make shrimp and grits the way Charleston restaurants do, there are a couple of things you need to do:
1. Use fresh shrimp. Interestingly enough, the old breakfast shrimp recipes were for "creek shrimp"--the small, sweet shrimp caught in marshes and creeks. Most restaurants, though, go for the jumbo variety, butterflied down the middle before sauteeing, which makes for a more dramatic presentation.
2. Never, ever use quick or instant grits. Part of the success in the revival of grits in New South cooking is that the chefs wised up and realized that coarse, stone-ground grits are a thing of wonder. Instant grits made with water, on the other hand, are only slightly removed from eating wallpaper paste (and might, in fact, serve as an effective subsitute in a pinch.) Old fashioned stone ground grits used to be nigh-on impossible to find in stores, but most grocery stores in the area now carry them (though you often have to look on the specialty item shelves to find them). There are plenty of places where you can order them online, too, like here and here.
3. Cook the grits in stock, cream, or both. Good grits cooked in water are fairly tasty, but stock and/or cream give them extra richness and help win over converts who think they don't like grits because they've only had the Jim Dandy variety. You can add cheese to the grits, too, but with all the shrimp and sauce I don't think it's necessary.
From here, it's pretty hard to go wrong, and there are a thousand different variations. Here's my most recent favorite version, based loosely on Donald Barickman's recipe from Magnolia's:
For the grits:
1 cp milk
1 cp chicken stock
2/3 cp good stone ground grits
salt & pepper
For the tasso gravy:
2 T butter
2 T flour
1/4 cp diced tasso
1 cp chicken stock
salt & pepper
For the shrimp:
1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T parsley, minced
salt & pepper
1/2 glass white wine
Like most of my recipes, this makes just 2 servings.
Start with the grits first. Combine the milk and chicken stock in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Watch the pot carefully! Milk goes from nothing to a big foamy overflow in about three seconds flat when it hits the boiling point. At the first sign of foaming up, remove the pot from the stove and stir in the grits. Return to the heat and cook over medium-low to medium, keeping the liquic at just a simmer. Stir occassionally and add more liquid if necessary, cooking til the grits are soft and creamy--about 20 minutes or so.
While the grits cook, make the tasso gravy. Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the diced tasso and sautee a minute or two over medium heat until slightly browned. Add the flour and make a roux, stirring occassionally till light brown, about 5 minutes. Add in the chicken stock, stirring constantly until the flour is fully incorporated and the stock starts to thicken, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste towards the end.
Last is the shrimp. Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat and add in a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Add the shrimp, garlic, parsley, and spices and sautee, tossing the pan frequently to keep the shrimp cooking evenly, till the shrimp is pink all the way through and just beginning to brown around the edges--usually 2 or three minutes is all you need. Deglaze the pan with 1/2 glass of white wine.
To serve, place a large helping of grits in the middle of a plate or shallow bowl, spoon over the shrimp, and spoon a generous portion of tasso gravy over the top.
It may not be an old Carolina classic, but it's a new one, at least.