The Joys of Cooking Local While Traveling
Here is a statement you can take to the bank: you will never catch me in a Cheesecake Factory in Honolulu, London, Nassau, or Paris. Likewise for all other American chains. Barring the emergency airport burger, when I travel – by boat, plane, or automobile – I seek out the local cuisine.
To me, the purpose of travel is to experience, on as many levels as possible, the life, culture, and flavor of the place. There’s no better way to do that than to wander off the tourist streets, get into the neighborhoods, and eat local dishes in local restaurants.
If I spend more than a few days in a place, and if I happen to get the chance to use some kind of kitchen, then I also like to learn to cook those local dishes. I’ve done that in lots of places, from Maine to Tokyo, but to date my most successful local cooking adventure has been aboard Sunshine and involves my attempts to make shrimp and grits in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Sometimes you just have to push past the limitations of the small galley and create a feast.
Shrimp and Grits, the Local Cuisine of the Lowcountry
We docked in Beaufort, South Carolina late in the day and low on supplies. Hungry, we opted to walk along Bay Street and see if there was a good local restaurant that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. We came across Q, a cleverly minimalist named barbecue place. I ordered the ribs, because barbecue. Tom ordered the shrimp and grits.
This is not a restaurant review, so I’ll just say that in Beaufort, SC you’ll do well eating at Q. I enjoyed my ribs, but I couldn’t keep my spoon out of Tom’s bowl of shrimp and grits. The creamy grits were topped with succulent grilled shrimp and bathed in a rich, smoky sauce. I don’t know what I’d expected, but I can tell you this was better.
Not too long after, some new friends had us over for dinner and served us another version. Mark goes the extra mile and adds cheese to his grits. He sautes the shrimp with mushrooms and tops it all with chopped bacon. Just amazing.
We tried grits a couple more times in Beaufort, finding dishes that were good but not as life-changing as these first two. Then one night we were at the Fillin’ Station, a local dive bar, when a woman came in with two bowls and handed them to a pair of young women who were shooting pool.
The aroma wafting off those bowls was uncanny. I asked one of the girls what they were eating and she said her mama’s shrimp and grits. I craned my neck and took a peek at what was inside. There was shrimp in a dark sauce with chunks of onion and green pepper, maybe celery. It was not quite a Cajun scent, but clearly there was a roux involved.
Given the prevalence of the dish, you’d think that Bubba Blue’s long list of ways to prepare the fruit of the sea would have included shrimp and grits. After all, Forrest Gump was largely filmed in Beaufort. Somehow the scriptwriters didn’t get the memo about the local specialty. It’s a glaring omission.
The History of Shrimp and Grits
With Shrimp and Grits on the brain, it wasn’t long before I ran across the Shrimp and Grits Cookbook by Nathalie Dupree, a big name in the Charleston food scene. With that guide to cap my inspiration, I decided I would stop shopping for the best shrimp and grits at restaurants and make my own. In the back of my mind was the notion of trying to produce something like that pool-playing girl’s mama had done.
Since shrimp were plentiful in Southeast coastal waters, and corn was a staple of the Native American diet, it’s easy to imagine a variation of this dish may have been part of life here since before Europeans landed. The colonists were dependent on fish and shrimp, and the native people introduced them to “rockahominie” the local name for cracked corn.
These days, chefs at all the best coastal South Carolina restaurants make shrimp and grits. They use this cultural classic as the basis of gourmet dishes of unlimited variation — from Asian fusion curries to show stopping desserts.
According to Dupree, this recipe from the 1930 edition of Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking is the earliest known. It’s also the simplest.
The Original Breakfast Shrimp and Grits
1 cup uncooked grits
2-3 cups milk
2 cups water
1/2 cup butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound raw shrimp, shelled
Add the grits to simmering milk and water in a heavy saucepan, preferably nonstick, and cook as package directs, stirring constantly. Do not let the grits “blurp” loudly, and watch the evaporation of liquid. Add more if necessary. When fully cooked to the texture you desire, remove from heat and add 2 tablespoons of the butter and season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, heat 4 tablespoons of the butter in a frying pan and saute the shrimp in the butter until the shrimp turns pink. Add the rest of the butter to the pan and melt. Top the grits with the shrimp and pour the butter on top.
My First Attempt to Make Shrimp and Grits
I’ve got a bit of Cajun cooking in my background, so I opted to give my first attempt at shrimp a grits a Louisiana twist. I’d start with a roux, add sausage like I would if I were making shrimp gumbo and go for the spicy side.
Spicy Shrimp and Grits with Andouille
1 heaping tbsp flour
1/4 c vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped peppers, green and red
1 cup chopped tomatoes
1 clove garlic, minced – or 1 Tbs from a jar, but fresh is always better.
5 oz Andouille sausage, sliced into rounds
1 lb medium sized fresh shrimp – shell and de-vein them. On the stern of the boat is the best place to do this, unless you’re underway. Toss the shells back into the sea where they belong. Rinse in fresh water.
1/2 to 1 cup water
1 tsp ground sage
1 tsp ground sassafras – or substitute Old Bay Seasoning
salt – only if needed, the sausage and shrimp both add salt
1 green onion per person, sliced
In a large frying pan (cast iron is best) combine the oil and flour. Stir constantly over medium heat until it’s a deep red-brown. Like mahogany or milk chocolate. It’s best to use a wooden spoon for this, but if you don’t have one a metal one will do. Just don’t use any kind of plastic. Patience, this will take a while. And I’m not kidding about the constantly.
Add the onions, garlic and celery, stir for a few minutes, until the onions start to get limp then add water as needed to make a thick sauce. Add peppers, tomatoes, sausage, sage and sassafras or Old Bay.
Simmer over low heat for 20 minutes, adding water as needed to keep the sauce from becoming too thick, but not runny. Add the shrimp and simmer for another five minutes until the shrimp are all pink.
1/2 cup stone ground yellow grits
1 cup boiling water
1 cup milk
1/2 cup cream
2 tbs butter
Add the grits to simmering milk and water in a heavy saucepan. Cook according to package directions, stirring constantly. Add the cream toward the end of the cooking time. When thickened, remove from heat and add butter and salt and pepper.
Best Conditions: At the dock or at anchor in settled weather, due to the roux.
What I’ve described here is close in look and texture to Mama’s dish. I’ve made it twice and had rave reviews both times. One fellow told me it was the best shrimp and grits he’s ever had. He’s from Boston though, so his opinion, while gratifying, is not worth much. I need to feed it to a southerner and see what they say. I’ve also tried asking around at the bar to see if anyone knows the Mama who made the version that inspired me. I’d love to get her recipe.
Next time I make shrimp and grits I’ll change a few things. My version is thick and rich, and has a hint of smokiness from the sausage, but not as much smoke as Q’s. So I may cheat and add a little liquid smoke to punch up that quality. I’ll also try leaving the sausage out to highlight the shrimp more. Or maybe I’ll make a broth from the smoky sausage and use that to flavor and thin the roux. Maybe I’ll grill the shrimp first instead of cooking them in the sauce. I’m noodling around with ideas. Experimentation sure is tasty.
Be sure to start with good grits – like these
The Problem of Eating Shrimp
One word or warning for anyone trying these shrimp recipes: take it easy. Shrimp should be a special treat, but the American appetite for the scrumptious little crustaceans has become hu-freaking-mongous. We order it routinely at restaurants without a second thought, forgetting that the supply is not inexhaustible. To make matters worse, some farmers and fishermen, in their rush to fill our demand, aren’t taking care of the source. For instance, 70% of Ecuador’s mangrove swamps have been affected by shrimp farming.
Some shrimp are wild-caught, and while they aren’t raised in a chemical cocktail, the vast majority is caught using trawling, a highly destructive fishing method. Football field-sized nets are dragged along the ocean floor, scooping up and killing several pounds of marine life for every pound of shrimp they catch and demolishing the ocean floor ecosystem as they go. Where they don’t clear-cut coral reefs or other rich ocean floor habitats, they drag their nets through the mud, leaving plumes of sediment so large they are visible from outer space.
After trawling destroys an ocean floor, the ecosystem often cannot recover for decades, if not centuries or millennia. This is particularly significant because 98 percent of ocean life lives on or around the seabed.
Armed with this information, you can go ahead and make shrimp and grits, it’s a wonderful, culturally significant dish. Here’s how to do it responsibly:
- Get locally caught shrimp instead of imported. Support your local fishermen.
- Use special ingredients such as shrimp to make special dishes like Shrimp and Grits. Don’t just toss a handful of shrimp into a green salad to “dress it up.”
- Showcase shrimp as the special treat they truly are, serving them only a few times a year.
One of our most pressing cultural needs is to learn to enjoy our fellow creatures while they’re alive. They have intrinsic value, not just in relation to the human food supply. The sole purpose of shrimp is not to appear on huge platters at open houses, surrounded by gallons of cocktail sauce. If we don’t change our perspective and dial it down a bit, we won’t have them around for long.
Forrest Gump in Beaufort
Okay, down off the soap box and back to the fun stuff.
Many scenes of Forrest Gump were filmed in Beaufort. The lush palmetto groves stood in for Vietnam jungles. Forrest ran across the Woods Memorial Bridge – locally known as Lady’s Island Bridge. And the scene where his shrimp boat runs into a pier took place just a couple of miles from downtown.
Here’s a parting shot for you.