Island Cooking: Outer Banks shrimp and grits
By ELIZABETH WIEGAND
with bugs” conjures up those fly-in-your-face pantry moths when
you open up grains, doesn’t it? But grits with bugs is how the
old-timers on the Outer Banks would have described the iconic dish of
Shrimp and Grits -- had they ever eaten it back in the day.
to speak about shrimp and grits at Sunday’s brunch at the Day at the
Docks in Hatteras last month, I posed this to some older Bankers:
“Did you grow up eating shrimp and grits?”
We had fried fish for breakfast. Or grits with runny
eggs. But not shrimp and grits,” was the reply.
it turns out that hardly anyone outside of the Low Country of South
Carolina ate shrimp and grits until 1985, when The New York Times
published an article written by a homesick Southerner, Craig Claiborne,
a Mississippian by birth.
Claiborne headed south to
Chapel Hill to check out the dishes he’d heard about coming from the
kitchen of Crook’s Corner. Bill Neal, owner and chef, was among the
first to plan his menu around seasonal and regional ingredients.
Neal was a rural South Carolina boy who settled in the Triangle after
graduating from Duke University.
He’d left both his wife
and their restaurant, La Residence, which, as its name implies, had a
more French-influenced menu and style of preparation. Neal took
the techniques he had learned and used southern foods from his
childhood at his new place, Crook’s Corner. It had no white linen
tablecloths, but it did have a pink pig on the roof.
was intrigued with Neal’s take on southern foods, so he placed his big
self on a stool in Neal’s kitchen and took notes. After the
recipe for Neal’s shrimp and grits appeared, the dish took off quicker
than you can burn garlic, appearing on menus especially across the
South. Northern restaurants had grits shipped from the southern
mills and shrimp from up and down the southeast coast. Thus, the
icon was born.
PLACE OF ORIGIN
Neal gets a lot of credit for shrimp and grits, but he was cooking from
an old cookbook from the 1950s, “Charleston Receipts.” As the
recipe header noted, “Breakfast Shrimp” was a long-time breakfast
favorite in the coastal region, what is referred to as the Low Country
of South Carolina. That recipe called for cooking the shrimp in bacon
grease, with a bit of onion and green pepper. A little bit of
tomato ketchup and Worcestershire sauce was added.
But it turns out
that recipe was a gussied up version of a “poor man’s breakfast.”
Like other folks who live off the land, folks in the rural Low Country
fed themselves with whatever they had on hand. They sold the
larger shrimp caught by nets and kept the small shrimp for their own
consumption. Like my grandmother, they kept a metal can of
bacon grease on the stovetop, which they used to sauté the
shrimp. They added pieces of bacon, or ham scraps, if they had
any, but not tasso ham, because they were not Cajun. They didn’t
use butter, because it was too precious if hand-churned and was hard to
keep in the hot Southern summers. Herbs and cheese? Naw.
Neal’s version is a nice version of that basic Low Country, poor man’s
breakfast, using bacon, sliced mushrooms, and scallions with a little
garlic and lemon juice. And he served it over boiled grits, as
the folks in Charleston did, except they called them “hominy grits.”
SO WHAT EXACTLY ARE GRITS?
in the grits belt, from North Carolina down on through Louisiana --
some say Texas, too -- you can find three types of grits.
All grits come from dried corn. Then it’s ground.
the Charlestonians call their grits “hominy grits,” a name derived from
a Native American term, “rockahomine.” Native Americans made
these types of grits from dried corn kernels that are treated with
“lye,” an alkali they made by running water through ashes.
Why? Because it would remove the outer hull, leaving a white puff
of corn that they would dry again. It could then be stored and
used whole in a stew like the New Mexican posole. Or the dried
puff could be ground into hominy grits.
it was this process of using lye that prevented the Native Americans
from suffering from pellagra, a niacin-deficiency that Europeans
developed because they ate relatively nothing but corn during some
mighty lean years. The lye process changes the structure of the
starch. How smart the New World natives were!
type of grits most restaurants and good home cooks use today are
stone-ground grits. And here’s the thing -- they’re nothing new
under the sun. For centuries, farmers and homesteaders have dried corn,
then ground it between two large stones. Stone-ground grits are
the best tasting because they retain that outer hull and the inner hull
as well. It’s the oils in the inner hull, especially, that add
the most flavor to these kinds of grits, and the reason they can go
rancid without storing them in the fridge.
other type of grits is hardly worth mentioning. They’re the
packaged, commercially ground “quick grits,” available on most grocery
store shelves. After both outer and inner hulls have been
removed, the dried corn kernels are pulverized with steel
rollers. But that removes all the flavor and much of the richer
texture. It’s like the grated, dried, and flavorless Parmesan
cheese that comes in that big green box, versus a hunk of real Parmesan
that’s held tight while grating it over your pasta.
SO WHY NO SHRIMP AND GRITS IN THE OUTER BANKS?
is a huge industry on the Outer Banks today. Our barrier islands
create a version of the Low Country, with inner sounds filled with
marsh grass and shallow waters.
So why did no one I asked remember eating shrimp and grits while growing up?
an astonishing fact: It wasn’t until the 1930s that folks in the
Outer Banks ate shrimp. Truly! They did not eat shrimp!
grandmother thought they were worms,” said Della Basnight, a Manteo
native. “She wouldn’t eat them. Thought we were crazy. They
were bugs, for God’s sake.”
could see them in the ocean grass while I was out fishing,” said my
buddy John Gaskill, age 96. “But when I left Wanchese (for the
Navy) in 1933, we weren’t eating shrimp. We thought they were
Shrimp nestle in the mud and fouled up nets when Outer Bankers dragged the sounds for fish.
here’s the “great circle of life” as far as shrimp and grits go.
Outer Banks fishermen would pluck those nasty “bugs” out of their nets
and plop them into barrels. Then, when they got over to the
mainland, they traded those stinky barrels of shrimp for barrels of
It was a win-win, for the farmers used them as
fertilizer, and the Bankers dried the corn, sometimes on old sails
spread on roofs or bushes. After stripping the dried kernels from
the cobs, they would take them to one of the dozen windmills that
dotted the Outer Banks.
Think about it: Couldn’t
do gravity flow mills using creeks or water wheels on the flat beaches,
now could you? So they built German post-style windmills that
could be turned to face whichever way the wind was blowing. The
blades of the windmill could be covered with sails, so as to better
control the speed of the turning stones. If the mill got going
too fast, the stones would scorch the corn. The summertime breeze
was sometimes nonexistent, so the sails helped there, too. And so
that’s how the Outer Banks got their cornmeal and grits – sometimes
traded for “bugs” or shrimp.
SHRIMPING HITS THE BANKS
Americans ate shrimp, say archaeologists. But European settlers
were a little slow in catching on to this succulent protein from the
sea. Like with the blackened red fish craze, folks in the New
Orleans area introduced the rest of the new settlers in America to
eating shrimp. Records show that in 1735, seine nets were ordered
from France by fishermen from New Orleans. They dried the shrimp
in the sun, as the Chinese and Mexicans had for centuries.
near Wilmington, was the first seaport in North Carolina to build a
shrimp cannery in the first decades of the 1900s. Diesel engines,
adapted for boats, played a huge role, allowing the use of “otter
trawls” rather than a large seine net that could only be used in
shallow waters. Then ice became readily available from ice
plants. The small island where the Roanoke Island Festival Park
is today was once called “Ice Plant Island.”
Some fishermen left
Wanchese and headed to the Gulf of Mexico during the 1930s to learn how
to shrimp. When they began pulling nets for shrimp, they were
called “bug hunters” along the coast of North Carolina.
shrimp industry steadily grew from just a couple hundred of thousand
pounds in 1931, to more than 10 million pounds caught in the wild each
year today, making it North Carolina’s largest seafood industry.
TODAY’S SHRIMP AND GRITS
out the menus in many of the restaurants that dot the Outer Banks, and
you’ll find their version of shrimp and grits. Some will be
served with cheese grits, some with creamy grits and creamy, thick
sauce with the shrimp, and some will have wild mushrooms or roasted
garlic or diced tomatoes. Most feature andouille sausage or
though the dish has no culinary history on the Outer Banks, let’s claim
them anyway. After all, we’ve got shrimp – those bugs that used
to foul up nets – and we had grits, thanks to windmills and barrels of
Island chef and Seaside innkeeper, Chris Latimer, created a marvelous
Shrimp and Grits for the Days at the Docks brunch, using fresh Pamlico
shrimp from fishmonger Jeff Aiken, along with andouille sausage,
roasted garlic, and fresh bell peppers prepared in a deep, dark roux.
Fresh, stone-ground grits were donated by Carolina Grits & Co
of Rocky Mount. What a marvelous treat!
SEASIDE SHRIMP AND GRITS
1/2 cup yellow stone ground grits
2 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/2 pound smoked Gouda, shredded (can use cheddar)
stock, salt, and pepper to boil and add grits slowly. Simmer 15-20
minutes until stock is absorbed stirring occasionally. Turn off
heat, add cheese, and keep warm until served.
2 pounds North Carolina shrimp, peeled and deveined
¾ pound andouille sausage, sliced
1/2 tablespoon blackening seasoning
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 each red and green Pepper, onion, jalapeno pepper, diced
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
2-3 tablespoons butter
shrimp and coat with seasoning. Set aside. Saute sausage with
olive oil on medium high heat. Add peppers, onion, garlic, and
then shrimp. Saute quickly, reducing heat when shrimp are firm. Stir in
butter until melted. Serve immediately over grits.
Wiegand is the author of “The Outer Banks Cookbook: Recipes and
Traditions from North Carolina’s Barrier Islands.” The second edition
with added recipes and color photos will be available in
December. She is working on another cookbook, “The Food Lover’s
Guide to the Outer Banks,” which will also be published by Globe Pequot
Press and will be available in the spring. You can find her Carolina
Foodie blog at http://carolinafoodie.blogspot.com.)