Southern Hospitality: Shrimp & Grits

Greenbrier CloudOnce upon a time not so very long ago, there was a symposium for food writers held in Middle of Nowhere, West Virginia where aspiring writers were invited to mingle with established professionals and everyone had to scream to make themselves heard over the Dorothy Draper interiors.

I had wanted to attend The Greenbrier symposium ever since a young woman recently returned from there mentioned it was the place to which Congress would flee in the event of a nuclear holocaust. “The bunkers have been declassified, so you can tour them. You should go. I think you’d really like it there.” I was intrigued.

I submitted samples of my writing and, much to my great delight, was accepted to “come and be with [my] tribe,” as the Great Earth Mother of the symposium generously put it.   Much to my great disappointment, however, I did not win a scholarship to attend. With airfare, resort fees, and the cost of the event itself, the price tag was very much out of my reach.

So I told her, “Thanks a lot, but maybe next year.”

lampsBesides, I did not feel that I belonged to “the tribe”. I thought of myself as an amateur who had a bit of fun with his food blog, someone who would like to do more with it, but I certainly did not consider myself “professional”. I felt that, had I accepted, I’d be doing so under false pretenses and would somehow be exposed as a fraud. That’s just how my mind works sometimes. I talked myself out of wanting to go.

Fortunately, there were other, saner people who didn’t feel the same way. The creator of the symposium asked me to reconsider. My mentor, who was speaking at the event, invited me to go as his guest so that my hideously expensive resort fee would be waived. My father cashed in airline miles and spent six hours online and on the phone trying to get me to White Sulphur Springs. Six Hours.

He said he was sorry that the best he could do was get me a flight to Atlanta the day before the event. He apologized because he thought I’d have to incur the expense of a night in an airport hotel. But he needn’t have worried. I was lucky enough to have old friends to stay with.

On the flight to Atlanta, wondered if I was heading for disaster in West Virginia. Asinine thoughts crowded out the reasonable ones in my brain.  Would I be totally out of my depth/league/element/mind? I have no practical understanding of resort wear. What if I’m the only person there without a “book in me”? Why the hell was I going to this place again? When my fretting got the stage where I saw myself in front of my fellow symposium-goers in a white prom dress soaked in pig’s blood and hearing Piper Laurie’s voice warning, “They’re all going to laugh at you”, I knew I had gone too far. I realized I was being totally absurd, but I could not shake the sense of unreasonable dread.

CatanThat is, until I saw Donna Reed* pull up to the airport arrival curb. To see a familiar face (one that hadn’t changed much in the 30 years since I first had a crush on her), to hear a familiar voice– these are things that pull me out of myself and bring me back to a much saner reality.

Donna and her husband Dan (another old friend) put me up for the night. The evening was spent catching up on our lives, drinking wine, playing Catan, and eating shrimp and grits. They kept my angst at bay. They gave me a good night sleep. I woke up feeling alarmingly good and ready to take on the unknown, thanks to a full evening of the comfortable and familiar.

And, most significantly of all, I woke up feeling grateful. Grateful to my father, and David Leite, and Antonia Allegra for getting me to The Greenbrier in the first place, to Dan and Donna for putting me in the correct head space in the second. And to all the really lovely people I had the good fortune of meeting in West Virginia in the third.

I was an idiot to have worried about fitting in. We were (almost) all of us in unfamiliar territory. And so what if I was the only person there who didn’t seem to have a book to promote? It was an overwhelming experience. It was worth any price to go.  I’m still mentally and emotionally processing the mass of information and sense of possibility that stemmed from my experience. And I would not have had that experience if it weren’t for some truly lovely people in my life.

People who take good care of me and make me feel as if I do belong to a tribe, whether it’s in San Francisco, Atlanta, or Middle of Nowhere, West Virginia.

Shrimp and Grits

Shrimp & Grits

There is no clever name for this recipe. It is what it is. And, even though it’s inspired by the dish Dan and Donna cooked for me that evening, it is an amalgam of several different recipes. So many disparate people contributed to this recipe, much like so many disparate people contributed to my experience.

Makes enough to serve: Four medium-sized adults, six large-ish children, or one very hungry, childish adult. Or one unnecessarily angst-ridden writer for four consecutive meal periods.

Ingredients:

For The Grits:

• 1 cup yellow grits. The non-instant kind. Some things you just have to wait for
• 2 cups chicken stock/broth/bath water/whatever
• 1 cup water, plus the inevitable inclusion of more
•  2 tablespoons of butter, salted or unsalted– it doesn’t matter
• 1 cup white cheddar cheese, grated
• 1/3 cup of heavy cream
• Liberal amounts of salt and freshly ground pepper

For The Shrimp

• 1 pound of fresh shrimp. Not frozen, please. Rinse ‘em, peel ‘em, and devein ‘em.
•  3 thick slices of bacon. Some people like to use ham, or other pork products. That’s      okay, too.
• 3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
• 2 tablespoons of butter
• 1 cup of chicken stock
• A few glugs from a beer bottle. IPA or lager– whatever you’re drinking. Guinness would be an inspired choice, but is not recommended in the least.
• Salt and pepper
• Freshly chopped chives for garnish.

Preparation:

1. In a heavy-bottomed dutch oven or  medium saucepan, bring 2 cups of chicken stock and 1 cup of water to a boil. Reduced heat to a simmer and add grits. Reduce heat to low and stir well until the liquid has been absorbed and the grits have the consistency of thick, gritty porridge. Cover the pot, but worry over it by stirring it up every couple of minutes or so. If your grits look too dry, add about 1/4 cup of water to the pot and stir in. Repeat this until action as often as necessary. I tend to add between 3/4 and 1 full cup of additional water. All of this grit-making business should take about 35 to 40 minutes of your time**.

2. When your grits have finished cooking, add the butter and cheddar cheese, stirring in until melted. Next add the cream until incorporated. Salt and pepper to taste. Keep covered and warm until ready to serve.

3. In a large sauté pan, fry up three thick slices of bacon on a moderate flame. Take your time with it. Coax as much fat as you can from it. When the bacon is crisp, but not overly so, remove it from the pan, let it cool for a moment, and then chop it into bits.

Shrimp & Grits Shells4. Drop 1 tablespoon of butter into the pan with the bacon fat in it. Add the garlic, shrimp, and the now-chopped bacon. Sauté for about 2 minutes until the shrimp have turned pink and the garlic begins to color. At this point, add 1 cup of chicken stock and a hefty drizzle of the beer you’re drinking. Bring to a simmer and hold it there for about 2 more minutes, then remove the shrimp with a slotted spoon to a clean, empty bowl. Cover the shrimp to keep warm.

5. Keep simmering the liquid inside the pan until it has reduced by at least half. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir in 1 tablespoon of butter, to give it a little more body and gloss, then return then shrimp to the pan to coat and heat through.

6. Divide the grits into serving bowls, spoon the shrimp and a generous amount of sauce into each bowl, garnish with chives. Serve hot. With beer.

*Not the girl-next-door type actress who won an Oscar for playing a prostitute.

** I believe that grits should be essentially smooth, but with a hint of grittiness to it. They are called grits for a reason. If you want yours smoother, continue to cook for a few minutes more.

 

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About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
This entry was posted in Rants and Stories, Savories and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Southern Hospitality: Shrimp & Grits

  1. robin carpenter says:

    I remember meeting you there and feeling really nervous and out of place and you seemed like the totally cool guy running with the “in” (as in David Leite) crowd and couldn’t believe that you would have a Martini with me and was so thankful you helped me find my way to dinner while suffering from Draper-blindness and carpet pattern vertigo. xoxo RC

    • Draper-blindness. That is the perfect term for it.

      By the time we met for cocktails, I was indeed the totally cool guy (in terms of my mental state, at least.) I was having a really good time. I think all of my angst evaporated within the first hour or so of being there.

      And why on earth would you not believe I wouldn’t have a martini with you? Remember: you paid. I owe you one. Also, had I not tippled with you and led you into dinner, we would not have gotten to eat with Bill Daley, you would not have blurted out my book idea, and he would not have inspired an entire chapter.

      I owe you more than one drink for that.

  2. Sharon says:

    I don’t believe you need to worry about your tribal credentials, given that you have managed to make a recipe with bath water as an ingredient sound tantalizingly good. Well done!

  3. If it means anything, I most certainly consider you part of the tribe – I felt so gawky, new, and out of place back in 2010 when I first met you in San Francisco and was welcomed with open arms. We are a highly unprofessional (and often inebriated) tribe, to be sure, but that’s why I like being part of it so much.

    • Casey– I wanted to run away screaming when I first walked into that BlogHer breakfast in 2010, but it got much better, didn’t it?

      If being highly unprofessional and often inebriated is what it takes to be part of the tribe, then I feel that I truly do belong.

      xom

  4. Sadie says:

    As a faithful reader from North Carolina, these grits sound fabulous. I love reading your blog even though I rarely cook. You are food for my soul.

  5. M, just consider that there are some of us out here who have angst about wanting to be considered part of YOUR tribe. I am now having a drink and hoping I can program some Dorothy Draper dreams tonight. Love her.

  6. Dorothy Draper Dreams. It sounds as if it should be a documentary, no?

    Now, when you say “part of [MY] tribe, do you mean the Lakota? I’m 1/16, you know. And that’s a FULL 1/16.

  7. Kathleen says:

    I was a reporter in Florida covering crime when I had the bright idea to become a food writer. I read about the Greenbrier in the Shaw’s Guide to Cooking Schools, which I read cover to cover. I borrowed the money from my mom and then spent a year paying her back. I was also ever so nervous about fitting in. But then everyone was so nice. I met Julia Child and a very young Amanda Hesser who was then living in France. (She has always reminded me of the real Donna Reed.)

    I came back to Florida and started to write about food in my off hours. Two years later, I got hired by Microsoft — for my food writing, a first in the tech industry, I’m sure. I went back in 2007, the year my book was coming out. It felt like coming home.

    I hear Antonia is regrouping at another site. But the whole white-bread world of The Greenbrier, with its bizarre past and that maze of bunkers underneath, you can’t replace that.

  8. You’ve told me the story about meeting Julia Child there, but I did not remember the Microsoft food gig. The name “Microsoft” lends itself to puréed foods. At least it does to me.

    Good to know Antonia is regrouping, but you are absolutely right– you simply cannot replace the white-bread world of The Greenbrier. I can’t imagine how I’d feel about myself had I really followed through with the “maybe next year” response. It makes me all the more grateful.

    xom

  9. David Leite says:

    You mean I wasn’t Donna Reed?

    You did some very good work at the symposium, and you should be very proud!

  10. Garrett says:

    I liked this piece. And yes, we all go through that phase of, “Am I the odd one out?” (Honestly, I’ve been in that head space for the last few days. Ugh.)

  11. Zuzana says:

    The food looks delicous!

  12. Lynda says:

    I had many of the same misgivings about attending – and I am so happy I did… we met there briefly before battling much later over salami sandwiches. I do still have “redrum” flashbacks to the miles of wallpapered Alice Looking Glass hallways I had to walk to reach my room, perhaps another way to confuse the Russians back in the day.
    And congratulations on your nomination as a Bert Greene Finalist!!

    • Oh those hallways. I’m grateful I was staying in the bungalows and spared the extra eye fatigue.

      Here’s to The Greenbrier Symposium (R.I.P.) and salami battles. And thanks for the well wishes, my dear.

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