Shrimp and grits together again on Jekyll Island


Jennifer Hill Booker's cookbook, "Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes With a French Accent," is available at amazon.com and yourresidentgourmet.net.

Jekyll Island’s Shrimp & Grits: the Wild Georgia Shrimp Festival is a mere 8 years old.

But that’s clearly long enough to attract more than 20,000 to the Georgia coast to sample every combination imaginable of wild Georgia shrimp and its trusty sidekick — grits. The three-day festival is being presented by Southern Living in the Jekyll Island historic district Sept. 19-21.

The festival offers an opportunity for amateur chefs to compete with their creative shrimp dishes. But, despite the name, there’s plenty do beyond cooking and eating. There will be entertainment, including Nashville’s Rob Crosby, Billy Montana and James Dean Hicks performing at Songwriters in the Round Saturday evening, followed by the Shane Bridges Band on the main stage later that night.

Another highlight of the festival is the Craft Brew Fest, which will feature dozens of different beers. For families, there will be a fun zone with ziplines, bungee jumping and rock-climbing walls. There also will be arts and crafts vendors, shrimp-eating contests and food demonstrations.

The festival will kick off Friday night with $3 Sample Night, where vendors sell all shrimp and grits dishes for, you guessed it, $3. The festival continues Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free, but there is a $6 per car parking fee. Go to jekyllisland.com for more details and a full schedule of events.

Atlanta-based chef Jennifer Hill Booker, who recently released the cookbook “Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes With a French Accent,” will be one of the judges for this year’s festival. Booker, who until recently was director of the culinary program at Grayson High School, shared her thoughts with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about this year’s festival as well as her book.

Q: You grew up in the South and spent a lot of time on your family farm. At what point did you know that you wanted to be chef and that cooking and food were just your thing?

A: I distinctly remember helping my grandmother cook Christmas dinner when I was around 5 years old. She was making a huge pan of cornbread dressing and she let me stir the pan and lick the spoon once we were done. There were so many great smells in the kitchen, and family members bustling in and out, lots of laughter and love; and I decided that I always want to feel like this.

Q: In your book you say you never wanted to be just a Southern chef and you had an interesting journey that landed you in the Cordon Bleu in Paris. How different is the training you received there in comparison with your farm-to-table training from your mother and grandmother?

A: Le Cordon Blue in Paris was such a unique experience, mainly due to their food culture. The French are very serious about their food — where it comes from, how fresh is it, is it the best quality available, how to cook it the most flavorful way possible, and how to make it look its best when served. [Those] are some of the similarities I found applied to how Southern cooks approach food as well.

Q: So, you're headed to the Wild Georgia Shrimp Festival on Jekyll Island as a celebrity judge.

A: It's my first time going, and I hear there will be about 20,000 people coming through — all looking for the best shrimp and grits recipe. And I have the honor of tasting the best!

Q: What are some of the most creative things you've seen people do with shrimp and/or grits, and what do you typically look for in taste and presentation when you're judging a food competition?

A: I've seen everything from barbecued shrimp and grits, tempura-battered and fried shrimp and grits, and even shrimp ceviche over grit cakes! I judge with hands: First, is my dish hot? Then with my eyes — how does the food look? And, of course, I have to smell it — does it smell like fresh-caught wild Georgia shrimp? And, finally, I taste it. The separate ingredients in the dish should all come together in the perfect balance of taste and texture. The ultimate winning dish? The one that leaves me wanting more!