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Charlestons shrimp and grits is a humble dish full of native history
Once the breakfast for humble fishermen, shrimp and grits has become a signature Southern dish and high cuisine. - photo by T. Ortega Gaines

Barbecue is nice, and fried green tomatoes have a catchy name. But if you want the dish that truly represents the South these days, skip them both and turn to another recipe entirely:

Shrimp and grits, the shrimper’s breakfast born on the tidal creeks of the Lowcountry, has become the iconic dish of the South.

During the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, we expected the jokes about North Carolina’s food, weather and politics. We didn’t expect that the convention’s most popular nosh, served in everything from cocktail glasses to chafing dishes, would turn out to be the signature of another city — in another state.

"It’s become the go-to dish that represents the South," says Matt Lee, who writes Charleston, S.C.-based cookbooks with his brother, Ted Lee.

"Shrimp and grits say ‘Southern’ in such a clean, elegant way."

Maybe this election year was destined to be the year of the grits. Even Mitt Romney declared in March that he had started one day of campaigning in Mississippi with "a biscuit and some cheesy grits."

(That’s cheese grits, bubba — cheesy sounds like something you’d make with Velveeta. But we’ll give you credit for trying.)

For those who come from outside the South, grits inevitably inspire a little hesitation. To quote Joe Pesci’s character in "My Cousin Vinny": "What the heck is a grit?"

But for the caterers and party planners who were asked to "tell the story of Charlotte and the South" at welcoming events for the Democrats, shrimp and grits was a no-brainer, said caterer Jill Marcus of Something Classic, who served it several ways at several parties.

"They wanted to taste what Southern food tastes like," she said.

"That was one of the dishes we make that is Southern, and it was easy to do on a large scale."

It was also a chance to correct some impressions, she said. Many visitors from the Washington area had already formed a negative opinion about grits.

"They said, ‘I didn’t know I liked grits.’ I said, ‘Well, if you do them right ...’"

What’s right, according to Marcus? "Butter, cream and cheese. And you have to start with good grits." She uses stone-ground, heirloom-corn grits from Geechie Boy Mills on Edisto Island, S.C.

Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy uses antique milling equipment to make his grits. He credits Charleston chef Sean Brock with bringing a new attention to the authenticity of Southern ingredients.

Shrimp and grits has caught on so much around the country that Johnsman says he even sells grits to a restaurant in Portland, Maine.

"You don’t realize the Southern contingency in Maine," Johnsman said. "And because of the novelty, they take a little more liberties. They might use lobster instead of shrimp. It blows me away."

Given its history, we shouldn’t be surprised that shrimp and grits has traveled so far. It may have started at breakfast in Charleston, but it made the jump to the national scene in Chapel Hill, in the hands of the late chef Bill Neal.

Neal was a native of South Carolina, so he knew the original, a breakfast of shrimp sauteed in bacon grease and butter and poured over grits. But at the restaurant Crook’s Corner in the 1980s, he dressed it up and served it as a dinner dish.

Today Bill Smith Jr. is the chef at Crook’s Corner, where he continues Neal’s legacy as well as creating cuisine of his own. He gets asked about the dish all the time, but he says he never gets tired of making it.

"It sounds sort of hokey — it’s sort of Mayberry-sounding," he says. "But it’s really good. It’s like a sophisticated Italian supper."

Long before Neal adopted it, shrimp and grits had already gone through transitions. Lori Pearson of Charlotte’s Savor Cafe is a native of Charleston.

She remembers two versions — a dressier one with cream and a simpler version that was more like a tomato-based gravy.

"We grew up with people who shrimped for a living," she says. They made the tomato version, although she now serves the cream-based kind at her restaurant.

Matt Lee has been researching the history of the dish for "The Lee Brothers Charleston Cookbook," due next spring. The original version, he said, wasn’t tomato or cream. It was a pound of shrimp sauteed in a half-pound of butter, flavored with salt and pepper and served over hominy grits. The shrimp were tiny, very fresh creek shrimp that exuded their juices to make the sauce.

In the 1950s, the sauce changed to a tomato-based gravy that involved ketchup, Worcestershire, bacon grease and flour.

Lee thinks Bill Neal restored the original by keeping the bacon but losing the ketchup.

Today, he says, chefs all over the South are doing what he calls "shrimp and grits 2.0," with all kinds of riffs.

At Halcyon: Flavors of the Earth in Charlotte, chef Marc Jacksina does an Asian-inspired version that involves Korean kimchee and shrimp braised in dashi, a Japanese fish broth.

Lee loves that Charleston has shared something that’s caught on so well with the rest of the South.

"We’ve loved on (N.C.) barbecue for a while now and that’s not really a Charleston thing," he said, laughing. "So the score is settled."

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