Until shrimp and grits became the defining appetizer of any Southern fine-dining restaurant worth its herb garnish, grits was humble fare down South, something outsiders made fun of and insiders ate every day for breakfast and supper.
Before we go any further, let me explain that grits is a singular noun, even though it has a plural sounding ending. I should also explain that the everyday grits that traditionally graced Southern tables was not the presently fashionable whole corn grits that inevitably underpins that fancy shrimp and grits appetizer. It was snow-white, creamy-thick grits made from hominy, whole corn kernels treated with lye, the same grain used for masa (tortilla flour).
Depending on where you were and whether it was breakfast or supper, grits accompanied a whole lot more than shrimp: it might be as easily be eggs and bacon as grillades (smothered veal cutlets), smothered pork chops, fried chicken, or fish. As a matter of fact, back then shrimp and grits was strictly regional, found only in the Carolina/Georgia Lowcountry.
Another shellfish often paired with grits was lump crabmeat, simply warmed in lots of butter (or, if there was no butter to be had, bacon drippings). A supper dish so commonplace and taken for granted that no written recipes for it survive, crab and grits has all but vanished from Lowcountry tables, and might have been lost altogether were it not for a handful of wistful literary references.
When the crabmeat is fresh and sweet, it needs absolutely nothing but a little cayenne pepper—if that. Since crabs live in brackish water, it often doesn’t even need salt. When it’s not so fresh, however, it can be enlivened by adding a quarter of a cup of finely minced shallot or yellow onion and/or a clove of garlic to the butter before putting in the crabmeat, and finished, perhaps, with a dash of Worcestershire.
Good hominy grits is hard to come by outside the South (for that matter, nowadays sadly inside the South). You’ll probably have to be content with a national brand, of which I like Aunt Jemima best.
Crab and Grits
1 cup raw hominy grits
1 pound (2 cups) picked cooked lump crabmeat, in large pieces
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
Ground cayenne pepper, optional
Lowcountry cooks wash grits before cooking to remove any lingering bits of chaff. Put the grits in a heavy-bottomed 3-quart porcelain-enamel or stainless steel pot. Fill it 2/3 full with water and stir with your hand until it’s milky. Let the grits settle to the bottom; the chaff will float. Carefully pour off the water. Repeat and then add 4 cups fresh water.
Bring slowly to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly, and keep stirring until the grits begins to thicken. Loosely cover and reduce the heat to medium low. Cook, stirring frequently at first and then occasionally as it thickens, until tender and quite thick but creamy, about an hour for regular grits, at least 30 minutes for quick grits. Add salt to taste and simmer 3-5 minutes longer. Keep hot.
Meanwhile, pick over the crabmeat for bits of shell. When the grits is done, melt the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the crab and toss until it’s hot through and the butter has absorbed its flavor. Taste and season as needed with salt and a little cayenne (if liked). Let it warm another half a minute and turn off the heat.
Divide the grits among 4 warm serving plates, spoon the crab and butter evenly over it, and serve at once.
Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. He lives, eats, and writes about it in Savannah, Georgia, and can be reached through his own cyber-turf at www.damonleefowler.com.
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