Photo: Iain Bagwell

South Carolina food writers, cookbook authors, and brothers Matt and Ted Lee talk with Chef Robert Stehling of Charleston’s Hominy Grill about the humble origins of one of the South’s most pervasive dishes.

For those of us who live down South, we know Southern food is so much more than just fried chicken and biscuits. Within the whole of our region there are distinct cooking cultures influenced by generations of people from all backgrounds and access to different resources. We asked five writers to team up with their favorite chefs to pick one dish that represents the culinary traditions in their corner of the South. From Texas to Virginia, we are exploring five plates with a sense of place like Louisiana’s  gumbo and the Deep South’s meat ‘n’ three. Each team delves into the history, the nostalgia, the complexities, and the beauty of each plate, and asks you to share in their traditions with recipes that honor the old and introduce new interpretations.

In this edition, Matt and Ted Lee explain how once obscure “breakfast shrimp” became one of the most famous Southern exports known as shrimp and grits with one of the chefs who brought them to popularity, Robert Stehling of the Hominy Grill.

The first thing to know about Shrimp and Grits is that it is difficult to improve on the original.

The elemental combination of local shrimp, fresh from the creeks, and coarse corn grits cooked to creamy smoothness—both ingredients are gently sweet and the dish is perfectly balanced between sea and land, without any further additions. Butter, salt and black pepper are clarifications, and the volume can be turned up by venturing into vegetable and spice territory, but the most minimalist expression is where the dish began, in the South Carolina Lowcountry, when an abundance of shrimp in season and a bag of white corn grits from the gristmill came together over breakfast.

In the past decade, “Shrimp and Grits” has become a popular dish on restaurant dinner menus nationwide, served by chefs channeling southern traditions, and it has earned its place in the pantheon of Southern icons, along with cornbread, fried chicken, gumbo, and pecan pie. While most Americans associate Shrimp and Grits with the Lowcountry and with Charleston in particular—the way Gumbo is New Orleans’ calling card—until the mid-1980s you’d never hear the phrase “Shrimp and Grits” uttered by a native Charlestonian, even though you might eat something that resembled it. That’s because, until the late 1980s (when an ambitious cadre of restaurants emerged in the Holy City and changed the lexicon of the dish) Charleston home cooks referred to cooked grits as “hominy—a term which in the rest of the world refers to nixtimalized corn, of the sort that goes into tortillas. Not here.

In fact, “Shrimp and Grits” was typically referred to as “breakfast shrimp,” served as the name implies, for breakfast. The “hominy” served with it was so commonplace as to be implicit.

The representative Lowcountry cookbooks of the twentieth century reveal the development, from this basic prototype to what we know of today as Shrimp and Grits. The first totemic cookbook in which we see the congress of shrimp and “hominy” in print is the 1930 Two-Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking, a compendium of recipes gathered by Blanche S. Rhett, who lived in Charleston with her husband, R. Goodwyn Rhett, mayor of the city from 1903 to 1911. The book was edited by Lettie Gay, and given an “introduction and explanatory matter” by Helen Woodward. In the “Shellfish and Fish” chapter of that volume, on page 20, is a recipe for “Shrimps with Hominy. The headnote reads: “This is a delicious breakfast dish, served in almost every house in Charleston during the shrimp season.” It’s intended to serve four people: a pound of raw shrimp, peeled, sautéed in four ounces of melted butter seasoned with salt and pepper, and served over a half-cup of “hot hominy” per serving. A distinction of this recipe is that it is noted to be “William’s Recipe”—as quite a few others are throughout the book. As explained in the headnote to the recipes for crab soup, William Deas is Blanche Rhett’s “able butler….one of the great cooks of the world,” referred to numerous times throughout the book, and the chef credited with inventing She-Crab Soup, another cardinal dish of Charleston.

By 1951, when “Charleston Receipts,” Charleston’s definitive cookbook of the 20th Century, was published, Shrimp and Grits began to acquaint itself with something more than salt and pepper. In those pages it is still called “breakfast shrimp,” but now there’s green pepper, bacon fat, onion, Worcestershire, ketchup, and flour to thicken it. It’s Mrs. Ben Scott Whaley’s recipe, and there’s a variation that says: “cooked shrimp may be floured and fried with onions browned in butter.” This basic profile of piquant, smoky-flavored Shrimp and Grits would remain the archetype throughout the remainder of that century.

But before we get to the present, it’s vital to talk about Bill Neal, who we believe is to credit for the popularization of the dish. Bill Neal was raised on a farm in Gaffney, South Carolina (upstate, peach-growing country), and opened a fancy French restaurant, La Residence, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In 1982, he left “La Res” to open the more casual Crook’s Corner, serving the kind of honest, simple, and refined farm cooking he grew up with to University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill students and professors. Though Neal died in 1990, his influence lives on today at Crook’s Corner, now helmed by Bill Smith, and also in the kitchens of so many of today’s superb Southern chefs, who spent time under his tutelage: Robert Stehling of Charleston’s Hominy Grill, whose Shrimp and Grits recipe is published here; John Currence of City Grocery, in Oxford, Mississippi; Karen and Ben Barker of Magnolia Grill (1986–2012) and Amy Tornquist of Watts Grocery, in Durham, North Carolina, to name a few. (Neal’s son, Matt, and Matt’s wife, Sheila, are proprietors of the excellent Neal’s Deli, in Carrboro, North Carolina).

Neal had spent time in Charleston, so She-Crab Soup and Shrimp and Grits have always been on the menu at Crook’s Corner. When the legendary New York Times food writer and editor Craig Claiborne, a Mississippian, wrote a lengthy feature for the paper about a visit he’d made to Neal’s kitchen, Shrimp and Grits achieved national stature. In Neal’s 1985 recipe, published in The New York Times, the shrimp are cooked in bacon fat, and dressed with lemon juice, sautéed mushrooms, and green onion.

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Robert Stehling’s recipe, included here, preserves Neal’s vision but gets it down to a quick, 3-minute science, achieving a kind of minimalism that’s very much in the spirit of the breakfast-shrimp original. Everyone in town has his or her own riff on shrimp and grits (and our own formula seems always to be evolving), but Stehling’s version has become the one dish that defines Charleston for visitors today.

Shrimp and Grits (serves 2-4)
This is a very traditional low country dish with many variations. At its simplest, just plain pan-fried shrimp with grits.

3 slices bacon, chopped
Peanut oil, optional
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons flour
1 ¼ cups sliced mushrooms
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon Tabasco
¼ cup thinly sliced green onions

In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until crisp, approximately 5-6 minutes. Drain the bacon on paper towels, reserve the bacon fat in pan and add peanut oil if needed to give you approximately 1 ½ tablespoons.

Toss the shrimp with the flour until they are lightly coated, removing any excess flour. Over medium-high heat cook the shrimp on one side, flip and add mushrooms and bacon. Cook approximately 2 minutes. Add the garlic, stirring constantly so as not to brown the garlic. Remove from heat and add the lemon juice, Tabasco and green onions. Spoon over cheese grits.

Cheese Grits
4 ½ cups water
1 cup stone ground grits
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon Tabasco

In a medium saucepan over high heat bring water to a boil. Whisk in the grits and salt , reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the grits are thickened, approximately 35-40 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the cheeses, butter, pepper and Tabasco, adding more to adjust seasoning as desired.