In Search of Southern Cooking in
America at Large:
California Shrimp & Grits
The shrimp and grits are the most expensive entrée item on the menu at The Front Porch restaurant in San Francisco. (Okay, actually, they’re the most expensive item short of a grilled pork chop of equal value and the nine-piece bucket of fried chicken (hopefully) intended for sharing.) This is not to say that the rest of the menu at The Front Porch is particularly affordable; it’s easy to stumble out, belly distended, after spending forty dollars per person—before drinks. So how does a restaurant take a dish borne out of humble low-country origins and make it worth twenty-one big ones? Pour some truffles on it. Seriously. These shrimp and grits are not only served with the (now expected) bacon lardons, garlic, scallions, and gravy, but also with a generous portion of wild mushrooms simmered in truffle ragout.
Shrimp and grits seem to be about the only low-country dish that’s made a leap into the big time. Forget Frogmore Stew or Country Captain—those meals seem destined for a lifetime of appearances in Southern Living and not much else. But thanks to Craig Claiborne and the New York Times, shrimp and grits will forever be the darling child of Carolina coastal cuisine.
The dish was originally a simple breakfast dish of, well, shrimp and grits and not much else, served to fishermen on the coast. Both shrimp and corn are plentiful in the region, so the meal was most likely a result of practicality. Granted, this was Carolina, so sometimes bacon would make an appearance. But most of the time, the shrimp were sautéed in butter and served on boiled and buttered grits—no cheese, no vegetables, no gravy.
But in 1985, Claiborne visited Crook’s Corner, a burgeoning Southern restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Bill Neal, the chef at the time, was a food writer, cookbook author, and Southern food evangelist—a proto-foodie, if you will—and he granted Claiborne permission to publish a few of his recipes in the budding NYT food section. Claiborne seemed most intrigued by a dish called “Muddle,” a fish stew from the Outer Banks, but Neal’s shrimp and grits was the only dish to gain popularity. Notably, this was no plain-Jane breakfast shrimp dish. Neal’s shrimp swam amongst a stew of bacon, mushrooms, garlic, and scallions and were served on a bed of cheddar cheese grits. Despite its variance from the original nature of the dish, Crook’s Corner earned the title of “birthplace of shrimp and grits,” and Neal’s version remains the quintessential method of preparation.
Some writers, such as John T. Edge, bemoan this type of popularity because it screws around with tradition. My concerns are elsewhere: Both shrimp and grits are quiet and unassuming foods. When tricked out with bacon, hot peppers, and cheddar cheese, it’s impossible to taste the subtle shrimp-and-grittiness of the dish. Perhaps that’s the point—with fish farming on a huge upswing and instant grits a sad staple in grocery aisles everywhere, the norm for both is dismally bland. However, at The Front Porch, they source wild-caught shrimp and otherwise local ingredients, so I figured their fancified take was no cover-up.
Photo courtesy Shutterstock.com.
Walking into the restaurant feels more like walking into a basement apartment than strolling out to a wraparound. The decorator clearly strove to emulate a country-chic aesthetic, but it feels more like a West Coast reimagining of a grandmother’s apartment in an unnamed location in Tennessee. Upon sitting, I realized that the kitsch is nothing uncomfortable; in fact, it reminded me of another frequented Southern-style restaurant up in Portland, Oregon, called The Delta. We used to trek up the hill to The Delta when I was in college for variations on red beans and rice and corn bread, and for forty-ounce bottles of PBR. It’s a place where you sink down into the seats upon arrival and then sink even further once polishing off a veggie plate.
At The Front Porch, we were seated in the back of the restaurant in an area that could have easily been called the “chef’s table” and require a premium price of admission. Instead, it was just a cluster of tables in full view of the controlled chaos in the back. After starting with a stiff Sazerac, we tucked into a plate of fried green tomatoes (a perfectly fine rendition if it wasn’t for the pile of pimiento cheese dolloped on top of each round), watermelon salad, and a couple of complementary corn muffins (too sweet, but decent vehicles for the spicy honey butter).
Frankly, none of these appetizers were very exciting, so I was expecting a less-than-stellar entrée as well. And after reading the words “truffle ragout” on the menu, I was ready for an ostentatious plate full of expensive accoutrement but devoid of soul, or else an over-thought showy assemblage of ingredients not unlike the following.
Happily, these shrimp and grits were far from showy. The gravy was rich and briny with whiffs of spice. Each shrimp was tender and delicate, and there was nothing even resembling lumps in the creamy, delightfully cheese-less grits. The pieces of bacon hid in the background, adding smoky savoriness without coming up front and bragging about it.
Really, though, the success of the dish rested on the mushrooms. Earthy and funky, their robust flavor enhanced each morsel of shrimp, each bite tasting magically more like the sea than the last. This is still no breakfast shrimp, but I’ll gladly shell out the money to eat it again.