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Shrimp and grits at Fort Defiance in New York City. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

When it comes to Southern foods, what could be more iconic than shrimp and grits? They're routinely cited as a classic of the Southern table, and they can be found on the menus at white tablecloth bistros and cafes from Louisville clear down to Orlando.

In 2006, Nathalie Dupree, the noted Southern food writer and cooking show host, published Nathalie Dupree's Shrimp and Grits, an entire book devoted to that one dish. The book presents some 80 variations, and its opening line reads, "Shrimp and grits, one of the South's beloved foods, leaves a lingering taste and a folkloric mystique that borders on the mystical."

The funny thing is, until just fairly recently, there weren't a whole lot of Southerners eating shrimp and grits. In fact, most Southerners hadn't even heard of the dish. It was one of the many regional specialties that were found in only one specific part of the South—the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia.

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Shrimp and grits with bacon. [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

In recent years, as Southern cuisine has come into vogue nationwide, this mystical dish has become something of a culinary ambassador. One can now find them all over the country at pretty much any restaurant that offers a Southern-inspired menu. The recently closed Peel's in Manhattan served shrimp and grits with tasso bacon and jalapenos for a whopping $26.50. At Big Jones in Chicago they're finished with scallions and house-made Worcestershire sauce. In January of this year, Chowhound named shrimp and grits its San Francisco Dish of the Month and prompted its Bay Area readers to recommend as many restaurant versions of the dish as they could. They came up with more than two dozen candidates.

I grew up in South Carolina myself, but in the upper part of the state at the edge of the Appalachians. The first time I remember eating shrimp and grits is when I was in my mid-20s and was dining at a recently-opened "New Southern" cafe in Columbia, South Carolina, a city that theretofore had been known primarily for pimento cheeseburgers and barbecue.
Shrimp and grits are part of a phenomenon that I've come to call pan-Southernism, in which dishes and cooking styles that were once unique to specific parts of the South are rolled into a single melting pot of cookery that gets labeled "Southern cuisine."

The concept of "Southern cooking" is sort of like that of "Italian cooking," an umbrella term that combines an array of localized styles that were once quite distinct. In both Italy and the American South, if you travel just a few hundred miles, the entire culinary culture changes—or at least it once did, for these days the diverse patchwork of styles is beginning to blur.

A (Recent) History

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Shrimp and grits at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill. [Photograph: Lee Davenport, Flickr]

Up until the 1980s, the only time shrimp and grits appeared in print was as a passing reference in travelogues or magazine articles about a quaint local food encountered in the sleepy, historic city of Charleston. The dish started out as "shrimps and hominy," since hominy was the term Charlestonians used for cooked grits until well after World War II. It was a breakfast dish, and some Charlestonians ate it every morning during shrimp season, which runs from June until October. Back then, it was made with "creek shrimp," the small, sweet-flavored immature shrimp that were caught in hand nets in the tidal creeks that snake through the Lowcountry marshes. (Ocean-going trawlers that bring in the jumbo shrimp from offshore didn't start working South Carolina waters until after World War II.)

Shrimps and hominy remained an obscure regional dish for decades, one that was prepared and eaten in people's home, not restaurants. But something happened in the closing decades of the 20th century to transform shrimp and grits into one of the archetypal dishes of Southern cuisine.

The more I've looked into it, the more I think the elevation of shrimp and grits can be attributed to a single chef: Bill Neal of Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A self-taught chef, he moved to Chapel Hill to attend graduate school but ended up opening Crook's Corner in 1982, turning his back on teaching for what became a brief but highly-influential career that was cut short when he passed at the age of 41.

Robert Stehling began working at Crook's Corner as a college freshman just a few months after they opened, starting off as a dishwasher and working his way up to head cook before heading off to New York to work in some of that city's most noted kitchens.

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Shrimp and grits at Hominy Grill in Charleston. [Photograph: Wally Gobetz, Flickr]

"At that time [Crook's Corner] was a European bistro grafted onto a corner barbecue joint," Stehling recalls. "It forged its identity out of having a business hybrid."

Its original menu was dominated by Mediterranean-style dishes. But Bill Neal was devoted to exploring and sharing the great regional dishes of the South, like Cajun-style étouffees and muddle, a fish soup from North Carolina's Outer Banks. He grew up in Gaffney in the Upstate of South Carolina, but he spent a good bit of time in Charleston, where he discovered the specialties of that region like hoppin' john, she crab soup, and shrimp and grits.

This last dish helped transform Crook's Corner into a Southern fine dining restaurant. "Once it went on the menu, it became a real staple," Stehling says. "I remember it being as much as a third of everything we sold in a night. We did 300 covers and 90 of them would be shrimp and grits."

Shrimp and grits remains Crook's Corner most popular dish, and current chef Bill Smith sticks true to Neal's original recipe. It starts with a base of cheese grits laced with cheddar and parmesan. There's no thick gravy or sauce in the Crooks Corner version; it's more of a stir-fry, with jumbo shrimp tossed with sliced button mushrooms, garlic, bacon, and scallions along with a little hot sauce and lemon juice.

In 1985, Craig Claiborne of the New York Times visited Crook's Corner and was quite impressed by the shrimp and grits. He had Neal cook them for him the next morning and published the recipe for "Shrimp with Cheese Grits" in his newspaper column. Neal also included his recipe in his influential book Bill Neal's Southern Cooking (1989), and Food & Wine picked it up and reprinted it, too.

The Jump to Fine Dining

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Shrimp and grits from Commander's Palace in New Orleans. [Photograph: Katherine Martinelli]

By the mid 1990s, shrimp and grits had started to spread across the South, and, in a ironic twist for a dish that began as a humble home breakfast food, it did so as a dinner entrée in fine-dining restaurants. In 1996, John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed wrote in 101 Things Everyone Should Know About the South that "Neal's recipe for shrimp and grits is now a cliche in yuppie restaurants throughout the South (though no less tasty for that)."

Around the same time that Bill Neal was elevating shrimp and grits inland in North Carolina, a new generation of chefs in Charleston were transforming the combination into the city's premier restaurant dish. These include Louis Osteen at Louis's Charleston Grill, Donald Barickman at Magnolias, and Frank Lee at Slightly North of Broad, each of whom put their own creative spins on the dish.

At Magnolia's, for instance, Barickman cooked his shrimp with spicy Italian sausage and served them in a thick tasso gravy. The addition of tasso—a spicy Cajun smoked pork from Louisiana—was a clear Southern fusion move, bringing the flavors of one specialized regional cuisine to another.

Within just a few years, everyone who came to visit Charleston had heard of shrimp and grits and wanted to sample the city's signature dish, and restaurateurs gladly accommodated them—so much, in fact, so that there started to be a backlash against a dish that many local chefs had come to consider clichéd tourist fare.

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Shrimp and grits at Surrey's in New Orleans. [Photograph: Megg, Flickr]

Those chefs included Robert Stehling, who after his sojourns in New York had moved down to Charleston and opened Hominy Grill, the acclaimed Southern-centric restaurant that won him a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast in 2008.

"When I opened Hominy," Stehling says. "I worked really hard to avoid [shrimp and grits]. By that time in 1996, it was something you needed to have on your menu if you were a serious restaurant in Charleston. But I wanted to forge my own identity."

It took Stehling several years to relent and finally put shrimp and grits on his menu. Though customer demand certainly was a factor, Stehling says, "I think there's more it than that. There's the immediate pressure, but it's a really great tasting combination, and it really has come to be an identifier, a sense of place here. I think it beckons because if you're here and you're immersed in those ingredients, it's there eventually. You can't avoid it."

Stehling didn't feel the need to put his own spin on the dish. "As far I'm concerned," he says, "it's exactly the dish we served at Crooks Corner. But it has 30 years of intervening drift in between."

It's easy to see why shrimp and grits have taken off as a fine dining entrée. The basic recipe offers a great combination of flavors—fresh shrimp, smoky bacon, and creamy grits—and it serves as a foundation upon which chefs can really go crazy.

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Shrimp and grits at Magnolias in Charleston. [Photograph: Jennifer Yin, Flickr]

At the Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, chef/owner Chris Hastings makes his grits with heavy cream and fresh thyme, and he tops them with a tomato and butter sauce brightened with verjus and garnished with thinly-sliced country ham. At Commander's Palace in New Orleans, executive chef Tory McPhail adds fire-roasted chiles, corn, and charred tomatoes alongside the shrimp and serves them in a spicy barbecue sauce made with local Abita beer.

But my preference is to get back to the basics and keep things simple. Start with fresh shrimp (the sweet creek variety if you can get them) and use real stone ground grits and a little smoky bacon.

It's been a remarkable journey for a once-obscure breakfast dish that's now an icon of Southern fine dining. Now that diners nationwide are discovering the delightful combination of rich shrimp and creamy grits, its culinary celebrity seems like to keep on growing.

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