With a mother who was born in Georgia and raised in Tennessee, I grew up on grits, always assuming that everyone knew what they were. Along with many assumptions we lose as we grow up, that one disappeared one Sunday in the spring of 1974 when I was 22. My (now former) husband was in his first year at Stetson College of Law in Gulfport where we lived in a tiny garage apartment across the street from the school.
We were one of the few married couples in his class, which was mostly young men far from home. Perpetually starving young men, as I soon learned, who shared dorm rooms and ate the dreadful cafeteria food almost exclusively. I was in the beginning phase of what would become a lifelong love of cooking, and who better as test cases than these guys who began "dropping by" around dinnertime, grateful for even the most miserable or bizarre experiments from my stove? (Eggplant-hot dog casserole: Enough said.)
In those first months, some became our friends, and I decided near the end of the first year to have a big Sunday brunch for all of them. (Brunch was a lot cheaper than dinner and we were pretty poor.)
That morning, our living room resembled a peaceful student sit-in. We could accommodate exactly three people properly, so the floor became a carpet of about 30 scrunched-up male bodies sitting shoulder to shoulder.
But it was a cheerful group. Someone had brought a big bottle of horrible vodka that got poured into tomato or orange juice. I made pans of cinnamon rolls and several vats of scrambled eggs. And, because it was always an expected component in any complete breakfast, I made grits in the huge red electric wok that had been the wedding gift du jour the year before.
The eggs, rolls and vodka were merrily consumed. But as most of our guests approached the grits, they assumed an expression of curious confusion.
Their faces said: ???
"You know, grits," I said. "They're just in a wok," thinking the wok was throwing them off.
Too polite and self-interested to still the hand that was feeding them, they accepted their scoops of grits and regained their square foot of space on the floor. They became quieter.
"What are grits?" one finally asked.
Now it was my turn to ???
I had never had to explain grits before. They were just . . . grits.
"You don't know what grits are?" I said.
Most shook their heads. Well of course not, I realized. Most of them were from up North, poor things. I explained they were a form of ground corn — not like the cornmeal you put in corn bread (more blank looks) — that you cooked into a transcendent Southern porridge.
So I served a lot of grits during our three years in that apartment. I served a lot of other things, too, and became a better cook along the way.
The guys seemed to like everything, but it was always the grits most of them loved best; maybe it was just sentimentality as grits were the first truly Southern food they had ever eaten. Three years later at graduation, one of our friends who was returning to New York to family and a job gave me a big hug and said, "I'll miss you. But I'll miss your grits more."
Today, my old friend probably couldn't avoid grits in New York. They're the "new" polenta (remember that craze?), favored by chefs there and everywhere else as a trendy comfort food. No wonder: They can stand alone in a bowl with nothing more than a hunk of butter or accommodate all manner of special treatments, accepting and gracious like, my mother would say, any good Southerner. Or, as I now believe, like any good person anywhere since grits have become part of a conversation that doesn't always come with a drawl.
Stone-ground grits get fancy treatment
I like the standard box of quick-cooking grocery store grits as much as anyone, but these days I tend to use stone-ground grits. They have attitude, at once creamier, nuttier and more flavorful. They take much more time, burbling at a bare simmer for 30 to 40 minutes and in need of a lot of stirring.
Stone-ground grits are available locally, but to get the Rolls-Royce product, order them from Anson Mills (see box), usually the source for those fancy dishes you read about in restaurant reviews.
The recipe here is one of those glamor-grits treatments, a tweaked version from one of my favorite New Orleans restaurants, Bayona, and its superstar chef, Susan Spicer. Shrimp and grits is a classic Southern dish with as many interpretations as there are shrimp and grits cooks.
In this one, the grits are prepared as a thick form of cheese grits that are cut into cakes and sauteed. I roast the shrimp in the oven on a foil-lined baking sheet, mainly to avoid using one more skillet to saute them. And with a bechamel base, this is saucier than some.
You might be unfamiliar with tasso. An ingredient in Cajun cuisine, it looks and tastes like ham but it's a smoked pork butt, highly seasoned and intensely flavored, so it's commonly used as an aromatic addition rather than a standalone. I have never found it locally so I order it from D'Artagnan. (I wrote about the company and its products in an earlier Mail-Order Mission story. See box.) A good smoked ham or bits of sauteed, thick-cut bacon or pancetta would be fine substitutions.
The recipe has three steps, but the grits, the biggest time-taker, have to be done in advance if you want them as cakes. You can eat them as they are without the chill and cake parts; they won't look as chef-y but either way will be delicious.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.