The meaning of shrimp
I understand why some people don’t like shrimp. They say they got sick on it once, or it tastes too fishy, or it doesn’t have any taste at all. They are people who have never eaten shrimp that wasn’t at one time frozen. They are people who have never eaten shrimp that wasn’t cooked beyond recognition. They are people who believe, heaven forbid, that shrimp only come around an iced ring at their local grocery store–prefab, and surrounding a plastic dish of tasteless cocktail sauce.
I feel sorry for these people. Their lives are not quite whole. Their connection to their god is missing a link. They have been relegated to a life in which shrimp come rock hard out of a bag, or in little rubbery tasteless pieces on a chef salad at Ruby Tuesday. They have never known the perfect–just out of a pot of boil, steaming on a plate, sprinkled with a dash of Old Bay on top and exploding with almost sexual sweetness in the end–shrimp. A life without this kind of experience is akin to involuntary lifelong celibacy–naive, joyless, and unfulfilled.
If you have been following my recent exploits, you know I am writing from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. It’s a brief family get-away before my busy time of year (all ten months of it) begins again and the Boy starts school. It’s a birthday present to my wife and a chance to spend some time with my family without the day-to-day silliness that goes along with being a suburban warrior. That’s my older son on the left checking out the beach this morning. He’s almost five and will eat shrimp until he’s sick. It’s one of the reasons I believe he is actually my boy.
People say it was around these parts fifty or so years ago that National Guardsman Richard Gay needed a way to feed dozens of his troops at once and created what’s known here as Lowcountry Boil (aka Frogmore Stew)–a simple combination of shrimp, potatoes, corn, and sausage boiled up and served on newspaper. It’s the same thing you’ll see around Louisiana with a crawfish boil or in other parts of the country that quickly cook up fresh seafood. That is a long way of saying, coastal Carolina is a bit of a mecca for people who love shrimp. I am one of those people. I will eat it prepared in just about any way–fried, baked, sautéed, broiled, or grilled–but I am partial to that from-the-hand-of-God boil that is so popular here.
Shrimp and it’s other crustacean cousins are unlike almost any other protein in that their journey from living animal to food is so short. If you are a carnivore like me, most of what you eat has been through dreadful, horrible, almost unspeakable things before it reaches your plate. Meat eaters find a way to carefully rationalize this so that they can live with themselves while quaffing foie gras or grilling up a rare bone-in ribeye. I am no better or no worse than these people. If not for the fact I know “Man is beast like beasts who eat beasts” (and this is what I say when my vegetarian and vegan friends start beating me about the head), I would have a very hard time justifying how I can eat a steer but love dogs, can murder a chicken but talk funny to a parrot, can slaughter a pig and still stutter with Porky. It’s a duality that only hungry liars and hedonists can pull off. I’m not proud of it, but I don’t see myself changing.
But it’s not only that short journey and its freedom from ritual slaughter that makes shrimp such a perfect food. It’s the fact that it doesn’t take a CIA-trained chef to cook it perfectly. It’s not even like a sushi meal that requires the perfect cut of fish and a man trained in the ways of the knife. No, all it takes is a man in stained overalls, a pot of boiling water, and less than three minutes to cook a perfect shrimp. Dust it with some Old Bay and serve with a horseradishy cocktail sauce, and you are the man who gave me manna. Shrimp don’t simply make themselves easy to cook, they actually punish people who try too hard.
Tonight we ended up at a typical family place, The Crazy Crab. It’s a traditional fish house on the edge of the water, where the she crab soup is a little too thick, the potatoes and corn are a little too done, and the atmosphere is just bordering on over-the-top tourist trap…but not quite. That prelude may make it sound bad. To the contrary, it had great service, cold beer, good iced tea, and, of course, fresh shrimp. Frankly, it could have only served the latter and I would’ve given it an A+. The menu read–and I thought at first, a little too quaintly–“We catch’em, you eat’em.”
I was on the verge of accepting this joint’s place in the hierarchy of touristy South Carolina when I stopped and thought for one second. They catch’em. Not some cranked-up sailor on the Deadliest Catch. Not a Japanese fishing boat. Not a giant corporate behemoth that will freeze them and sell them under generic names in your local grocery store. Nope. What I put in my mouth tonight was caught locally, cleaned, boiled for a couple of minutes, and served to me. And as shrimp always do, they tasted good, like sex, like the food I would eat if being put to death.
Indeed, some people don’t like shrimp, and I would never want to suffer their lot in life.