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  • VOL 08, ISSUE 01 • WINTER 2020
Local Starts

Local Starts

Regional breakfast favorites— from johnnycakes to chicken and waffles—adapt, endure and thrive.

While there’s no shortage of regional differences in lunch and dinner foods—from Southern barbecue to New England clam chowder — breakfast menus tend to offer a more ubiquitous set of choices to start the morning. Yet local traditions run deep in parts of the country, supported by longtime fans looking for a taste of nostalgia, new converts seeking a culinary connection to history and innovative chefs with fresh ideas. Here, we take a look at three breakfast dishes with strong regional associations, as described by the people serving them every day.

Shrimp and Grits
(Coastal South Carolina)

(Pictured above)
Grits, a porridge-like preparation of coarsely ground corn, have been popular in the South since Native Americans introduced them to the settlers, but it was likely the Gullah people of South Carolina’s Lowcountry who first added shrimp. The dish remained a seasonal breakfast staple around Charleston for years until upscale versions began popping up around the country. Bobby Simons, the owner of Acme Lowcountry Kitchen in Isle of Palms, S.C., keeps his customers happy with both classic and modern interpretations. “My restaurant tries to keep it basic and not go crazy with a bunch of wild stuff,” he explains. “The grits have got to be premium grits, and we use only local shrimp.”

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Johnnycakes (New England)

The main thing to know about johnnycakes is that they’re not pancakes. First of all, they’re made from cornmeal—particularly Johnny Cake Corn Meal from Kenyon’s Grist Mill in West Kingston, R.I. (est. 1696). And second, they’re a lot tougher to make. “Most places don’t make them because it’s hard to get the cornmeal, and they take a very long time to cook,” says Karie Myers, owner of Jigger’s Diner in East Greenwich, R.I. Myers sells 500 to 800 johnnycakes a week, and personally makes each one. “It’s very particular the way you have to mix it: The water has to be at a complete boil, or it changes the texture completely, and it’ll be thick and dense like cement and won’t taste good at all.”

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Chicken and Waffles (The South)

There’s no singular origin story of chicken and waffles, but its popularity in African-American communities in the South over the past half century has made it a staple of the American soul food tradition. Joseph Cole, a server at Yardbird in Miami, says that it’s the restaurant’s top seller, with certain superfans waving off the menu to go straight to their favorite savory/sweet combo every time. “We brine our chicken for 27 hours using the owner’s grandmother’s recipe and then pressure-cook it, which traps the juices in,” he explains. “Our waffles are cheesy waffles made with cheddar cheese, and we serve them with house-made bourbon maple syrup and a sweet honey hot sauce.” This decadent treat isn’t quite health food, but a bit of fruit does find its way to the plate. “Our watermelon, which is there as a palate cleanser, is tossed in chili powder, mint, a little sea salt and lemon juice.”

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