When Mr. Neal passed, the tradition continued, and his recipe became legendary. His restaurant, Crook's Corner (now led by Chef Bill Smith) is still a destination in Chapel Hill. I grew up going there. And the grits are delicious.
In North Carolina there are countless "original" shrimp and grits recipes floating around, and there are many more variations on the theme. What you might find is the dish is adaptable to your tastes, your family, your region of the country. It's personal. (We served it at our wedding!) The lesson is to make it your own.
Of the variations that hover near Chapel Hill, this one comes from my dad. It lives in my recipe box, folded in awkward quarters, and at the top boasts the title "Bill Neal's Shrimp and Grits." I don't know if it was ever the real thing. It's just a piece of paper. It doesn't matter. This is the one my family makes, with my adaptations, and it's my favorite.
Here's what you really need to know: this version calls for crispy bacon, fresh lemon juice, and cheesy grits. Real grits.
I take grits seriously, so I buy stone-ground grits, preferably in bulk or in a 2-lb cloth sack from a mill in North or South Carolina. Don't worry. They are surprisingly easy to find at upscale grocery stores, farmers markets, or you can order them online. It makes a world of difference to use the real thing. If you must, use quick-cooking grits. I strongly recommend against instant grits, which have a tendency to taste thin and watery, and are basically a different food entirely. Instead, try cooking the slow kind. It doesn't take all that long, and I've shared my method here.
Cook grits in a mixture of chicken broth, whole milk, and water, each liquid playing an important role in flavoring the grits. The result should be savory, creamy, but not too much. The ratio of liquid to slow-cooking grits is always 4:1. You should whisk or stir with a wooden spoon almost constantly while simmering to avoid scalding or burning, turning the heat down slightly as the mixture thickens. It takes about 20-25 minutes. When the grits have nearly come together, I add a mixture of parmesan, cheddar, and a sprinkle of cayenne pepper. Then keep warm.
I store leftover uncooked grits in an airtight container in the freezer, just because my mom said to do that, and I won't argue. If you have any, leftover cooked grits store well in the fridge for a day or two.
It's worth mentioning that when you are in Chapel Hill, you must go to Crook's Corner and sit outside on the patio for a frozen mint julep and jalapeno-cheddar hush puppies. For all its fame, it's still unpretentious. And if you're down the road in Durham, visit the group's new downtown nightlife venture, Alley Twenty-Six, which serves fancy drinks in a friendly space.
When you're cooking at home, I hope you'll enjoy my North Carolina version of shrimp and grits. The recipe follows.