Move over, crab cakes. There's a new favorite in town: shrimp and grits.
It might seem like blasphemy in a city hard-wired to love the blue crustacean. But the classic Southern dish is on menus everywhere these days.
Will Sterling, the owner of Saturday Morning Cafe near the Inner Harbor and who recently took over Bluegrass Tavern in South Baltimore, showed off his shrimp and grits on a recent morning.
"Did I put all the love of Alabama in that shrimp and grits?" he asked a visitor.
The object of his affection — a cast-iron skillet with a nest of grits, shrimp, andouille sausage, crayfish and gumbo gravy — is worth the adoration.
Sterling, a Boston native, developed a passion for Southern food as an Army Ranger stationed in Alabama with the 82nd Airborne Division. After he retired from the service, he moved here to serve in the Maryland National Guard.
"I fell in love with the South and the art of cooking," said Sterling, who translated his food interest into a career at Saturday Morning Cafe five years ago. "It's the new comfort food."
At Bluegrass, which will soon be rechristened Saturday Morning, he plans to make the menu, overseen by executive chef Antonio Rice, "a little more Southern," with shrimp and grits offered for dinner and brunch.
He's not alone in his passion for the dish.
Sean Guy, the chef-owner of Water for Chocolate in Upper Fells Point, offers barbecue shrimp and grits on his brunch menu. The spicy sauce is made in house, the sausage is Italian and the grits are cooked with lots of butter and chicken stock.
"It's one of the top three sellers with French toast and sweet-potato polenta," he said. "It has a really aggressive flavor with a distinct taste to it."
Perhaps the first person to introduce Baltimoreans to shrimp and grits was chef Cindy Wolf, who included the dish on her menu at Savannah in Fells Point in the mid-1990s.
"I don't think anyone in town was doing it," she said. "Savannah had a Low Country menu. Shrimp and grits is an integral part of the cooking."
Low Country cuisine refers to foods associated with a geographical swath in South Carolina and Georgia. John Martin Taylor, who popularized it in his 1992 book "Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking," is credited with bringing the culinary world's attention to dishes like shrimp and grits and she-crab soup.
Wolf, who started her cooking career at the now-closed Silks in Charleston, S.C., uses stone-ground grits from Anson Mills, an artisanal grower in South Carolina, with ingredients that include heads-on shrimp for extra flavor and Vermont butter for a higher fat content.
"It's a dish that's comforting," Wolf said. "How can you argue about shrimp, grits and butter? There's nothing not to like about it."
Shrimp and grits has many variations besides the two key components. Chefs Sterling and Guy lean toward a New Orleans style with Cajun and Creole spices and other additions, while Wolf sticks to a basic South Carolina version with andouille sausage and tasso (cured pork shoulder that's been seasoned and smoked) in the mix.
Malcolm Mitchell, the chef-owner of Ryder's, a gastropub in Upper Fells Point, serves a dish similar to what his Charleston-born mother makes, with andouille sausage and spicy Creole cream sauce. It's a humble, simple dish, he said.
"It was an early regional fusion," said John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, which studies the food cultures of the South. "It stands to reason that restaurants across the country would adapt and elaborate on one of the signal dishes of the Southern repertoire — shrimp and grits."
The dish has certainly come a long way from its earnest beginnings as a breakfast food for shrimpers who would save some of their early-morning haul for a meal.
It may have gotten its biggest boost nationally when New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne visited Crook's Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1985 and wrote about chef Bill Neal's shrimp and grits. The restaurant, which bills itself as "the birthplace of shrimp and grits" on its website, still serves Neal's recipe.
Nathalie Dupree, a Charleston resident who has won several James Beard Awards for her cookbooks, wrote one dedicated to shrimp and grits in 2006. "It was the only book out there," she said. "I had included shrimp and grits in books before, but I was really startled by how pervasive it was and how popular it was."
She and co-author Marion Sullivan updated the book, "Natalie Dupree's Shrimp and Grits," in 2014 with new photos and recipes, two of which are included with this article.
"It is a wonderful dish," said Dupree. "But what on earth made it so hot?"
She credits its popularity to many things. "It's tasty," she said. "It's fun, easy to eat and serve, and it's a little different."
Neal Langermann, chef-proprietor of Langermanns in Canton, brought his Low Country cooking to Baltimore in late 2009. His signature Carolina shrimp and grits includes Gulf shrimp, andouille sausage, shallots, tomatoes, a flavor-packed clam broth and heirloom grits sourced from the mountains of Georgia.
"It's a dish with a unique way of using shrimp, and people love shrimp," he said. "Shrimp and grits also sounds sexy."
Langermann, who is also the corporate chef at Capital Restaurant Concepts, which operates Georgia Brown's — a Low Country restaurant that opened in 1993 with Cindy Wolf as its executive chef before she came to Baltimore — and other properties in Washington, sticks to a basic version.
"People try too hard," he said. "They don't have to add all the fancy stuff to it."
Edge, of the Southern Foodways Alliance, compares our trendy embrace of shrimp and grits to our acceptance of chicken and waffles. It took diners a while to feel comfortable with each dish because the pairing seemed weird, he said.
"Now we all recognize it," he said.
Edge also thinks diners like the dish's nostalgic roots.
"Americans have come to require more than well-executed food. Now, they require a narrative with their dinner," he said. "They want to be told a story with their food, and shrimp and grits tell a story."