A couple of weeks ago, we headed to Jekyll Island for the Shrimp and Grits Festival, an annual event celebrating this native Georgia coastal crustacean. You must understand…Wild Georgia Shrimp© are a really big deal in the State of Georgia (as are Wild Georgia Oysters©. We have had their oysters and no matter how proud the Georgians may be of them, we’ve honestly had tastier ones in Huntsville). Billboards proclaim “You didn’t come to the Golden Isles to eat shrimp from Thailand”. Restaurants display signs announcing “Proudly Serving Wild Georgia Shrimp” (certified as such by the Georgia Shrimp Association). Shrimping is a big industry here, bringing in millions of dollars a year. Almost daily, we watch the shrimp boats heading in under the Jekyll Creek bridge after a day of shrimping, pursued by a Hitchcock-esque gaggle of hungry seagulls.
So it’s only natural that coastal Georgia dedicate a festival to its native low country shrimp dish. In its most basic form, Shrimp and Grits is comprised of, well, shrimp and grits. It’s in its many variations that Shrimp and Grits really shines. Shrimp and Grits can be as blue collar or as high and mighty as one likes. My favorite recipe at home calls for the grits to be cooked (never use instant) in chicken stock and then mixed with eggs, bacon, pieces of poblano pepper and fresh grated white cheddar cheese and then baked in the oven. The shrimp are seasoned, sautéed in butter, finished with lemon juice and served over squares of the baked grits. In Georgia, they seem to favor a wet grits preparation (at least, that’s what I’ve concluded from the handful of examples I’ve seen).
The Shrimp and Grits Festival is held in Jekyll Island’s Historic District, a beautiful part of the island where America’s former financial titans built their winter cottages-cum-mansions in the days of yore. Various restaurants and caterers from around Georgia offered up tastings of their version of Shrimp and Grits, vying for the first place trophy in the professional category, while the proletariat chefs competed in their own Amateur competition. Tents are set up around the district for competitors to offer their wares to the public and all the food had to be cooked fresh on the spot.
We opted to try the version offered up by the famed Jekyll Island Club Hotel, a choice that was based primarily on the sad versions of Shrimp and Grits from some of the more pedestrian restaurants on Jekyll Island (including a downright inedible version I tried at SeaJay’s, the restaurant at our marina). I reasoned that as the premier fine dining restaurant on Jekyll Island, the odds were that they would have the best. While their Shrimp and Grits were very good, we found the recipe to be way too rich, thanks largely to the heavy dose of cream in the sauce. After a few bites, we were done. Personally, I thought if they had added some acidity to the sauce, like a squeeze of lime or lemon juice, the dish would have been more successful.
In the end, our second choice, Halyard’s Restaurant from nearby St. Simmons Island, won first place. The Jekyll Club did not place in the Professional bracket, though they did tie for first in the Friday night festival guest voting. We really ended up spending more time at the beer tasting venue, where you got to try beers from a dozen different breweries for $10. My belief has long been that beer should really taste of either barley or wheat. The numerous fruit-and-sundry flavored beer offerings presented at the beer tasting only confirmed that belief. While the tasting was fun, and I can now honestly say I have had a crème brulee flavored beer (which tastes for all the world like an honest-to-God crème brulee), the “fancy” beers that these brewers trot out for tasting competitions are novelties and little more. At no point in my day do I want to chug down an ice cold blueberry-flavored beer.
I’ll leave you with the recipe for the Jekyll Club’s Shrimp and Grits as published in the local paper (with my own notes added where the recipe was mute!). My advice would be, serve it as a small portion, as an appetizer, and I think you’ll have a hit on your hands.
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons bacon fat
1 tablespoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon chopped thyme
½ teaspoon parsley
½ teaspoon oregano
Mix all ingredients together
1 bunch green onion, diced
½ lb andouille sausage
1 lb Georgia Wild Shrimp©
1 tablespoon flour
3 fluid ounces white wine
Juice of 1 lemon
¾ cup heavy cream
Old Bay seasoning to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt Shrimp Butter over medium heat. Add green onions, sausage and shrimp and sauté until shrimp are done (3-4 minutes). Stir in flour and sauté for 1 minutes. Add wine and lemon juice and stir into a white roux, cook for 2 minutes. Add lemon juice, cream and Old Bay seasoning and stir.
1 ½ cups stone ground grits
5-6 cups chicken broth
1 ½ cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
4 tablespoons melted butter
Salt and white pepper to taste
Bring broth to boil and add grits, turn down heat to low and cook slowly for about 40 minutes, stirring often. Add cheese and butter, adjust seasoning with salt and white pepper. Top with shrimp gravy.