A Short History of Shrimp Grits

Photo by Robb Walsh
Shrimp grits started out as a seasonal fisherman’s dish of shrimp cooked in bacon grease served over creamy grits in the Low Country where they were also known as “breakfast shrimp.” The simple seafood breakfast became an iconic Southern dish after Craig Claiborne wrote about it in the New York Times in 1985.

The shrimp grits that fired Clairborne’s imagination came from Crook’s Corner restaurant in North Carolina. The chef there, Bill Neal, started out with a French restaurant, but with Clairborne’s encouragement, created his own upscale Southern cooking style in the 1980s. Bill Neal went on to write some best-selling Southern cookbooks. Neal’s shrimp grits featured a spicy sauté of shrimp over cheese grits loaded up with bacon, mushrooms and scallions. The shrimp and cheese grits ($19) at Ouisie’s Table, Houston’s original upscale Southern restaurant, were inspired by Bill Neal’s recipe.

Neal died at an early age, and it seems that every Southern chef has felt obligated to follow his lead and come up with a new spin on shrimp grits. John Currance makes his grits extra spicy at Central Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. Frank Stitt makes a soupy rendition he calls Shrimp and Grits Etouffee at Highland Grill in Birmingham.

At Houston’s Catalan, Chris Shepherd serves Northern Spanish/Southern Texan fusion shrimp grits ($25) with bacon and goat cheese grits and roasted piquillo pepper butter. The pimientos del Piquillo are fancy roasted red peppers imported from Northern Spain.

Last year, in Hot Plate, Paul Galvani wrote about Zin’s shrimp grits appetizer ($11) of four jumbo shrimp in a cup of grits cooked with andouille sausage and paprika oil and served with some grated parmesan on the side.

At Backstreet Café’s Sunday brunch, the shrimp are grilled and the grits are topped with green onions ($19). At So Vino, the Westheimer wine bar that features bottles from the Southern hemisphere (mostly), the shrimp and cheese grits go for $17 and are recommended with a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc.

I have enjoyed every version of shrimp grits I’ve tried. But my friend, Southern food writer John T. Edge, is wary of all these upscale variations. And his mama, who comes from the Low Country, doesn’t think some of this stuff is really shrimp grits at all.

I can identify. I remember when Jane and Michael Stern published a book called Chili Nation with recipes for chili from all over the country. The book included maple syrup chili from Vermont, macadamia nut chili from Hawaii and shrimp chili from Maryland. The recipes were all well and good--they just weren’t recipes for chili.

I am not sure Edge would approve of my shrimp and grits either, since I don’t use the traditional river shrimp from Charleston. But if you can forgive the Texas brown shrimp, this recipe is pretty close to the original.


Texas Brown Shrimp and Jalapeño Grits

The shrimp fishermen who made the original Low Country breakfast shrimp didn’t serve them with cheese grits, and I don’t either. The grits I make at home are Anson Mills stone-ground yellow grits cooked overnight in a crockpot in a mixture of three parts water to one part milk. I do like them spicy though. Cut down the amount of jalapeño or substitute green pepper if you are cooking for wimps.

4 cups cooked yellow stone-ground grits
1 stick of butter, divided use.
1 onion, finely chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, minced (or to taste)
1 rib of celery, finely chopped
6 green onions, chopped
Half cup cream (or as needed)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound Texas brown shrimp, shelled
Tabasco sauce
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Green onion tops for garnish

Over medium heat, melt three quarters of the butter in a skillet and sauté the onion, pepper, celery and half of the green onions in it. Add salt and pepper to taste. When the onion is softened, add the grits and stir. Add cream and keep stirring until the grits are the desired consistency.

Over medium heat, melt the rest of the butter in another pan and add the garlic and the rest of the green onions. Stir until wilted, then add the shrimp. Salt to taste. Cook, stirring frequently until the shrimp are just cooked through. Add Tabasco sauce to taste.

Put a pile of grits in the center of a bowl or plate and top with shrimp. (Or you can arrange the shrimp around the outside of the grits.) Sprinkle with pepper and garnish with shaved green onion tops. Serve immediately with a Bloody Mary.

Serves 4



-- Robb Walsh

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