We outsiders must be told that shrimp and grits are an iconic partnership, a daily breakfast, and a soul-feeding staple.
We take the insiders' word for it, we politely taste, and even like it -- but we don't innately understand why these two ingredients were born for each other, why there would be a whole cookbook written about their union, why the 1980s saw every nouveau Southern chef reimagining them as truffled shrimp with grits soufflé and the like.
Like peanut butter and jelly or radishes and butter, to the uninitiated, shrimp and grits might as well have been matched up at random -- a lucky blind date.
Whether they were destined or not, the two came together in a particular place and time: here, it was coastal areas of the American South with ready access to fresh shrimp and cheap corn grits. To those who live there, it's a perfect dish that couldn't make more sense, or taste more like home.
The same could be said of the pair who created this genius version of the dish. Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock met in 1988 when she was 73 and he was 26.
Both were talented chefs with the preservation of Southern foodways at heart -- they became best friends and cooking partners, wrote a cookbook together in 2003, and lived together for the last six years of her life. Writers named them the "Odd Couple of Southern Cooking", but to anyone who met them or tasted their food, there was nothing odd about them at all.
Like many of the recipes in their book, this one is a little bit him and a little bit her -- and that much better because of it. The method of cooking the grits is the one Peacock grew up with in Alabama, but of the shrimp paste, Peacock says, "I did not know such a thing existed until I met her."
The first time he remembers making this dish with her was for her 75th birthday party in Seaside, Florida. At the time they were serving it in tiny portions for the cocktail party, with a pretty dollop of shrimp paste hovering on top of the creamy grits, a refined presentation of the Low Country specialty that Lewis had learned while cooking at Middleton Place outside of Charleston.
Over the years as they cooked together, however, the recipe evolved. They realized that the shrimp paste and grits, when stirred together completely (yes, more than we stirred in the photos) and left to rest for a few minutes, became something even more beguiling.
"Just give them a moment to get to know each other," Peacock explained to me over the phone. "You don't want them to be strangers." On his menus at first Horseradish Grill in Atlanta and later Watershed in Decatur, Peacock called them just "Shrimp Grits". The "and" is gone, and so is any sense of distance between the two fateful ingredients.
At Watershed, they served it as a starter with a long plank of buttered Pullman toast. Peacock loved that people began their meal by literally breaking bread and spooning up shrimp grits. The servers were trained to warn customers that the dish might not be what they were expecting. Rarely, a customer would reject the dish for philosophical reasons, and they'd dutifully take it back and feed it to someone in the kitchen.
But Peacock asserts, despite its controversial form, "It was the absolute, number one biggest selling thing on that menu, period," and stayed on the menu after he left the restaurant in 2010 to work on The Alabama Project, a documentary on food as a vessel for memory for the elderly residents of Alabama (50 interviews down, 50 to go -- learn more in this Splendid Table segment).
You might wonder why you'd want to take precious little shrimp and clobber them in a food processor, turning them into an unidentifiable pink paste. But they're swirled with the buttery drippings from the pan, which have been deglazed with lemon, sherry, and cayenne, then whipped up with more butter still.
It makes a lovely spread for crackers and all-purpose flavor enhancer (just imagine folding it into risotto, saucing fish, or filling tea sandwiches with it). It's really good.
But most importantly, stirred through the creamy grits, the shrimp paste goes further than a few handsome prawns piled on top ever could, pervading every spoonful with the pure essence of shrimp at its best and most seductive.
The shrimp paste may have come from Miss Lewis (as Peacock still calls her), but the Shrimp Grits are theirs -- a product of their not-so-odd, but oddly perfect friendship.
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by James Ransom
The Genius Desserts cookbook is here! With more than 100 of the most beloved and talked-about desserts of our time (and the hidden gems soon to join their ranks) this book will make you a local legend, and a smarter baker to boot.
I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."