Shrimp and grits: An age-old dish rich in history

Cooks and chefs throughout the South, indeed all over the country, spin their takes on shrimp and grits recipes. The recipe here is mine.
March 30, 2021
A serving of shrimp and grits.
A serving of shrimp and grits. Photo courtesy of Bill St. John.

The history of shrimp and grits (sometimes called “breakfast grits”) lays a line through the entire received history of our country. Originally an African dish of ground maize and shellfish, shrimp and grits migrated with people who were enslaved in plantation kitchens of the Lowcountry of the American South.

There, the Black cooks of the South came upon American maize,  different in size and color from their African sorts, but of course the very same grain. They and their kitchen pots took to it readily.

In the mid-1980s, Craig Claiborne, at the time food editor of the New York Times, convinced a North Carolinian cook named Bill Neal that Neal’s preparation of shrimp and grits was an authentic link back to the nation’s origins and ought to be popularized. The two men did just that.

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Since then, cooks and chefs throughout the South, indeed all over the country, spin their takes on shrimp and grits recipes. The recipe here is mine.

Grits (sometimes, though more rarely with each generation, called “groats”) is a term signifying dried, hulled white corn (occasionally called hominy), ground into granular form. Grits may be ground coarse, medium-coarse, and so on, down to fine but not floury.

They might go by the name of cornmeal, or even “polenta,” although those terms generally refer to dried, ground yellow corn and go into the preparation of different dishes than Southern-style breakfast grits, for example, Italian-style polenta and sausages.

Grits are truly ancient in America and go back even before the times of European conquest or African enslavement, certainly before the War of Independence and the establishment of the United States.

The name “hominy” comes from the Algonquin language, “rockahuminie,” meaning “parched corn.” After the Algonquin hulled such corn, they called it “tackhummin.” And from their hominy, they and any number of East Coast Native American tribes made various forms of corn mush (or what we modern Americans call “grits”).

To make delicious grits, you’ll want to start with true stone-ground white corn (“hominy”) grits, sometimes termed “heirloom grits.” Locally available brands include Anson Mills Coarse White or Pencil Cob Grits or Bob’s Red Mill Southern-Style White Corn Grits. This recipe isn’t fit for “quick grits” or “instant grits,” not as written.

White corn grits with shrimp

Soaking the grits overnight makes for a creamier finish, with little need to add butter (although a nice knob tastes delicious). Cook the eight shrimp in the finished sauce. It’s convenient and it makes them even pinker, plus adds a whiff of sea breeze to the sauce. The entire recipe serves two nicely, with grits to spare if desired.

Ingredients for shrimp and grits

1 cup uncooked stone-ground white corn grits

4 cups filtered water, in two 2-cup portions

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 medium yellow or white onion, diced

1 small carrot, peeled and diced

1 rib celery, diced

1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped

2 pinches herbes de Provence, crushed in fingertips

1/2 teaspoon chile powder, heat level your choice

6 squirts Tabasco Pepper Sauce (or more, to taste)

Few grinds black pepper

1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1 14-ounce can good-quality whole peeled tomatoes

8 shrimp, raw, 16-20 size or larger, rinsed

Finished cooked grits, warm

Fresh chives, chopped both into both small sticks and “confetti”

Tabasco Pepper Sauce, for serving

Directions for shrimp and grits

Start the grits the night before: Put the grits into a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan and add one portion of the water (2 cups). Stir them and let them settle for a minute; then skim off any chaff that floats, using the edge of a spoon or a fine-meshed strainer. Cover the pot and let the grits soak overnight on the counter.

Cook the grits by setting the pot over medium heat. Bring the mix to a simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the first starch takes hold, about 6-7 minutes in. Turn the heat down to its lowest possible setting.

Meanwhile, heat the other portion of the water (2 cups) in a small saucepan and keep it hot but not boiling.

As the grits cook, keep an eye on them and ladle in 1/2 cup of the hot water each time they thicken enough to resist stirring, for a total of about 3 additions of water and 20-25 minutes total cooking, stirring occasionally. (You may or may not use up all the water.)

The grits should be creamy and tender but not broken down and mushy. Add 1 teaspoon salt and a few grindings of pepper halfway through the cooking, and swirl in the butter at the end.

Meanwhile, prepare the shrimps: In a medium-large saucepan, over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil and add the onions, carrot and celery and begin sweating them, 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic, lower the heat slightly and cook 7 minutes more. Add all the seasonings (herbs, chile powder, Tabasco, black pepper and salt), mix them in well, then add the tomatoes, crushing them with a potato masher (or forcefully in your hands as you add them).

Bring the mixture to a steady simmer and cook it, stirring once in a while, for 15 minutes, the pot lid ajar. Remove from heat and set aside to cool a bit. Blend into a sauce with an immersion or other blender, minding splashes if the mixture is still hot.

In a small saucepan, heat the sauce to a quick simmer, add the shrimps and, when the sauce returns to a simmer, cook the shrimps for 5 minutes, stirring a bit. Remove the shrimps with tongs, knocking off extra sauce, and place them on a warmed plate.

To serve, place 1/2 of the grits, patted flat, in the center of a large plate with high sides. Ring the grits with 1/2 of the sauce, then top the grits with 4 of the shrimps and garnish with the 2 forms of chopped chives. Serve Tabasco Pepper Sauce alongside.

Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]


About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.