February 9, 2010

8 Min Read
Tale of a Shrimp

By Anne Rudloe and Jack Rudloe

In the first part of the 20th century, aside from canned shrimp, it took years to convince people that fresh shrimp were fit to eat. Americans considered seafood to be mysterious and intimidating. After World War II everything changed. People became more adventurous. They had seen the world, and they werent content to stay in one place. Families drove to Miami Beach and New Orleans and discovered the delights of seafood. Eating shrimp was a bold and adventurous thing to do. By 2003, shrimp replaced canned tuna as Americas best-selling seafood.

Theres a million ways to cook shrimp, Bubba Blue told Forrest Gump in the movie of the same name. Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sauté it. Deys, uh, shrimp-kabob, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo.... Every culture or geographic area has a shrimp recipe of its own, with an endless array of spices, boils, dips, and sauces

The secret is to toss fresh whole shrimp into a pan with a half inch of beer or water, just enough to keep the shells from burning, and add spices to taste. Give it a slow heat for three to five minutes. Their heads have enough water to cook them and produce a delicious stock. Beware of overcooking, especially with royal reds.

While deep-water royal reds and Pacific pinks look cooked while still alive, shallow-water pinks, browns, and whites turn red only when they are cooked. Watching fresh shrimp in boiling water rapidly change color from brown or white to red before your eyes is very dramatic. The magic is caused by a protein called astaxanthin, a much more powerful antioxidant than vitamin A, which gives cooked shrimp, crabs, and lobsters that appetizing rosy pinkness. Astaxanthin is the same molecule found in plankton, krill, and algae that gives northern lobsters and crabs their blue color. Exactly how the color changed remained a mystery until chemists described electrons from astaxanthin bonding with other protein molecules during the cooking process and showed how that affected the absorption of light. Both crustaceans and salmon get their color from eating plankton, krill, or algae.

Shrimp n grits is a South Carolina favorite, as is jambalaya in Louisiana. Asia has endless shrimp and rice dishes, including oat shrimp, served in Thailand. The Italians serve them with spaghetti, and the Portuguese make shrimp tempura. Add to that soft-fried shrimp, batter-fried shrimp, sake steamed shrimp, drunken prawns, steamed fresh prawns, and the list goes on and on. There are indeed a million ways to cook shrimp and another million ways to season them.

Shrimp are one perpetual party, and endless shrimp and seafood festivals celebrate them. Theres a rock shrimp festival at St. Marys, Georgia, and a Wild-Caught Shrimp and Grits Festival on Jekyll Island. Louisiana has its Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. Florida has its Eight Flags Shrimp Festival on Amelia Island, the Everglades Festival, and the Seafood Festival in Apalachicola. From the Carolinas to Texas, seafood festivals happen in nearly every coastal town, but Alabamas National Shrimp Festival arguably is the biggest. Smells of frying shrimp, soft-shell crab, fish, and hush puppies mingle with cotton candy and funnel cakes. Guitars and banjos twang, harmonicas play, entertainers sing country-and-western songs, and children listen to storytellers. People heap plates with food, mill about, pick over trinkets at the arts-and-crafts stands, and watch skydiving, balloons, and fireworks.

A Blessing of the Fleet often occurs. Because shrimping is so precarious, and everyone in the community knows someone who was lost at sea, wreaths are cast into the water in their memory amidst prayers for safety. For visitors it is a colorful tourist attraction, but for fishermen, it is deeply meaningful.

An economist conducted a survey for the New York Times, trying to fathom why American consumption of shrimp jumped from 1.4 pounds per person in 1980 to 4.1 pounds in 2007. Was it due to the rise of ethnic foods, the opening of many more Chinese and Thai restaurants, a change in demographics, decreasing prices, or even the popularity of the movie Forrest Gump? It turned out that a good part of the demand that sent trawlers scouring the sea worldwide and caused coastlines to be chopped into shrimp farms was created by seafood restaurant chains. Restaurants looking for fast, convenient, and tasty dishes promoted shrimp. Red Lobster, Captain Ds, and others have saturated the nation with television commercials depicting happy people eating shrimp, until America has become a shrimp-eating nation.

As chain restaurants proliferated, fast food got faster. People quit cooking at home as fewer women stayed home. People began eating more shrimp than ever because it fits into busy lifestyles. A working woman who has to fix dinner for the kids grabs a bag of shrimp from the freezer, tosses it into a pot, and in minutes has a tasty and nutritious meal. It is the ultimate convenience food. No longer a specialty food, shrimp were available to the masses, including those who didnt live near the coasts. Whole cookbooks were devoted to shrimp, and dishes proliferated in seafood restaurants. Americans eat an astonishing 963 million pounds each year, but no one subsists on shrimp. Eating shrimp has more to do with lifestyle, ambience, and state of mind than protein.

Years ago, when people wanted to splurge, they went to the grocery store and bought an expensive packaged shrimp cocktail. Now, thanks to shrimp farming, shrimp are nearly as cheap as hamburger, but people still think of them as a luxury food. Mountains of rosy pink jumbos are heaped upon buffet tables at opulent casinos in Las Vegas and artfully displayed on platters at wedding receptions. Now so many types of shrimp are available from oceans around the world that, in addition to the usual pink, brown, and white shrimp, a hostess can dazzle guests by serving deep-water royal red shrimp, prawns from the Pacific Northwest, or rock shrimp.

Sam Dunlap, who runs the Seineyard, a popular seafood restaurant in Woodville, Florida, said, To me shrimp is a miracle food. They dont spoil unless youre negligent, they taste good, theyre easy to prepare, and theyre one of the most profitable items on a restaurant menu. It doesnt take a gourmet chef to cook them; you just thaw them out and boil, steam, or bake them. We have fifteen to seventeen cents in a shrimp. We add a few garnishes to the plate, and our cost is two to three dollars, but we can charge eleven. You cant do that with other seafood. You need a 300 percent markup to make any profit in the restaurant business, and its not there with most fish, but it is with shrimp.

Not only are shrimp good to eat, but they are good for you. Shrimp are a rich source of protein, vitamins, and minerals and are low in fat. Cholesterol levels are lower than in chicken and beef, making it ideal for weight loss or weight maintenance diets. They have never been implicated in human diseases. Wild-caught shrimp are a good source of omega 3 fatty acid, which medical research shows may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Shrimp feed at the bottom of the food chain, eating diatoms, detritus, and bottom-dwelling invertebrates. While large predatory fish such as sharks, swordfish, and tuna are long-lived and accumulate heavy metals in their tissues, short-lived shrimp normally do not accumulate heavy metals like mercury unless theyre held in pens in polluted bays. Furthermore, because they grow so explosively and reproduce so fast, theres little danger of their being overfished, unlike cod, haddock, and many other fish.

Despite almost a century of intensive commercial trawling, inshore shrimp have not been overfished to the point of depletion. Studies by National Marine Fisheries Service scientists showed that an otter trawl passing through shallow-water shrimp takes only one in sixteen of the shrimp present. Although total landings have declined somewhat in recent years, it is the economic pressure of high energy costs and cheap imported shrimp, hurricanes, and stricter environmental regulations that have driven fishermen off the water.

As the demand exceeded the supply of wild-caught shrimp, and environmental problems of drowning sea turtles and bycatch got more attention, shrimp farming developed. Farmed shrimp are now cheaper than crab and a great number of fish. They can be grown in great quantities and are not subject to the intensive regulations that have closed or reduced many wild fisheries on the U.S. East and West Coasts.

Jack Rudloe (Panacea, FL), a leading nature writer, has spent 40 years studying and protecting marine life. His books include The Sea Brings Forth and The Erotic Ocean. He has led expeditions to capture specimens for the New York Aquarium, and collected on behalf of Harvard and the American Museum of Natural History. Anne Rudloe, Ph.D. teaches marine biology at Florida State, and has written for National Geographic and Smithsonian. Her books include Butterflies on a Sea Wind and Priceless Florida. Together, they run the award-winning Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory . This is an excerpt from their latest book: Shrimp: The Endless Quest for Pink Gold (FT Press Science, ISBN-13: 9780137009725), available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble .

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