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Georgia's shrimp fest brings out the best of Southern cooking

The delicious and versatile combination of shrimp and grits is an iconic Southern dish.  Yet, what started out as a fisherman's breakfast has evolved into a high-end culinary staple that’s moving past the Southern states and is making its way onto menus across the country. 

There's even a festival dedicated to the dish—the only one of its kind.  

Held in the Jekyll Island Historic Landmark District on the Georgia coast, this year's Shrimp & Grits: The Wild Georgia Shrimp Festival will be held for the seventh time from Sept. 14-16.

Click through to see amazing recipes from the festival.

Harlan Hambright of Saint Simon’s Island, Ga. won first place in last year’s amateur competition for his International Shrimp and Grits recipe --a savory dish of grilled marinated shrimp with pesto-flavored grits. Hambright competed against six other chefs, and won $500 and a commemorative plaque.

Hambright, who comes from a family of cooks, was born in Atlanta and raised in Knoxville, Tenn., where he says he learned his way around the kitchen from his mother. That love of food was also passed to his sisters who became professional chefs. One owns a bakery and the other, who owns a restaurant, recently catered a dinner for the U.S. Olympics swimming team.

An architectural photographer by day, Hambright says he entered the contest not only because he loves to cook, but because it was a way for him to market his book, The Idiat and the Odd-yssey; The Adventures of Odyfferus (International Georgia). Hambright traveled to more than 70 existing and former communities in Georgia that were named after international locations, researching their naming histories and photographing locations and people that were common reference points.  For example, he found pyramids in Cairo and a barber in Seville --both in Georgia, of course.

And so it only made sense to develop a recipe with the same concept—an international dish with local flare. “The theme of the recipe is similar: 'International' dishes made with products all from within the state of Georgia. What we have essentially is Mediterranean Shrimp over pesto polenta,” he said.

The combination of shrimp and grits was first served as a simple fisherman’s breakfast in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina.  Known as “breakfast shrimp," the dish was made with shrimp cooked with a little butter or bacon grease and poured on top of creamy, cooked grits. In 1985, shrimp and grits became mainstream when legendary New York  Times’ food critic Craig Claiborne wrote an article about the savory Southern fare. Today, this dish has seen a revolution, with chefs adding a variety of ingredients like Andouille sausage, bacon, scallions, cheeses and spices.

When competing in last year’s Wild Georgia Shrimp Festival, Hambright had two hours to make four full and 20-bite-sized servings of his winning dish for the judges.  Like a scene out of "Top Chef," at the last second, he says, everything miraculously came together.

“The challenge of a recipe like this is, what do you do with all these basically subtle ingredients to make something that is really fun and good to eat,” according to Hambright who says the judges were surprised by his approach. He believes he won the competition not only because of his unique version, but because the quality of the ingredients really made the dish stand out.

His win had a profound effect on him and his career. What started as a plan to promote his book, has turned into a passion for promoting local fare. Hambright, along with the Georgia Agritourism Association, has helped build market demand for the cheese and olive oil he used in his recipe.

This year, Harlan plans to showcase his skills once again with a completely new concept that he  hopes will win him the $800 grand prize --but he's keeping his recipe a secret until then.
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IF YOU GO:

The Wild Georgia Shrimp Festival, which attracted nearly 25,000 fans last year, will feature guest chefs Rebecca Lang, author of Quick-Fix Southern: Homemade Hospitality in 30 Minutes or Less and contributing editor for Southern Living, Whitney Otawka, former contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef and executive chef at Farm 255 in Athens, Georgia, and Michelle Weaver, executive chef of the Charleston Grill in South Carolina. The chefs will all be on hand to cook up their favorite versions of the mouthwatering dish. Abigail Hutchinson, Executive Chef of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, will also present her dish and judge the cooking competitions.

Throughout the weekend, there will be cooking demonstrations, a brew cruise to the festival, a craft beer tasting tent, cookbook signings, shrimp eating contests, arts and crafts vendors, and kids’ activities. Regional bands like Soul Gravy, Honey Blue, the WharfRatz and Traveling Riverside Band will perform live. On Saturday and Sunday, the professional and amateur cooking competitions will be held. Admission is free, and VIP tickets are available for $55.

For more information and a complete schedule of events, visit www.jekyllisland.com.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.