After my Granny's funeral I spent a week in Charleston trying to help my Aunt sort through the complete mess of paperwork that happens when someone passes away. After numerous trips to the bank, the pharmacy and road trips up and down the roads that used to be the South Carolina highway system to distribute things to relatives living and dead it was time to go home. Right before I got on the plane to return to Houston we went to an all you can eat buffet. My family was not going to let me leave hungry, or even less than bloated. And Grandpop just loved a buffet.
There were numerous surreal moments that week, but this one was perhaps the most mimicking of a sitcom. As we sat there, senior lady after senior lady filed by our table to offer her condolences or to say ‘hi’ to Grandpop. I didn’t know any of them, nor had any of them attended the funeral. I don't even think my Aunt knew most of them and my Aunt knows everyone. Grandpop left the table for another go-round at the buffet and my Aunt leaned in and said in a hushed tone ‘Now, Morgan, I don’t want you to be upset. But the reasons these old ladies keep circling is because not only is there a lack of senior men their age but...’ pause, look from side to side, more hushed, ‘Grandpop can still drive.’ Pause. ’Which makes him a real catch.‘ While I was slightly stunned I tried not to act so. And it made sense. I was aware of the senior male to female ratio/deficit, and after this last round of eye surgery, yes, he could drive again. ‘Do they read the obituaries?‘ My grandparents had read the obits everyday for years making their comments on the departed, and, depending on the level of recognition, Granny had a stock pile of cards in her dresser squirreled away for such an event. Charleston used to be a much, much smaller town. ‘How do they know?‘ ‘Probably they read them. They don’t mean any harm.‘ Seriously? Yes, seriously. And with that comment, a look over my shoulder witnessed another older lady tossing off a wave from across the room.
Grandpop apparently knew the game. He didn’t waste much time, he got out his best casserole recipe and hit the church picnic/get-together/bingo circuit in search of a companion. By the next time I visited he had all sorts of people retuning his casserole dishes with his name affixed with a piece of tape to the bottom. Grandpop’s signature dish was mac-n-cheese. He had received so many compliments on it he was starting to brag about it. ‘Might be the best in Charleston County.’ I kept after him about the secret. ‘What makes it so good?’ He would not not give it up he’d act as if his hearing had failed and he had not heard my question. He would do this by lifting his head, look straight at the ceiling, while resting one hand firmly on something, like a countertop or stair railing, clamp his teeth together and let out a hum like sound. His vision might have been sporadic but his hearing was fine.
Well, one day, before some family gathering or another I innocently found his secret macaroni recipe. It was in the trash. It was labeled ‘Piggly Wiggly frozen macaroni and cheese’, two wrappers worth. Apparently he doctored it with some additional cheddar and milk. Well, who blames him? He wasn’t wrong, it was good and he was smart to shroud the secret.
Turns out there are plenty of Coker family cooking secrets. At my cousin Amy’s 30th birthday my cousin Sonny brought the baked beans. His comment about them when asked for the secret to perfect baked beans? “Why? I mean, why would you make your own when Bush’s has perfected them?’ He had a point, one I follow to this day. Although following Grandpop’s lead, I doctor those beans with a little garlic and maple syrup, thus making them my secret Bush’s baked beans.
Well I have my own Coker family cooking secret. I don’t make shrimp and grits the South Carolina way, nope, somehow I have come to Spanish-ize our shrimp and grits. I know, I know, it’s not traditional and for all my pontificating about Maryland crab cakes I sound like a big, fat phony. But it’s the truth and it is a regular visitor to our dinner table. One Jim really enjoys. Hopefully it would not have caused Grandpop too much dismay, but I suspect it may have. He did prefer his grits with, as he said ‘grease’. He loved shrimp too. But it’s OK to cheat. Sometimes.
Spanish Shrimp & Grits - Serves 4
1 cup coarse corn meal
2 cups milk (or cream)
2 + 1 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup parmesan (optional)
Smoked Paprika Shrimp
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 teaspoons dried oregano
1.5 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 pinch cayenne
1 teaspoon dried roasted garlic (I realize this is an esoteric spice, you can substitute 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder or for a stronger flavor 2 crushed cloves of garlic)
1/2 cup diced fire roasted tomatoes
1 tablespoon white wine
1 ounce jamon serrano chopped in to 1" bits
2 green onions, sliced - green and white parts
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350.
For the polenta, combine the milk, water and salt and bring to a boil. Whisk in the cornmeal and let simmer for 30-40 minutes, whisking often. Keep the extra cup or so of water warm on a burner and add as needed to loosed the polenta while cooking.
Heat a cast iron skillet on the stove over a medium heat, add the jamon and cook until crispy, about 4 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
Toss the shrimp in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the oregano, paprika, cayenne, garlic and salt. Place the shrimp in the seasoned cast iron skillet and cook in the oven for 4 minutes. Remove. Turn the oven up to 450. Turn the shrimp over in the pan, add in the tomatoes and the wine. Return the pan to the oven for 5 more minutes.
About 5 minutes prior to serving, whisk the butter into the polenta. If cheese is desired, whisk that in as well.
Spoon the polenta in to bowls, spoon the shrimp mixture on top and sprinkle with the jamon, parsley and green onions.