True grits

Henri makes shrimp and grits, Southern style

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“Polenta?” Colette said, looking over my shoulder as I stood at the stove stirring.

“Grits,” I said.

“Yum. Jimmie Ray’s?”

“Of course,” I said, then sang, “I say grits, you say polenta.”

“I’m shocked,” she said. “Frère Henri referencing a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical.”

“Shall we dance?”

She scowled.

I closed one eye. “Watch yourself, sister! Everything in these woods’ll either bite ya, stab ya or stick ya!”

“Excuse me?”

“Rooster Cogburn,” I said. “True grits.”

She rolled her eyes, once again not appreciating Henri’s biting wit.

My dear sister’s fourth husband, Jimmie Ray, was not the sharpest needle in the sewing kit. But he did have one thing going for him: He was from a little town near the South Carolina coast and had family recipes dating back four or five generations (he thought I was serious when I asked him if he had a recipe for crackers). Some were, well, interesting, like the one for opossum. But some were outstanding, including his recipe for shrimp and grits, which to this day is one of Henri’s all-time favorite meals. We make it several times a year. It’s quick, easy and absolutely delicious, although my physician, the well-meaning Dr. Epinards, does not approve (see two sticks of butter, below).

Grits, a form of which was a Native American staple, are very common in the Southern United States, though largely unknown—or at least rarely served—elsewhere. Most frequently made from coarsely stone-ground white corn with the skin removed, grits are similar to polenta, which is usually made from finer-ground yellow corn with the skin intact. What distinguishes the two more than that, however, is how they’re served. Grits are typically served at breakfast, with sugar and/or butter, and at lunch, with gravy.

Polenta, which originated in northern Italy, is generally served at dinner and frequently with cheese and/or pasta sauce, and sometimes with whole corn mixed in. Grits are also creamy and usually served in bowls, while polenta is firmer, cake-like, and sometimes sliced and fried. That said, you can use just about any cornmeal to make grits. While Jimmie Ray might object, we make his grits with Golden Pheasant brand polenta (available at most grocery stores) and have also used the bulk cornmeal from S&S Organic Produce and Natural Foods.

Jimmie Ray’s Shrimp and Grits


1/4 lb. bacon, diced

1 medium onion, diced

1 1/4 cup grits

4 cups (or more) chicken broth (or other liquid, see recipe)

1 cup butter cut into 1/4-inch slices

Four cloves garlic, minced

1 lb. large shrimp, deveined

Lemon wedges


Fresh-ground pepper

Instructions: Start bacon cooking in a large saucepan or sauté pan. Add the onion and cook in bacon fat until softened. Add the grits and stir. Add chicken broth, two slices of butter, a sprinkle of salt and fresh-ground pepper, and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and cook the grits for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently—and adding more broth (or water) as needed to keep the mixture fluid and to keep grits from sticking to pan.

When the grits are done, pour 1/4-cup water in a large sauté pan and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and add two slices butter and whisk into water until melted. Add three or four more slices of butter and continue to whisk. When all the butter is melted and hot but not boiling, add garlic, stir, and then add the shrimp. Cook, continuing to stir, for three to five minutes (depending on size), until shrimp shells are pink and the meat white.

Add remaining butter to grits and stir—if needed add more liquid to keep the grits creamy. Spoon the grits into large shallow bowls and ladle shrimp on top, including generous amounts of melted butter. Add salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste, and garnish with lemon slices.

Note: For cooking the grits, you can use four cups water, or any combination of water, milk and broth (meat or vegetable) equaling four cups. Use half milk and half chicken broth for extra creamy grits.