A LOWCOUNTRY DELICACY
Living in South Carolina’s lowcountry brings surprise gifts, unbidden, from secret places. This month it is brown shrimp. These are the sweetest of the local shrimp, and are found closer to shore. Some people call them creek shrimp when they are tiny, but the chances are they were born in the ocean, or the mouth of the ocean (in Charleston we say the Ashley and Cooper Rivers form the Atlantic Ocean), according to some shrimpers. They float into the creeks and marshes and live there cozily until it is their turn to swim out and spawn.
There is no rhyme or reason, they say, for when they come. “It’s a bonus from God,” one shrimper said, “all of a sudden they appear, and are easily caught from boat or pier. Any kind of seine can catch them, just about.”
We had gone to McClellanville, South Carolina to see the shrimp coming in and photograph them as they spilled from the shrimp boats into their containers to be sorted and sold. I always think of shrimp boats out at sea as pirate boats – never having seen a real pirate boat. There is something majestic about them, and I hate to reduce them to a word as harsh sounding as trawlers. Their nets hang from them, in the distance changing them to look like mosquitoes on the horizon.
When they come close, or are docked, the ones in McClellanville were day boats, leaving before dawn and arriving home later in the day. They come off the boat in huge baskets, hauled by strong men who dumped them into ever bigger bins which went through a conveyor belt until they went out to be weighed. Their tasty little heads were still on them before they went in to be processed. It is a shame more people don’t know how sweet the heads are, and want them removed.
True connoisseurs of them cook them in their shells, head attached, before tearing off the head and sucking out the juices in the way that Cajuns such the heads of crawfish. When they are very tiny, there are long–time Lowcountry inhabitants that eat them head, shell and all, declaring them a delicacy of the highest order.
Brown shrimp are really gray in South Carolina and Georgia, looking nearly white; the same species is brown when caught off the shores of Texas. In large part this is due to what the shrimp eat. Those caught off the Gulf shore has been living deeper in the ocean, while the marshes of the Carolinas and the bayous of Louisiana provide sweeter tasting shrimp.
Shrimp need not be de-veined (the long black streak down the back) unless they were caught in sandy areas. Most “baited” shrimp caught off a dock have to have the vein removed as it retains the harsh taste of the feed used for baiting. If unsure, cook one from the batch as a test. De-veining takes a bit of time and if it isn’t necessary, why bother?
The heads, as well as the shells, make a succulent broth that produces sauces and soups that last in the memory a long time after they are eaten. Freeze them if waiting to use them.
Whatever way they are cooked, the little gray-brown shrimp of the lowcountry will captivate true shrimp lovers.
A video of Nathalie Dupree on the dock with the shrimp boats may be found at www.Postandcourier.com/food. Her email is Nathalieonly@aol.com.