Home to incredible music, thoughtful and engaging civil rights leaders, and stunning beaches, the South has a lot to brag about. An American region of 16 states with citizens that demonstrate the wide diversity of American identity, the South has a complex, yet extremely important history that has shaped American life and culture since the country’s founding. Perhaps most significant is what the region offers by way of it’s foodways, and shrimp and grits is demonstrative of the difficult past, yet beautiful possibilities of the south.
“I remember going to Charleston 14 years ago, and every fine dining restaurant had their own spin on shrimp and grits,” said food scholar and historian Adrian E. Miller.
At nearly every southern restaurant, alongside options for dishes like wings and waffles, buttermilk biscuits, and fried chicken, you’ll find some iteration of shrimp and grits. Entire books have been dedicated to the dish, and historians have long been intrigued with the roots and ongoing popularity of the meal. According to Southern food writer Robert Moss, prior to the late 1900s, print references to shrimp and grits were largely in magazine articles and travelogues about quaint food from the South. However, the dish’s significance in the South goes back far beyond the modernized version of the dish.
The recipe for shrimp and grits typically follows a similar foundational pattern: shrimp often top a bowl or plate of grits, a starch dish that emerged from the indigenous Muskogee tribe in the 16th century. Today, grits are made from boiled cornmeal, while hominy grits, which were especially popular in the past, are made from dried maize kernels treated with alkali. Though grits are available throughout the country, three-quarters of grits sold in the U.S. are purchased by Southerners, a striking reminder of the gritty starch’s impact on southern cuisine.
The origins of merging shrimp with grits, according to Miller, date back to African American food traditions within the South carried over from West Africa.
“Everything that I’ve seen shows that it was just called breakfast shrimp,” said Miller of historical records from the 1800s. “Black shrimpers and people in that community, they were just doing shrimp and grits as a filling kind of meal to just start the day.”
The first printed recipe for shrimp and grits that Miller has seen was in “200 Years of Charleston Cooking” by Blanche S. Rhett and edited by Lettie Gay. Published in the 1930s, the book shares a recipe for “shrimps with hominy.” The recipe headnote tells readers:
“This is a delicious breakfast dish, served in almost every house in Charleston during the shrimp season.”
Calling for 1 pound of raw shrimp, 1 cup of butter, salt and pepper, and 2 cups of cooked hominy, the recipe offers an entryway into looking at what the people of Charleston enjoyed, and how Black and indigenous cooking traditions influenced the cuisine.
Miller believes that given the predilection for starch, and the history of Africans and African Americans sharing recipes orally rather that through written documents, recipes for shrimp and grits were just one of many eating traditions that initially went undocumented.
Thanks to Miller and other Black foodways scholars, however, we do know a lot about how African traditions influenced southern foodways during and after American slavery.
According to Miller, the typical meal in West Africa is grounded by starch. Pre-enslavement and today, a typical West African meal (where most Black Americans descend from) includes a savory soup, such as groundnut or okra soup, served alongside or on top of a starch, such as fufu. Dominant starches in Africa before the emergence of shrimp and grits in the West included rice, sorghum and millet (similar to a cereal) and root crops. Which starches and how they were used varied by place and community.
When many enslaved Africans were forcibly migrated to the Americas, they carried their memories of food and cooking traditions with them. Though some of the food in the U.S. differed from what they ate in West Africa, they were often able to find similarities.
“We do know that enslaved Africans and later enslaved African Americans were given cornmeal as rations, so that would’ve been the foundation of a meal,” said Miller. “So what I’ve always argued is that a lot of the food story is — especially when there’s migration, whether voluntary or forced — [when] people get to a new place, they try to recreate home. And if they can do it with the exact same stuff that they had in the old country, they do. But often they have to find substitutes.”
Shrimp and grits are largely associated with lowcountry, a geographic and cultural region that sits along South Carolina and Georgia’s coast, and thus reflects the cuisine of Americans living in Charleston, as well as the Gullah Geechee people who helped shape and still live on the sea islands in South Carolina and along the southern coast. The Gullah Geechee people are descendants of African enslaved peoples, and are known for their agricultural expertise, and invaluable ability to craft delicious, seafood-based recipes. Some of these traditions have carried on within African American communities throughout the South, reflecting the wide-ranging knowledge of enslaved peoples, and the legacy and significance of food in cultural development. Examining the history of these traditions before Africans touched American soil, Miller says that someone who was used to having sorghum and millet in West Africa may look at cornmeal and see it as a similar starch to what was done back home; thus, grits, and hominy grits would’ve been appealing to those in the south.
So then, what about the shrimp? Shrimp is a dominant protein in lots of parts of West Africa (so much so that the country “Cameroon” is actually named shrimp; it was named by the 15th century Portguese invaders who were awestruck at the amount of shrimp in local rivers).
Miller believes that this appreciation for shrimp, and the widespread availability in the lowcountry, and the rations for cornmeal led to a new meal for enslaved Africans.
“They were looking for a taste of home in an alien environment,” said Miller. “And that persisted.”
Though the meal began finding its place in cookbooks in the 1900s, shrimp and grits didn’t become the beloved face of Southern cuisine until fairly recently.
“You started to have fine dining chefs, usually white, who were more intently exploring regional cuisines, especially the American South,” said Miller.
One of these chefs was Bill Neal of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Though the restaurant initially served Mediterrean-style dishes, Neal became committed to sharing and amplifying southern cuisine. He began serving étouffees, hoppin’ john, she crab soup, and, what would become the restaurant’s most popular dish: shrimp and grits.
“Once it went on the menu, it became a real staple,” Crook’s Corner cook Robert Stehling told Moss in 2014. “I remember it being as much as a third of everything we sold in a night. We did 300 covers and 90 of them would be shrimp and grits.”
Though Neal passed years ago at 41, his legacy lives on through the shrimp and grits dish that remains at Crook’s Corner today.
“We can really trace it to him in terms of taking it to a point where it’s starting to become more mainstream,” said Miller.
Crook’s Country still exists today, and has all of the quaint, charming makings of a southern restaurant. Waiters in masks present guests with a chalkboard filled with numerous dishes, but their shrimp and grits easily stick out as the perfect dinner option. Neal’s version includes a base of cheese grits with cheddar and parmesan. It’s topped with jumbo shrimp, gently tossed with bacon, button mushrooms, garlic, and scallions, with a sliced lemon. Since that dish was introduced, chefs across the South have recreated their own versions, making the dish one of the most significant in southern foodways, and most well-known by travelers who visit the South in search of southern cuisine.
“It’s just one of those moments where a dish just gets popular and catches fire and then a lot of people start replicating it on their menus.”
The ingenuity found in shrimp and grits is inspiring and wide-ranging. Houston chef and grandson of legendary African American chef Lucille B. Smith, Chris Williams prepares a version at Lucille’s Houston that includes jumbo local gulf shrimp, andouille sausage, sherry tomato broth, and stone mill grits. Atlanta’s Garden & Gun offers a version in a
cast-iron skillet with andouille sausage and tomato creole sauce surrounded by a sea of shrimp bathed in creamy grits. South Carolina’s Acme Lowcountry Kitchen ventures to Carribean traditions and offers a version of jerk shrimp with peaches, cream grits and pineapple salsa. The limits are seemingly endless, and showcase the incredible gifts the South has given to the U.S., and the importance of the people of color who’ve been essential in developing the tapestry of American cooking.
Though shrimp and grits is most popular in the South, you can find versions of the dish at southern-themed restaurants around the country. In New York, you can find shrimp and grits bathed in honey atop creamy, cheesy grits. In cities like Washington, D.C. and Boston, you can also find the dish sometimes served as shrimp with a grit cake. The dish, though perhaps only recently popularized, tells a Southern story that has national implications, and reminds the nation of the importance of looking to food history to recognize the power and significance of where our food is today, and where it might go in the future.