“Cuisine is the tactile connection we have to breathing history.”
~ Clifford Wright, A Mediterranean Feast
I sat with my daughter, Anna, and my husband, Bill, in the Rosebud Restaurant in Atlanta (the city where my daughter is doing graduate work in Public Health). It was not my first time in Atlanta, and, once again, it did not feel like what I imagined the “South” to be. The center of the city was a forest of skyscrapers; pocket neighborhoods buzzed with young professionals at the city’s edge, and the residential streets were thick with dogwoods and sycamores that recalled suburban Philadelphia where I’d once lived. I never heard a drawl.
We were preparing to “go South,” however, on a three day visit to Savannah, and I was initiating this journey from Atlanta with a traditional Southern meal–Shrimp and Grits. I was expecting to like the shrimp and to find the grits bland and under-salted, but what I got was a mouthful of rich and spicy. The grits were infused with andouille sausages as well as caramelized onions, tomatoes, half and half, and plenty of herbs. The flavors would haunt me for the rest of the trip.
Being from California, however, I assumed this version of Shrimp and Grits could not be traditionally “Southern,” that it must be some modern fusion cuisine instead.
In contrast to Atlanta, Savannah struck me as “South,” which, I realized, meant “Old South” to me. The historical sections of the city were devoted to Victorian houses or to colonial clapboards, and the two sections were joined by densely shaded public squares–splashing fountains, historical statues, and oaks, romantically draped with Spanish moss.
It was Monday when we arrived but it felt like Sunday, and it would feel like Sunday for the next three days. Knots of tourists strolled by with their guides or rode slowly through the streets in buses. The few who did seem to be natives of Savannah were sauntering too. “Slovannah,” our guide would call it when I asked her the next day why Savannah seemed to run on Sunday time. We’d learn that Savannah was, and still is, a bustling seaport but there were few signs of that along the historical section of the Savannah river. The ships and cranes we saw in the distance seemed to be part of some other world.
Many tours in Savannah are devoted to ghosts. We had decided against the spectral, wanting a more “historical experience” instead, but the ghosts found us nonetheless. The house we rented was on the tourist “ghost circuit,” the owner having hung the windows upside down, our guide book told us, to keep out spirits. Rambling along the harbor, I ambled into random stores finding myself face-to-face with books entitled Haunted Savannah, Savannah Specters, Ghosts on the Coast, Georgia Ghosts, and my personal favorite, Ghost Cats of the South. While visiting the gift shop of one of Savannah’s historic houses I noticed a basket of fuzzy orange and white felines. “Davenport House Ghost Cat” the sign read.
The next day I asked our guide, “Why are there so many ghosts in Savannah culture?”
“Because Savannah’s haunted,” she said straight-faced.
I lifted my eyebrows.
“Because we like to drink a lot and tell stories,” she continued.
Later, having seen Shrimp and Grits on several menus, I asked her how grits had entered into Southern cuisine.
“Honestly,” she said, “I don’t know. You just eat the danged things.”
Savannah did feel haunted, not by ghosts precisely, but by the presence in my imagination of what we didn’t see. I had read John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and felt phantom traces of the eccentric characters it had described—the man who rambled about town with flies circling around his head (they were attached by threads); the man who walked a dog that had died long ago, and Lady Chablis, the flashy black transgendered entertainer who reportedly still worked somewhere in the club scene.
Most of all, however, Savannah seemed haunted by slavery the history of which was strangely invisible in a city which had been a major port for the eighteenth-century slave trade. There was one sculpture of a slave family near the riverside, and our guide, whom we’d peppered with slave-related questions, took us to some large brick storage rooms where she believed slaves were once held. But there were no historical markers to confirm that or to identify a building on the corner of the New City Market Plaza, where, according to our guide, slaves were once auctioned.
The day after our tour, at our guide’s suggestion, we visited the Owens-Thomas House which had the only preserved slave quarters open to the public in Savannah. The ceiling of the downstairs room retained some of its original blue paint. “Haint blue,” the docent told us, a color meant to ward off spirits. One source of Savannah’s obsession with ghosts was clearly the culture of its West African slaves.
In this gift shop I found a copy of Plantation Row: Slave Cabin Cooking: the Roots of Soul Food which mentioned that slave rations included corn and that some dishes made from Indian corn were similar to those that had been made in West Africa. Grits were often made from Indian corn. The slave recipe for “Sawsidge” was very similar to the recipe for the andouille version. And, later, I would learn, that the cuisine of Gullah Geechee freed slaves, who lived on the islands near Savannah, included a good deal of Georgia shrimp. That spicy Shrimp and Grits I’d fallen for, far from being a recently minted cuisine, had had deep roots in slave cultures of the past. What had seemed “new” to me in Atlanta, was in fact old. What had seemed hidden in Savannah haunted its menus.
I’ve tried to understand what to make of this experience. That, despite my historical knowledge, I had not known how to read the cultures of the South? That parts of the South had suppressed unsavory histories? That the black slaves who had been regarded as “other” by white Southerners had deeply shaped Southern identity and culture? That food had brought me into “tactile connection” with a “breathing history?” In ways I didn’t expect, Shrimp and Grits had haunted me, had taken me “South.”
Wild Georgia Shrimp and Grits – By Chef Ron Eyester, Rosebud Restaurant
(Adapted from http://www.georgiaorganics.org/forEaters/recipes.aspx)
4 T. unsalted butter, divided
2 c. thinly sliced Vidalia onion (about 2 medium onions)
1 ½ cups stone ground grits (Riverview Farms recommended)
1 ¾ c half and half
3 ½ c chicken broth, divided
½ tsp granulated garlic
½ tsp granulated sugar
1 T finely chopped garlic
1 c chopped andouille sausage (about 1/4 pound)
1 14-oz can chopped San Marzano tomatoes
½ lb fresh Georgia shrimp, peeled and deveined
¼ c finely chopped assorted herbs (oregano, thyme, marjoram and parsley)
Kosher salt and finely ground pepper
1. In a large sauté pan, heat 2 T butter over medium heat and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add onions and heat until they start to soften, about 5 minutes.
2. Reduce heat and let the onions cook 20 minutes without stirring. If the onions start to brown, give them a quick stir and reduce the heat. After 20 minutes, stir the onions and continue to cook, stirring only occasionally, until the onions have caramelized. In a large saucepan, bring half and half and 2 c chicken broth to a boil. Slowly, whisk in grits and return to a boil.
3. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook grits about 30 minutes over low heat, stirring often. If the grits become too thick, add a little half and half or broth. When grits are done they will be soft and creamy but a little al dente. Season the grits with granulated garlic, a pinch of sugar, and salt and pepper to taste.
4. When grits are cooking, add the garlic to the caramelized onions and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook until garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute.
5. Scrape onion mixture to the side of the pan and add sausage. Let sausage cook for 5-7 minutes, turning to brown on both sides.
6. Add tomatoes and chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Allow mixture to reduce and thicken, about 10 minutes.
7. Add shrimp; cook until just curled and opaque, about 4 minutes. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste.
Judith Newton is Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis. While at U.C. Davis she directed the Women and Gender Studies program for eight years and the Consortium for Women and Research for four.
She grew up in Compton, California, received her B.A. at Stanford in American literature and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Victorian literature at U.C. Berkeley.
Her memoir, Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen, is forthcoming with She Writes Press in October of 2012.
She is also the author and co-editor of five works of non fiction on nineteenth-century British women writers, feminist criticism, women’s history, and men’s movements. Four of these works will be reprinted as E-Books by Routledge and the University of Michigan Press in the fall of 2012.
Her most current work has appeared in The Redwood Coast Review (Winter 2012), poetalk (Summer, 2011), and at http://ipinion.us/columns/?cat=26. In 2011 and 2012 six chapters of her memoir won prizes in contests sponsored by womensmemoir.com. She is currently at work on a feminist mystery and lives in the East Bay of California where she tends her garden.
You can read Judy’s blog here: thejoysofcooking-alovestory.com