The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

If you’re like me and you’re as drawn to a book’s title and cover as you are the contents of the book itself, then you’ll love this one. Grady Hendrix has a knack for writing about horror against the most banal, ordinary, American backgrounds. I think of him as the literary version of the Duffer Brothers in the sense that he, like they’ve done with Stranger Things, is able to take the best tropes of horror and not only turn them upside down but put them against a backdrop of ordinary, everyday life in a timeframe so familiar to us because most of us grew up then and can recognize the cultural and societal expectations of the time.

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The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is both satire and horror and it balances perfectly between the two. Patricia is a housewife in the mid-90s living in Charleston, in a very exclusive neighborhood called Pierates Cruze. She’s the average Southern belle turned wife/mom/daughter-in-law. Her husband is a doctor and works all the time; her two kids are teenagers and are perfectly horrible; she caretakes for her elderly, senile mother-in-law and of course, she has her group of friends who are equally boring, wealthy and proper……except they really aren’t. Well, they never are, are they?

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Their original book club fizzles out due to the sheer boringness of the books chosen by the first book club head, so Patricia, Kitty, Grace, Maryellen and Slick form their own book club in which they read true crime and horror and any manner of horrendous novels. So when James Harris moves in next door in all his scary, sexy glory and Patricia starts experiencing and seeing some very weird and frightening things, she is in the right mindset for horror. James claims to be the nephew of the awful old woman who suffers a psychotic episode and attacks Patricia, their house is overrun with vicious rats who – and this scene is not for the faint of heart (I skimmed it) – attack Patricia’s mother-in-law so viciously that she dies, and with this and some other gruesome goings-on, Patricia begins to strongly suspect the new neighbor is a vampire.

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Though the horror is intense and quite gross at times, for me the true horror was how easily Patricia is made to feel like she is crazy, how she is ostracized within her own group of friends, how her husband subjugates her, and how easy it is for her to doubt herself and question her own sanity when she knows what she has seen and when she tries to get people to realize what is going on. That was more monstrous than any vampire – that absolute lack of self-worth, lack of self-esteem, lack of any true resources of one’s own. I kept wanting to shake her and smack her upside the head to get her to realize that she did not have to allow herself to be treated the way she was.

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I like a good twist on a horror trope as much as the next girl, and Hendrix delivers. He is in that same modern group of horror novelists such as Paul Tremblay, Jason Arnopp and F.G. Cottam – and I have blogged all of them previously – who run with the horror tropes of vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, werewolves, demonic possession, home invasion and the occult – and give them new life by completely presenting them in unexpected ways. Hendrix kicks ass with this updated edition of Dracula. This vampire is meaner, grosser, way more visceral and so much more loathsome than the Count himself ever could be. This vampire still controls the mean creatures of the earth – bats, rats, bugs. This vampire is still dangerously sexy and able to entice its victims and he still needs to be invited over the threshold to enter a home……all little grace notes that I appreciated. But this vampire is the most vicious I’ve run across in modern literature and Hendrix is one hell of a visceral writer. Don’t read this while you’re eating……which I realize is ironic, considering the point of my blog. 🙂 Just don’t. Trust me on this.

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And of course, being set in the South, there is food. Lots of food, and exactly the type of food you’d expect from upper-class, wealthy Southern housewives – Boston cream pie, peach pie, any variety of casseroles, a crab boil, a massive amount of cocktails, Swedish meatballs, and of course, the inevitable party finger food consisting of cruditĂ©s, ham biscuits, pimiento cheese sandwiches and my favorite, cheese straws. You can’t have a party in the Deep South and not have cheese straws. You’d get thrown out of Tara like Scarlett O’Hara, my dear!

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The party spilled from the living room into the dining room, where it swirled in a circle around a table overflowing with miniature ham biscuits, cheese straws, pimento cheese sandwiches, and a tray of cruditĂ©s that would be thrown out untouched tomorrow morning…….

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This is the method for Southern-style cheese straws I used, based on the recipe by the late, great Edna Lewis, who is one of the great African-American chefs of the last 100 years and whose classic cookbook Taste of Country Cooking is one of my favorites.

INGREDIENTS
1 and 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into pieces
2 and 1/2 cups extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
2 tablespoons water

METHOD
Sift the flour, mustard, salt and cayenne into a medium bowl.

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Using your most awesome red Kitchen Aid with the paddle attachment, beat together the cheese and butter on low until well blended.

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Gradually mix in the flour mixture until completely incorporated, then add the water and beat for another few minutes until the dough comes together.

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Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times, then roll it out into a rough rectangle on a parchment sheet-covered baking tray, and chill about half an hour.

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Heat the oven to 425F, and trim the dough edges, cut in half, then again into strips roughly 6 inches by 1/4″, but don’t get out the ruler. Just long, skinny strips will work.

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Bake for 20 minutes, or until they’re golden-brown, crisp, and you can smell the cheese. Let cool and enjoy with soup, salad, or as a snack with your evening cocktail. Any Southern belle would surely approve!

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The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

This book, though incredibly beautiful and lyrical and so very funny at times, is also so heart-wrenching to read that I considered not going with it. And I’ve read it before, but I think sometimes when you read things at a younger age, you haven’t either gone through the devastation and heartbreaks of adulthood so you find yourself feeling more intensely things that perhaps didn’t touch you as much when you hadn’t gone through hell and come back to tell the tale.

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At its heart, The Prince of Tides is about family. The betrayals and bonds and fucked-up connections and small heartaches and deep love and hate that any family goes through in life. The story is told from the viewpoint of Tom Wingo, one of the three Wingo children. Tom is an adult now, going through his own marital woes and never quite able to get to the place he wants, either emotionally or financially. It’s like all those things he wants are just out of his grasp. His twins sister Savannah, who lives in NYC, attempts suicide and Tom goes up there to care for her during her recovery. He meets Savannah’s therapist, Susan Lowenstein, and as part of trying to help his emotionally wrecked sister, starts to gradually tell stories of their life growing up on Melrose Island, about their abusive father and self-centered mother, their older brother Luke whose ultimate fate breaks your heart, and how their overall life and and one hour of brutal horror and its aftermath, has continued to affect them in such deeply dark ways.

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I suppose my takeaway from this book is how much you can love the people in your family who have caused you the most pain, grief and anger. It resonates so powerfully for me, particularly Tom’s relationship with his mother Lila because he does love her, as much as he hates her. Our families can put us through the emotional wringer like nothing and no one else. I had a very strong bond with my maternal grandmother precisely because of the fact that my own mother and I had one of the most challenging and difficult relationships I’ve experienced. And yet…..I loved her. I didn’t realize how much until she died last October. I always thought I either hated her or was indifferent to her because of all the pain she inflicted on her kids, on her own family. It just goes to show that family bonds can be the most enduring, the most painful, the most strangulating, and the most fulfilling……all at once.

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Though the book is quite lyrically beautiful and, at times, hysterically funny – the scene where Tom’s mother cooks a can of Alpo dog food to his father because he is being a total horrible prick – is classic. But it’s a book that will tear out your heart. It touches on so many painful topics and how all the crap we endure as kids can have such an enduring effect upon us as adults in ways we never truly consider. It strikes home for me right now because I am going through what feels like a very intense emotional transformation and depression because of dealing with my memories and grief over my mother, over the death of my first love, over so many work difficulties, over the betrayal of a man I have loved so deeply……….and I realize that so much of how I dealt with emotional upheavals as a child and what I learned from my own family dynamic has informed why I’ve done so many things as an adult. Going through transformations later in life is so much harder because we know how much emotional shit can hurt us, more so than as a kid. It’s tough, that’s for certain.

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The bond that Tom shares with Lila is predicated very much on their shared love of food and cooking. Lila is an amazing cook and shows Tom how to cook such delicacies as shrimp mousse, bouillabaisse, and wild duck, the recipe for which is described in mouth-watering detail. Being that this book is set in the South, I could have made any number of delectable dishes mentioned between the pages, but when Tom waxes poetic about Lila’s cooking ability, I was inspired. You see, Lila wants to be accepted among the snobby, wealthy women of the Colleton League, an elite group of rich women married to the rich men who essentially run the town. Lila, who is poor and incredibly beautiful, is of course shunned by these women but that doesn’t keep her from trying to get acceptance by continually submitting recipes for inclusion into the cookbook the League publishes each year, made up of genteel dishes submitted by the wealthy wives. But ultimately, it was this passage that inspired me to try something I’ve never yet made in the kitchen – Southern style barbecue pork ribs.

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She did magic things with pork that and changed the way I looked at the flesh of pigs forever. If she had published her recipe for pit barbecue, it would have altered the quality of life in the South as we knew it. But barbecue was indissolubly linked to her past and she eliminated it from contention as too simple and pedestrian.

Southern-style pork ribs are something I’ve never cooked before, so I am using a method that is a combination of suggestions from many of my Facebook followers, a few ideas from my dear friend Jake Goodmon who is a BBQ master, and my own taste palate.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pounds St. Louis-style pork ribs
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon liquid smoke
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sea salt
2-3 tablespoons fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoons dry mustard
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons dried onion
3 tablespoons garlic powder
1/3 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons red chile powder
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons dried parsley

METHOD
Marinate the ribs overnight in the grapeseed oil, liquid smoke, and apple cider vinegar, in the refrigerator.

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The next day, remove from the refrigerator and drain the marinade, but don’t throw it away.

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In a small bowl, mix together the sea salt, pepper, mustard powder, paprika, dried onion, garlic powder, brown sugar, red chile powder, red chile flakes, and dried parsley.

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Rub over the damp ribs on both sides, and leave to sit for about an hour.

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Preheat the oven to  200F and lay the ribs out on a baking tray. Pour the reserved marinade over them, cover with foil, and bake low and slow for up to 5 hours, turning after the first two hours and occasionally pouring over the juices. The smell is out of this world!

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At the five-hour mark, turn on the broiler and remove the foil from the ribs. Broil for maybe 15 minutes, until they get dark brown and crunchy. Heat up the pan juices and reduce them until they thicken, then pour over the ribs.

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Let cool about 10 minutes, then eat like a caveman, with lots of napkins for the sauce. So very good and perfect with a glass of red wine, though really, what DOESN’T go well with wine?

Scenes from New Orleans

My vacation to the Big Easy was filled with gorgeous architecture, history, beautiful buildings, humidity (whew!), tasty cocktails, a few ghosts, and of course, food. Lots of delicious food. You cannot come to NOLA and not eat. A wonderful trip with lots of happy memories.

Below: oysters on the half shell at the Desire Oyster Bar.

Red beans and rice at Cafe Beignet. Soooooo creamy and delicious.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 – called the City of the Dead, for obvious reasons.

Barbecued shrimp and red wine at Pascal’s Manale in the Garden District. Messy but so delicious!

The cafe that protected us from the rain, provided great chicory coffee, and some lovely live jazz! A wonderful oasis in the middle of the French Quarter.

The colorful and fanciful mural above the bar at Cafe Sbisa, where we had some of the absolute best food I’ve ever eaten in NOLA. If you go to New Orleans, please try this place. You will not be sorry.

Shrimp and grits with Andouille sausage and a poached egg at Cafe Sbisa………heaven on a plate.

Some knock-you-on-your-ass strong cocktails at Hermes Bar inside Antoine’s Restaurant. Excellent atmosphere and terrific drinks.

Eggs Benedict with Tasso ham and greens at Commander’s Palace. WOW!

A nighttime view of the back garden of St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter. Spooky and perfect for the atmosphere!

Shrimp, blue crab, and fried green tomatoes……and a Mimosa! Cafe Sbisa did not disappoint.

Chargrilled oysters with lemon, butter and Parmesan at Desire Oyster Bar. A delicious and decadent treat.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Thanks to JG for the photography.

I first heard about The Help when the movie, with Octavia Spencer and Cicely Tyson came out, and wanted to read the book first. The storyline, in a nutshell, is the story of two African-American maids – Aibileen and Minny in 1960s Mississippi – and how the lives they lead, complete with racism, inequality, and brutality, are told by Skeeter, a white girl who has just returned home after finishing college and wants to be a writer.

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She is compelled to write about the inequal treatment of black servants after her Junior League starts an initiative to install separate toilets in every house in Jackson, for the sole purpose of keeping their colored servants from using their bathrooms. Yes, this stuff happened, and far, far worse.

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As much as I loved the kindness and wisdom of Aibileen, my favorite of all the characters was Minny. She was hilarious, and had a mouth on her that could cut! I loved the fact that, even in the segregated, rural, racist South when whites had so much power over African-Americans that sometimes literally meant life and death, Minny still stood up for herself and told her hateful employers exactly what she thought of them. Hah! Of course, that meant she had been fired from all of those jobs, too. Her initial relationship with Celia Foote was very odd and funny, yet very transformational as well, as they develop an odd sort of friendship.

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It’s so odd to think that this entire class of wealthy white women, so focused on segregating their maids and yet trusting them to care for and bring up their children, cook their food, clean their houses, and wash their dirty laundry – literally and figuratively. There is such inequality in any type of employer/employee relationship as it is. Can you imagine the dynamics of that relationship compounded by racial inequality?

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I’ve read other opinions on this book, and the main issue seems to be two-fold: 1) that Stockett is promoting racial stereotypes in her portrayals of the maids, and 2) that for all her willingness to expose the ugly racial reality of that time, she still soft-pedals it. I don’t know that I agree with that, simply because she wrote what she experienced and remembered and tried to recreate it in the voices of these wonderful maids. Maybe it wasn’t the voices with which they would have told their stories, and perhaps others of the same background and experiences would have told it differently. That’s as it should be, but it shouldn’t devalue this book, either.

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Being a story of domestic goings-on as much as a treatise on racial inequality, the book abounds with mentions of so much delicious food that it was hard to choose one. Minny’s caramel cakes, fried chicken, and of course, the infamous chocolate pie. Oh poop! But early in the book, one scene sets the tone for the type of behavior these poor maids had to deal with, when Aibileen is serving a lunch of deviled eggs, ham sandwiches, and something called a congealed salad at Mrs. Leefolt’s house, and the gossip abounds about Celia Foote, who is considered “white trash” by these supposed pillars of the community.

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I spoon out the congealed salad and the ham sandwiches, can’t help but listen to them chatter. Only three things them ladies talk about: they kids, they clothes, and they friends. I hear the word Kennedy and I know they ain’t discussing no politic.

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A congealed salad is a Southern staple at lunch, dinner or picnics. It’s essentially a Jello salad, that can be made either savory or sweet. with marshmallows, nuts, fruit, celery (!), and cream cheese. I wanted to try and recreate it, so this is my take on that Southern classic, lime congealed salad. This is the method that worked for me, based on this lovely recipe at Never Enough Thyme. I did use walnuts instead of pecan, and I left out the celery, because yuck.

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INGREDIENTS
1 3-oz. packet of lime Jell-o
1 8-oz. bar of cream cheese, room temperature
2 cups boiling hot water
1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
1/2 cup walnuts
2 cups miniature marshmallows

METHOD
Mix together in your most awesome Kitchen Aid the cream cheese and the lime Jell-o. That’s a lurid green, isn’t it?2017-03-26 10.39.46_resized.jpg

Reduce the mixer speed and add a little bit of the hot water. The idea is to loosen up the mixture.

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Add in the rest of the hot water and mix well to make sure the cheese, Jell-o and water are completely combined.

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Pour into a pan and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

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Remove from the fridge, and stir in the marshmallows, pineapple and walnuts. Put back in the refrigerator for another couple of hours. You might check on it once and stir a few times, as the marshmallows tend to sink and you want them incorporated through the salad.2017-03-26 14.45.21_resized.jpg

Remove one last time, and serve garnished with lime slices and whipped cream. To go full-on Southern, serve the lime congealed salad with fried chicken and deviled eggs.

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The Witching Hour by Anne Rice

Thanks to KMQ for the photography.

We continue with our month-long Halloween theme and a particular favorite book of mine. I’m always excited to reread “The Witching Hour” which is on my top 10 absolute most favorite books in the world.

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I first discovered Anne Rice one summer when I was 12, visiting my aunt and uncle in Douglas, Arizona, a small town on the border of Mexico. I was wandering around the historic downtown area, happened upon the bookstore (of course) and while browsing, came across this luridly gold and red book cover titled “Interview with the Vampire.” I was hooked on this marvelous author from that day forward, and this one  remains high on my list of desert-island reads.

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Anne Rice has a lush, prosaic style of writing. She’s a sensualist, as is obvious in her descriptions of light, darkness, death, blood, spirit encounters and lovemaking. All of these descriptions are sprinkled throughout The Witching Hour, but though she is very much a sensualist, I don’t get a sense that she’s a foodie sensualist. What food descriptions there are in her books are not very detailed or ornate, compared to her luxuriant descriptions of other things. It makes sense, of course, because many of her books center around vampires, and they only ingest blood. But her witches seem to be more focused on wealth and luxury and power……..and there’s nothing wrong with that, either!

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This is an epic book, telling the story of one New Orleans family, the Mayfairs, and its history going back 13 generations. Each generation has an heiress to the huge family fortune, and each of these women are witches. These women can control spirits, at times read people’s minds and otherwise interact with the spirit world, and in fact, each generation has been haunted by a spirit called Lasher, who has helped the family amass its immense wealth and yet has caused much harm and damage.

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Just the history alone in this book is enough for any devoted history buff. Just the descriptions of the city of New Orleans are enough for any devoted architectural buff. And the depiction of the romantic relationship between Rowan, the last in the line of Mayfair Witches, and Michael, whom she rescued from drowning, is both sweetly sentimental and roughly erotic, as they seem to have a deep passion for each other emotionally and physically.

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In one scene, he has come back to New Orleans and is reveling in his stay at the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, which he remembers visiting as a child. He and Rowan have cemented their physical relationship with a passionate night of lovemaking – always wonderful for working up an appetite! – and orders the ultimate Southern breakfast.

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“He called Room Service. ‘Send me a big breakfast, Eggs Benedict, grits, yeah, a big bowl of grits, extra side of ham, toast, and a full pot of coffee. And tell the waiter to use his key.”

Michael, a true Southern gentleman, obviously loves his grits.

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I tweaked Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for shrimp and grits, combined with a creamy sauce loosely based on this one at myrecipes.com, but with a few flavor tweaks of my own. I added the green bell pepper because it is a staple of Southern cooking, and a dash of turmeric in the grits to add to the lovely golden color.

INGREDIENTS
1 teaspoon of sea salt

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1 cup of quick-cooking grits
4 cups of water
1 cup of combined Parmesan and sharp cheddar cheeses

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1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 large asparagus spears, cut into chunks
1 small green bell pepper, also cut into chunks
12-15 raw shrimp, deveined and shelled
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sherry
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon butter
4 eggs

METHOD
Add the sea salt to 5 cups of water. Cook at high heat and bring to a fierce boil.

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Slowly pour in the cupful of grits, stirring to mix thoroughly. It will bubble up quite a bit so lower the heat immediately after pouring in the grits. Cover and cook for 10 minutes at very low heat.

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The grits will have thickened into a texture like porridge. It’s a good idea to whisk for a few minutes at this stage, since grits tend to be lumpy.

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Add in the cheeses and stir to mix.

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Taste for seasoning and add more salt and some pepper if so desired. Pour the cooked cheesy grits into a glass pan, and refrigerate for a few hours.

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Saute the asparagus and green bell pepper together, with some butter, olive oil, salt and pepper for flavor. Add the shrimp to the cooked vegetables, and cook until the shrimp are pink. Remove immediately from the pan.

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In the same pan, add the butter, flour, chicken broth, and half and half. Whisk together to make a thick cream. Taste for seasoning and flavor. Add the sherry, which will give the cream a nice, creamy, ecru color.

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Add the cooked shrimp, asparagus and green pepper to the cream sauce, stir to combine the flavors, and cover to keep warm.

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Poach four eggs, four minutes each. Set aside.

Take the chilled grits from the refrigerator. Cut circles out, using a small glass or coffee cup. It’s the same principle as making polenta, if you’ve made polenta, that is.

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In the same pan you used for the cream sauce, cook the grits patties 3-4 minutes a side, until golden brown.

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Put two grits patties on a plate, top each with a poached egg, and spoon over the lusciously flavored and scented cream sauce.

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It’s a lovely dish, suitable for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I feel certain Anne Rice’s witches would not turn me into a frog if they tasted this dish made in their honor.

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