Grits, gravy and glory

Exploring the bold and flavorful cuisine of the Deep South

Story By Michele Roldán-Shaw

Welcome to the Deep South, where jars of bright pink pickled eggs sit on convenience-store checkout counters, and you can buy such baffling cuts as “hog maw” at the Piggly Wiggly. Where garden greens swim in the juices of ham hock or smoked turkey necks, and french fries are considered a vegetable. Recipes might be measured in pounds — a pound of sugar, a pound of butter — and old-timers wistfully recall cakes made with chicken fat. Raccoon is savored at Christmas dinner, and molting crabs are a seasonal delicacy. 

Traditional foodways here are informed by clashing cultures, steeped in hard times, and reliance on whatever can be grown, caught, or shot out back. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been raised to the level of art. 

“In ages past we all cooked the way Paula Dean does today,” says Patsy Hodge, a Bluffton resident who hails from Tillman on Highway 321. “Macaroni and a pound of cheese. But now people are concerned about all the fat and carbohydrates, which is too bad because it just tasted so darn good.”

Pound cake perfection 

Patsy is known for her pound cake, made from a recipe given to her 30 years ago by a cousin in Macon. The secret, she says, is finding the right cook time and which level in your oven to put it on. “I always check it after one hour and twenty minutes,” Patsy explains, “because the worst thing you can do is cook it too long. But the other worst thing you can do is not cook it long enough. One hour and twenty minutes is the right time — in my oven.” 

In order to check it, she used to take a broom straw — as in an actual straw plucked from her broom — and insert it into the cake to make sure it came out clean. But these days she just uses a long, thin tester purchased at a kitchen store. Another important tip: sift the dry ingredients.

Homemade Pimento Cheese Spread with Crackers and Veggies

Pimento cheese purist 

A big fan of Patsy’s pound cake is her friend, Nancy Golson. Originally from Spartanburg but a central fixture of Bluffton for decades, Nancy does not mince words when it comes to praising or condemning food. And she is a pimento cheese purist. “A lot of people screw it up by putting stuff in it,” she says, “like hot sauce or Worcestershire sauce. They think they’re improving on a good thing, but they’re not.” 

All you have to do, she insists, is start with a good sharp cheddar cheese shredded on a hand-grater. Add Duke’s Mayo (it has to be Duke’s), salt and pepper and chopped pimento strips — that’s it. “You just stir it up and it’s divine,” Nancy asserts.

Homemade Shrimp and Grits with Pork and Cheddar

The grits master 

Another dish that has her stamp of approval are grits made by English Brown, a Charleston native now residing in Bluffton. English’s grandmother was from Hollywood, South Carolina, one of 13 kids in a “farmin’ family” raised on good stone-ground grits. They had a lot of Gullah people working for them, including a woman named Hattie who helped with the cooking while English’s grandmother was growing up. To this day English makes her grits just as Hattie did.  

The recipe is as follows: a cup of water, a cup of milk, a cup of heavy cream, a stick of butter, a little salt and whole grain grits (her top pick is Charleston Favorites, which come in a cloth bag). “Now, I know half-and-half is equal parts milk and heavy cream,” English cautions, “but it doesn’t work like that. You have to use a cup of each.” Put everything in a pot on medium heat, stir constantly for 20 minutes, then turn the flame down low and leave the girts on a long time. Check every 30 minutes to stir and thin with more heavy cream if needed. How long? Well, the longer they sit, the creamier they get. Or to put it another way, when English recently threw a brunch with shrimp and soft-shell crab, she got up at 2:30 a.m. to start the grits. 

But the biggest peculiarity to her fabled recipe is that after measuring out the water in the pot, she strikes a match and puts it out in the water. This hearkens back to a friend of her mother who lived in the ritzy part of Charleston and wanted to learn how to cook. English’s mother went to teach her, and the woman said, “We can’t make grits because I don’t have any matches.” There was a moment of confusion before English’s mother realized that her gas stove at home had to be lit with a match, and the friend thought her method of extinguishing it was part of the recipe. 

Apart from her grits, English doesn’t lay claim to any standout recipes. But she certainly appreciates regional fare. “Southern cuisine is the only cuisine, as far as I’m concerned,” she states boldly. “Except for maybe Italian.” 

A tray is filled with corn on the cob, and shrimp. Everything is seasoned to perfection with spices.

Lowcountry Boil reinvented 

A fellow enthusiast is Carol Lancaster, a native of Savannah who now lives on the Carolina side in Levy. Descended from a long line of good cooks, Carol spent a lot of time as a child with her aunt, “a very rotund little lady” who ran a boarding house and cooked for a wealthy man in Savannah. The man used to let them fish off his dock, and Carol’s aunt would do fantastic things with the catch. More recently Carol saw a recipe on Pinterest for shrimp and grits in which the shrimp were roasted on a sheet pan, which inspired her winning adaptation of the classic Lowcountry Boil. “You need a bib to eat it,” she says proudly. 

First she halves red potatoes and parboils them until almost tender, then she cuts up beef sausage and fresh corn on the cob. After melting a stick of butter on a sheet pan, she lays everything out, sprinkles some Old Bay seasoning, stirs to coat and bakes at 375 degrees until almost done. At the last minute she adds shrimp, maybe some more butter and seasoning if needed, then bakes it a few more minutes. Unlike the usual version, where everything goes in water that dilutes the taste, her sheet-pan Lowcountry Boil allows the flavors to condense and amalgamate in their own juices. 

“Southern cuisine has  metamorphosed into something fantastic,” Carol says. “It’s always been good — not to say it’s healthy — but the different people who come here put their own spin on it to make it even better.”

Marinated Roasted Beets with herb vinaigrette served on a white plate. Rustic background, selective focus.

Barbecued beets and corn pudding 

Case in point is Ellabug Davis, a Maryland native who has lived in Savannah since age 18. She cooks for Food Not Bombs, an indie network of volunteers who share meals with the hungry in 1,000-plus locations across the planet. Ella and others collect extra produce from local farmers, meaning they often have large quantities of whatever’s in season, forcing them to innovate. In addition to staples like yellow rice, greens, fried cabbage, squash and green bean casseroles, cucumber and tomato salads, corn on the cob, watermelon and sweet potato pie, the vegetarian menu is rounded out with original creations like corn pudding. 

“We get a lot of folks who don’t try stuff they’re not familiar with,” says Ella, who helps serve the meals at a park on the corner of 38th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard every Sunday and Wednesday at 6 p.m. and Fridays at 9 p.m. “But we’ve gotten a lot of converts with the corn pudding.”

An even more startling success is her signature dish, barbecued beets. She starts with onions, garlic and chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, cut up and simmered in the bottom of the pot. Beets are then either slow-cooked or pressure-cooked with a saucy blend of tomato paste, ketchup, Cajun spice mix, Dijon mustard, brown sugar, chili powder, cayenne, liquid smoke, hot sauce, salt and pepper and homemade veggie stock. “We couldn’t keep up with all the beets we were getting,” Ella recalls. “When I finally started making them sweet and hot, I realized they had a little smoky flavor. So I leaned into that, and barbecued beets were born.”

Homemade Corn Pudding Casserole with Cheddar Cheese

Carolina Gold rice

Cleverness aside, sometimes it’s the simple foods that people crave the most. “A meal is not fulfilling if rice isn’t included,” says Frances Chalmers, echoing the sentiments of several billion people around the globe. She and her husband, Marion “Rollen” Chalmers, are natives of Hardeeville, where they still live today. Rollen has done pioneering work with Carolina Gold rice, an heirloom grain that was once grown extensively here before it disappeared in the middle of the last century. In the last few decades Carolina Gold has made a comeback, thanks to a Texas seed bank and certain hobbyist farmers right here in Hardeeville. Rollen and Frances now sell it through their website ( and at a new brick-and-mortar location in Levy. 

“Carolina Gold has a buttery, nutty taste and a great smell when it’s cooking,” explains Frances, who never eats store-bought rice and feels proud to offer the best grains around to local folks. “You can tell you’re eating something that is pure and good for you.” 

The secret to cooking it, she says, is chemistry. The old-fashioned way to get it right was by sticking your pointer finger in the pot to make sure that water covered the rice at a depth of a single joint. But today the method is more fool-proof: one cup rice, 1.5 cups water, ½ to 1 teaspoon salt and a little bit of butter to taste. Bring it to boil, put on the lid, steam for fifteen minutes, and it will turn out fluffy and delicious every time. Frances uses Carolina Gold in a number of heritage dishes such as red rice, purloo and chicken bog, but her favorite is Hoppin’ John made with Sea Island red peas. The peas are cooked for an hour before adding meat and raw rice, then finishing it either on the stove or in the oven. A vegetarian version can be made, Frances says, by using smoked paprika and a little garlic as a convincing substitute for the meat flavor. 

“Rice is a staple in our house and most homes in the South,” she concludes. “You can’t go wrong with a meal that has rice.”

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