For Pat Conroy’s South of Broad, a novel that is as much about Charleston, South Carolina as it is about its main character, Leo King, I made two dishes – one sweet and one savory. I will present these in two posts – first, a basic Shrimp and Grits, the recipe adapted from Pat Conroy’s cookbook (I believe it is called Recipes of My Life) . The second will be Benne Wafers, a sesame cookie that was created in Charleston cookie. This recipe comes from The Lee Brothers, also from Charleston. The cookies have special significance in the Conroy book - Leo King, bakes the cookies as a teenager for his new neighbors, the twins Sheba and Trevor Poe. Leo loves Charleston with a passion and thinks of these cookies as the quintessential Charleston welcome gift. I have never been to Charleston, and before this book I was dying to go – after the book I am even more anxious to get down there. I have mixed feelings about the book, but Conroy certainly depicts a vivid, charming and fascinating portrait of Charleston. And these Shrimp and Grits are rich and indulgent, just like Conroy's writing.
SOUTH OF BROAD BY PAT CONROY
South of Broad is Pat Conroy’s newest novel, the story of Leo King, his close-knit and deeply eccentric group of high school friends, and his hometown - Charleston, South Carolina. Conroy is known as a “southern” writer, and with South of Broad he certainly delivers that romantic yet dark depiction of South that we northerners expect, all washed down with bourbon and grits. The characters are all impossibly charming and witty, yet the experiences that they have been through in their family lives are in many instances horrific. These are themes Conroy has explored in his other novels, like the Prince of Tides. Like that book, Conroy juxtaposes dark and traumatic family secrets with interesting characters and love letters to the South.
The narrator of the book is Leo King (his mother is an ex-Nun and Joyce scholar who named her son after Leopold King from Ulysses), a homely teenager with thick glasses and no friends his own age. Leo comes from a damaged family, his older brother Steve killed himself as a child, and Leo (who found him) and his parents are forever damaged by this tragedy. One fateful day at the start of Leo's senior year, he meets a group of fellow students, new to his school, who will change the rest of his life. These characters become a "Big Chill" like group of friends. All the major stereotypes are represented here: a well-bred Southern belle (Molly), an obnoxious, but handsome, society boy (Chad), his awkward but athletically gifted sister (Fraser), a couple of twins - one a gorgeous movie star to be (Sheba) and the other an effeminate and artistic gay teenager (Trevor), an earnest African-American man struggling to overcome Southern racism (Ike), and three orphans - one tough but sweet African American girl and two severely damaged siblings from dirt poor Appalachia (Betty, Niles and Starla.) Four couples in this group marry each other after high-school. The book describes three key moments in the characters lives - their senior year of high school, a trip to San Francisco as adults to try to find Trevor in San Francisco, where he disappeared, sick with AIDS (see the stereotypes again here), and finally after that trip back in Charleston as Hurricane Hugo ravages the town. Throughout the novel, the bond between these characters seems unbreakable. It is so strong that they all drop whatever is going on in their lives and all fly to San Francisco to look for Trevor? I WANT to believe that stuff like this happens, but honestly I found the extent of devotion of this close knit group somewhat unbelievable. But this is fiction, and the trip to San Francisco and Hurricane stories help to create suspense in the story. My favorite parts of the book are when the kids are in high school. My other gripe about the book would be the dialogue - while very entertaining, it is far from reality. These people never grasp for the write thing to say - the sharpest, wittiest, bawdiest and most dramatic thing is always on the tip of their tongue. The conversations these folks have are outrageous - and it can't be written off as Southern eccentricity. I must admit sometimes the dialogue made me roll my eyes. That said, the book is a decent summer read - a Southern gothic soap opera.
Shrimp and Grits
Adapted from Pat Conroy's Recipes of My Life (recipe found on internet)
I improvised a lot here with the grits. I added red pepper for color and texture. I added the cheese for some added creaminess. And about halfway through the cooking I added some milk. Because of that I was light on the butter, but you can put in more if you prefer. I can't describe how incredible the smell of the shrimp cooking in bacon fat is - out of control! I guess Southerners eat this for breakfast. I serve it for dinner. Delish.
1 cup Grits (I could not find white, used polenta)
3 cups water
Salt (about 1 and 1/2 teaspoons)
1/2 cup diced red pepper, lightly sauteed
1/4 -1/2 cup white cheddar, shredded/diced
1/2 cup milk
2-4 tablespoons butter
1 pound peeled deveined shrimp
1/2 cup bacon chopped into matchsticks
1 shallot chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon Tabasco (or as little or as much as you prefer)
To make the grits, bring water and salt to a boil. Add grits, lower heat to simmer and let grits cook for around 30 minutes. Stir often to present sticking. After about 10-15 minutes, stir in the red peppers.
Let the polenta continue to cook for 30 minutes, stirring often. I added some milk to wet the polenta at about 20 minutes in (1/2 cup). At the end of cooking, I added some cheddar cheese and just a smidge of butter (I swear it was just a smidge!) Make the shrimp when the polenta is ready and resting.
Bacon! The shrimp start with this bacon. Cook it in a medium hot pan till crispy, about 5-8 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon. Leave that insane bacon grease in there. Add the shallots to the pan, cook gently for a few minutes. Add two tablespoons of butter - yeah, you heard right - add butter to the bacon grease! Add the shrimp and cook until pink, about 3 minutes. Squeeze lemon juice over shrimp.
Spoon polenta into a shallow bowl, place some shrimp on top. Add bacon back to the pan, along with the Tabasco and just stir till a thin sauce is formed. Spoon over shrimp and grits. Garnish with green onions if you like.