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Shrimp and Grits: A Ghost Story

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Cuisine is the tactile connection we have to breathing history.
Clifford A. Wright, A Mediterranean Feast

That spicy Shrimp and Grits I'd fallen for, far from being a recently minted cuisine, had had deep roots in slave cooking of the past. What had seemed "new" to me in Atlanta, was in fact old, and in Savannah, the history of slavery, so eerily present and yet so unseen, haunted its menus.

I sat with my daughter, Hannah, and my husband, Bill, in the Rosebud Restaurant in Atlanta (the city where my daughter now lives). It was not my first time in Atlanta, although I had never traveled to any other part of the South, and, once again, the city did not feel like what I imagined the "South" to be. The city center towered above me, a forest of skyscrapers; pocket neighborhoods buzzed with young professionals, and residential streets, shaded with dogwoods and sycamores, reminded me of 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 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 were mouthfuls of rich and spicy. The grits were infused with andouille sausage, with caramelized onion, tomato, and plenty of herbs, flavors that haunted me for the rest of the trip. But being a tourist and coming from California, I assumed this Shrimp and Grits was not traditionally "Southern," that it was some trendy fusion cuisine instead.

Savannah, in contrast to Atlanta, struck me as very "Southern" indeed. ("Southern," I realized, meant "Old South" to me.) One section of the city was thick with Victorian houses, another with clapboards from colonial times, and the sections were joined by densely shaded public squares--splashing fountains, oaks romantically draped with Spanish moss, and statues of founding fathers or heroes of the Civil War.

It was Monday when we arrived in Savannah, 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 would learn that Savannah was, and still is, a busy seaport, but there were few signs of that along the historical section of the river. The ships and cranes we saw in the distance seemed to be part of some other world.

Although many tours in Savannah are devoted to ghosts, we had decided against the spectral, wanting a more "historical experience." But the ghosts found us nonetheless. The house we rented turned out to be one of the stops on the "ghost circuit," the owner having hung the windows upside down, our guide book informed us, to keep out evil spirits. Rambling along the harbor, I ducked into random stores always finding a rack of books with titles like Haunted Savannah, Savannah Specters, Ghosts on the Coast, Georgia Ghosts, and, my personal favorite, Ghost Cats of the South. While visiting the gift shop in 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 and tell stories."
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 the specters advertised on tours, 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, for example, with flies circling around his head (they were attached by threads). Most of all, however, Savannah seemed haunted by slavery, the history of which was strangely invisible in a city which I knew had once 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. Clearly, it occurred to me, one source of Savannah's obsession with ghosts had been the culture of its West African slaves.

In this gift shop, still curious about the history of grits, I found a copy of a book on Slave Cabin Cooking 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" in this book was very similar to the recipe for the andouille version, and I would also 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 cooking of the past. What had seemed "new" to me in Atlanta, was in fact old, and in Savannah the history of slavery, so eerily presentand yet so unseen, haunted its menus.

A dish of Shrimp and Grits had put me in touch with a hidden history, with one of the ways that slaves and descendants of slaves--long regarded as "other" by white Southerners--had deeply shaped Southern cuisine, culture, and identity. Shrimp and Grits had connected me to a deeper kind of haunting than was offered on the official ghost tours and had suggested how "cuisine," could indeed be "the tactile connection we have to breathing history." In ways I didn't expect, Shrimp and Grits had taken me "South."

Judith Newton is the author of the award winning memoir, Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen.