This time of year always makes me think of North Carolina. My children were born there and in remembering I always recall that some of the most idyllic moments of my life were there, including their first Christmas. I moved to North Carolina from St Louis, MO when my then husband accepted a job offer and we lived there 10 years. The move from a large metropolitan city to one the size of Raleigh might have been difficult for many people but I loved it; I liked the coziness, the slower pace and I grew to love the Y’alls.
Raleigh is in the heart of the ACC conference and we moved there in what I soon learned was college basketball season with North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Duke and the University of North Carolina within shouting distance of each other. But I was new and I had moved from a football and baseball city…so forgive me if I was confused. Everywhere the eye could see were signs to ‘Back the Pack’ and I won’t deny, I was flummoxed as to why this small southern city was so gungho for the Green Bay Packers. It’s true!
I soon learned the error of my ways and got on-board; although not getting on-board would have been next to impossible. North Carolina State is smack in the middle of Raleigh, a city school, not one with huge sprawling campuses like Duke and UNC, and the population of Raleigh was fervent about their Wolfpack, to say the least. At that time you could not walk into a grocery store in the middle of a game and not have it being played over the loudspeakers…and not just grocery stores. Everywhere. Love’em or leave’em? Simply no way to leave so love’em I did!
Also integral to my memories of North Carolina are grits. My first experience? We had just arrived in Raleigh after 2 difficult days of driving. One of our vehicles was supposed to have been shipped but I guess we had more ‘stuff’ than the movers expected so we both ended up driving. I had the smaller car and my beloved Heather, our Irish Setter, was with me. And we had rain. And more rain. Rain the entire time we drove through the Smoky Mountains too. For someone who does not love to drive; who is stressed at the thought of just a couple of hours of driving into the gorgeous mountains of Colorado on a beautiful and clear day…well, that was torture. We arrived in the morning; exhausted, aching and famished so went for breakfast soon after checking into our hotel.
I forget what I ordered but I will never forget this. On the plate with what I’m betting was an omelet and some hash browns was a scoop of something that looked like cream of wheat. I signaled to the waitress thinking I had been given the wrong order and like it was yesterday I remember her saying, ‘No ma’am, thems just gree-itz.’ Like that helped. I checked the menu and only then noticed that gree-itz (grits) were served with every breakfast dish…and soon found that was no anomaly. Grits are a staple in the south and you would be hard-pressed to find a food more American than grits. Historians trace them back to the first Virginia colonists, who dined on the cracked grains with American Indians. While I never got to the point of having them each morning, I did learn to enjoy them and still do to this day. Of course, adding some cheese and butter never hurt!
When a dish has such a long history and is passed down from generation to generation, it’s not surprising that it has become a holiday tradition. Many Southerners eat shrimp and grits at Christmas or New Year’s; maybe it’s just as simple as a desire to eat real comfort food and I can’t think of anything much more comforting than this dish. It’s a step away from the norm with the barbecue sauce but I just love it so I’m OK with changing tradition just a bit. We’re lucky too that Bob’s Red Mill has a selection of their grits at the nearby Sprouts market; they might be from Oregon but their product is truly southern!
Though I’m steadfast about making a big pot of black eye peas each January 1st, I’ve long ago accepted that the notion of it bringing me good luck is a hoax. I would prefer to associate luck with this other staple of southern New Year’s plates. Though I’ve made other versions of shrimp and grits over the years, this recipe from Food and Wine magazine in 2008 stands out, head and shoulders. Rich, cheesy grits are topped with ‘shrimps’ (my homage to Forrest Gump) but not just any shrimps. Barbecue Shrimps. This barbecue sauce is divine. The two together are super divine. Just getting to eat it on New Years Day is luck enough for me. Join me?