How Southern Comfort Food Helped Me Find Home in My Adventure
You are the bravest girl I know. This adventure is yours. My best friends’ words did laps around my mind as I stepped into the hordes of people in London’s Piccadilly Circus. It was November 2016, and those words had brought me abroad to England to focus on my writing in a student exchange program. Until that point, I was a Georgia peach who had seldom traveled beyond the cul-de-sac of my childhood home. It had all felt so exciting, following the advice of my friends and preparing for the trip; it was going to be an adventure of a lifetime, an inspiration and something to talk about for years to come. Yet as I wandered around the Times Square of England with my phone in hand, I felt less like a badass heroine with a sword and more like a defenseless princess. It was the second month of my trip.
“Excuse me, ma’am, can you please help me find this restaurant?” I asked a passerby.
The young woman frowned. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand your accent.”
A black taxi door opened, and a man in a suit entered. The driver sat on the right side of the vehicle—which to me was the wrong side—and greeted the passenger, their chatter and thick, fast accents unfamiliar to me. Traffic lights were on lampposts instead of suspended above streets. The city felt like a scene from a Charles Dickens novel. Nothing was where or how I knew it to be, and I felt my age and insignificance.
The restaurant was dimly lit. The floor was covered with red carpet, and there were leather green booths and dark wooden tables. The waiters wore white button-downs, black pants, and black ties. Silverware sat on white napkins. Garlic and parmesan were fragrant in the air, and the restaurant was alive with chatter from its dinnertime patrons. I sank deeper into the leather booth and smiled.
My waiter brought a large menu booklet for me and asked, “May I get you something to drink?”
“Yes, can I get a sweet—?” I stopped. Sweet tea is hard to find above the Mason-Dixon line, unless you want hot black tea with extra sugar. I sighed. “Do you have Pepsi—I mean, Coke?”
As the waiter got my soda, I looked over the menu. It was filled with more Italian dishes than I could remember seeing at Olive Garden back home. Odd yet familiar to me at this point in my trip were the English specialties also occupying the menu: Fried fish and chips on a newspaper-covered plate, and a breakfast platter of beans on toast, pork sausage, runny fried eggs, and tomatoes on the side. I found these same plates at every restaurant.
I turned to the “Other Specialties” page of the menu booklet. One of the options was “Shrimp and Grits.” My eyes started to well, and my heart eased. It was like finding the Starbucks in the town closest to my Uni. I read the description over and over: Finely ground polenta mixed with creamy cheese topped with boiled shrimp and herbs. A delicacy of American culture.
I blinked my tears away and sighed. That wasn’t the “delicacy” as I remembered it.
When I was growing up, my grandmother used to make shrimp and grits like Waffle House made waffles. I would love to say she made them from scratch, grinding the cornmeal by hand, tenderly following the best and most famous shrimp and grits recipe, the one from Edna Lewis, but my grandmother wasn’t that kind of grandmother. She made her recipe with Aunt Jemima grits, and she cooked them according to the directions on the box. She boiled water, added the grits and stired often to ensure they didn’t burn, and then she added freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese and stirred again until the grits were sunny yellow and thick and creamy as could be. She placed her shrimp on top, seasoning with salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic salt, and Tabasco hot sauce, and then served the plate with her secret homemade cornbread and lemonade, just in time for my mother to come home from work to enjoy it. I always hated spicy food, but my grandmother’s shrimp and grits were my weakness, the good kind of hot. Her shrimp and grits were a family reunion full of laughter at the good ol’ days. Kisses from cousins you never knew yet you knew loved you. Toy trucks I always begged my mom for when we went shopping. Shelling peas while watching Wheel of Fortune. My grandmother’s shrimp and grits were much more than an empty bowl and a full stomach. They were home, and now that my grandmother and mother are gone, they are memories of times I can never get back no matter how hard I scrape the bowl with my spoon.
“Do you need more time to look over the menu, miss?”
I shook my head. I think I ordered the Bolognese that day.
A part of me wishes I had tried England’s version of shrimp and grits. I wish I had been more adventurous on the adventure of my life, though I doubt I would’ve been able to stomach it. My trip abroad made me realize the boundaries to bravery. I had promised myself before I left that I would only eat food I couldn’t find back home, that I would stray out of my comfort zone as much as possible. Seeing shrimp and grits on the menu that day, however, helped ease my homesickness. I felt the heat again, heard my mother’s bolstering laughter through the chatter of the restaurant, felt the smooth metal squareness of my favorite fork in hand, smelled Tabasco hot sauce in the air. It was small, but it was a reassurance, a reminder of who I am and where I come from. In a simple Southern comfort food, I had found the home in my adventure.