My friend Des is a Southerner stuck in Chicago for twenty years now. It happens. He pines for, well, pines. Specifically the Piney Woods of Mississippi where we grew up. I periodically remind him about humidity, the fact that the bugs are going to be big enough this summer to saddle and ride to work, and that I am actually acquainted with people who still believe central air is sent from Satan to tempt us into a life of wickedness and not sending thank you notes. I’m not trying to talk him out of it; I’m being realistic. After twenty years the memories of home are more of the misty water-colored variety. CRAWFISH! SPIDER LILIES! SCREEN DOORS! But I would love for him to move to Memphis or Nashville so I’d have an opportunity to make him some shrimp and grits.
There is a chicken recipe which has been printed and reprinted and shared a million times. It’s called Engagement Chicken and it first appeared in Glamour magazine about 30 years ago. Supposedly your boyfriend will propose to you after eating this chicken. I’ve not made this particular chicken, but I’ve made roast chicken with lemon. That’s what this is. Now, I don’t want to say bad things about this chicken. A perfectly roasted chicken is a thing of beauty and a joy for about ten minutes. Which is approximately how long it takes my family to stand at the counter and tear the crispy skin off. I’m okay with that because I have notoriously sharp elbows and can usually take out a rogue teenager or two to get to the little crispy bits at the end of the wings. And I generally eschew any item of food, clothing, or scent that purports to be a marriage trap. It is my foolish belief that marriage is a sacred institution into which both parties should be scared witless to commit themselves. I’m not so much for the HA! GOTCHA! theory of engagement. Having said that, I’m aware my husband and I are married because of my shrimp and grits.
Chuck and I courted each other by fixing dinner. There is a famous, rather uncomfortable discussion with my father-in-law about the first time Chuck cooked for me. He made breakfast. Get your minds out of the gutter; his biscuits are awesome. Fast forward a few years, and Chuck’s birthday was approaching. He wanted shrimp and grits. I did not have my own recipe, but I knew there was only one place to go: Oxford, Mississippi. I used John Currence’s recipe as my base. I changed it up a little, leaving out the mushrooms (I have since become a convert to the use of mushrooms in this dish) and trading the bacon for sausage. Then, as now, my deepest held conviction about shrimp and grits is that the closest a tomato should get to it is in the salad you serve on the side. To cut to the chase, we were married four months later.
I do not tell that story so that desperate young women will sear millions of pounds of shrimp in an attempt to walk down the aisle via an unsuspecting stomach. No, I tell this story because I like to take every opportunity I can to brag about my shrimp and grits and because Des sent me a recipe for a dish which uses–siddown, this is big–instant grits. I KNOW! I clutched my pearls, too.
Listen, I’m not going to lie. I’m down with the quick-cooking grits even though, honestly, no kind of grits takes that long to make. But instant? ARE WE ANIMALS? All in all, the dish was sound. Lemon-garlic shrimp over parmesan cheese grits. Shrimp AND grits, yes. Shrimpngrits, no. I looked at the comments about this dish expecting to hear a chorus of disdain for instant grits, and there was some of that. But the singers hitting the back of the house were doing so with an old-fashioned grits bashing.
Gross! Grits are disgusting! Shrimp with grit?! To you grits-bashers out there I say, shuddup. Do you eat polenta? Of course you do. Polenta is faincy. A fancy name for grits. It’s all corn mush! Okay, yes, hominy grits, the house grits of the South, are different. They’re corn treated with an alkali so the stuff puffs up until it looks like droppings from the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. These are then dried and, as my nephew says, WALL-AH! Hominy grits. Everything else is just cornmeal in varying degrees of roughness.
So those–ugh–tubes of polenta you get in the produce section and take home to be all international? Why? You wouldn’t buy a pre-made tube of oatmeal would you? It’s just corn mush. Just like every working farmer has eaten for centuries in this country as well as Europe, Africa, and I could go on. This is humble food we’re talking about. The great thing about it is that you can dress it up with vegetables, or cheese, or lots of cheese, or cheese and lots of garlic. And you can, I suppose, eat it with cream and sugar. I don’t know why you’d want to. I’m looking at you, Indianapolis. You can, if you are so inclined as I was, make what the cooking magazine referred to as braised short ribs and root vegetables on a bed of Stilton polenta and garnished with gremolata, but I knew was just pot roast with cheese grits and garnished with lemon zest and parsley.
Maybe the problem isn’t the grits themselves, it’s food with such working class ties. Eating hand-cut buttermilk scones with Vermont cheddar pimento cheese and house-cured ham is a whole different experience than serving cathead biscuits with your mama’s pimento cheese and country ham. One is not better than the other. Good food is good food. You may be more comfortable eating catfish gujons with capered aoli and black eyed pea caviar, but it’s still fried catfish with tartar sauce and black eyed pea salad. Anyone who thinks the name makes the food needs to have a giant debris po boy from Mother’s shoved in her mouth. Do you really want to associate with people who are so filled with first world ennui they can’t enjoy a damn bowl of grits? Such people should be thumped soundly and percussively upon the gourd.
Besides, as Des reminded me, “Telling someone to ‘kiss my polenta’ just doesn’t have the same effect.”