Summer is road-trip season, so we're taking a culinary tour of America. But because Portland is a city of immigrants from other states, we don't have to leave town to do it. We're traveling to 50 Portland restaurants to try one distinctive food from each state. Our 50 Plates tour continues with shrimp 'n' grits from South Carolina, which joined the union on May 23, 1788.
The state: South Carolina is a bit of a hothead as states go. Its scions include a president who defied the Supreme Court by relocating the Cherokee Nation, a senator who championed the policy of nullification for federal laws he didn’t agree with, and the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. It was also the first state to secede from the Union. The Palmetto State, or “Sakerlina,” as my Southern football friends call it, is also home to one of the more distinctive—and sadly, dying—accents in the country: the Charleston accent, which sounds somewhere in-between Foghorn Leghorn and William F. Buckley, Jr. with just a hint of Canadian.
The food: Shrimp 'n' grits. A popular dish throughout the coastal south, shrimp served atop cheese grits accompanied by a spicy sauce is traditional breakfast fare, often simply called “breakfast shrimp.” Coastal fishermen, particularly in Charleston, have been waking up, frying shrimp in bacon grease and tossing them on some grits for generations. South Carolina even named the coarsely ground hominy its state food back in 1976. While every southern chef worth his or her salt has their own take on the dish, it remains a tried and true South Carolinian comfort food.
Other dishes considered and rejected: Mustard-based barbecue sauce. As alien as it may seem to our western eyes, when you’re in South Carolina, barbecue sauce is yellow. Frogmore stew is a simple one pot meal consisting of shrimp, corn and whatever odds and ends the chef feels like adding tossed in a pot of boiling water. A chicken, sausage and rice dish called chicken pilau (PER-lo).
Get it from: Bernie’s Southern Bistro (2904 NE Alberta St, 282-9864, berniesbistro.com) offers a wonderfully piquant take on shrimp and grits—albeit after traditional breakfast time, since Bernie’s opens at 4 pm. But keep in mind, that this is good, old-fashioned Southern cooking by way of Portland. So have your shrimp and grits for dinner, maybe add a side of mashed yams or creamed kale. The shrimp is good, the grits creamy and the spicy red sauce a perfect compliment. On a warm summer eve, the servers buzzed around Bernie’s back patio, asking a friendly, “Would y’all like another drink?” as I gobbled up my grits. Don’t mind if I do.