By Candice Wagener
Shrimp and grits: It’s one of those storied dishes whose origins are often misunderstood. At a recent Yams and Sweet Potatoes: Black Culinary Series event hosted by Madison College, chef Patience Clark set the record straight about where the dish originated, elaborated on some of her own cooking background and demonstrated how to create your own version at home.
Historically misrepresented as American, the earliest version of shrimp and grits originated in Mozambique, Africa, and the idea was brought over to America by enslaved people. Clark, who graduated from Madison College’s culinary program three years ago and owns Madison catering business Palate Pleasures, is an avid student of food history and keeps up with writers like Michael Twitty and Erin Byers Murray.
Two additional people that have been important in Clark’s journey as a chef are her grandma, Melba, and her great-grandma, Louise — both of whom still have a regular presence in her cooking. In fact, the three are partnering on a spice brand launching in summer called Louise’s Spice Rack.
(For now, in her own shrimp and grits version, Clark uses Watkins Seasonings, because “my grandma tells me, you’re not cooking if you’re not using it,” she explains.)
Despite cooking a lot with her grandma and great-grandma, Clark did not discover shrimp and grits until culinary school. Growing up in Pensacola and often being the one to haul the shrimp nets out of the water, Clark’s grandma needed a break from the crustaceans by the time her granddaughter came on the scene.
For Clark, shrimp and grits was a dish she wanted to adapt and make her own, “which is what people have been doing since the beginning of time. Shrimp and grits definitely has touched every part of America … white, Black, brown [people] — everyone makes their own rendition.”
Her variation includes bacon, the “holy trinity” (chopped bell pepper, onion and celery), garlic powder, tomatoes and paprika. She recommends using yellow corn grits if you can find them, but instant grits will do in a pinch. When she cleans and deveins her shrimp, she saves the shells to make a broth, which is then used as the cooking liquid for the grits.
Even though some consider it controversial, Clark adds cheese to her grits (cheddar, smoked gouda and parmesan are all favorites) — we are in Wisconsin, after all. At the very end, a swirl of heavy cream or whole milk adds a sumptuous creaminess. Layer the shrimp and vegetables over the top and this simple comfort food is ready for enjoying.
Clark’s catering business specializes in comfort cuisine, and she also started Exotic Eats, a curriculum that guides children and teens to try a wider variety of foods. She also works as a private chef for a fraternity at UW-Madison.
Giving her first presentation at her alma mater is a special occasion.
“This is an awesome, full-circle moment for me,” she said during her presentation. “I went to a lot of chef’s series … wanting to learn more about my history and learn more about Black food history and the contributions of the African diaspora to American cooking. It just intrigued me because it’s so hard to find this information — but I know it’s out there.”
Chef Patience Clark’s Recommended Reading List:
- “The Cooking Gene” by Michael Twitty
- “Grits: A Cultural and Culinary Journey Through the South” by Erin Byers Murray
- “Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking” by Blanche S. Rhett
- “Shrimp and Grits” by Nathalie Dupree
- “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet” by Adrian Miller