Time to buy local shrimp
I grew up near a shrimping village called Thunderbolt, just east of Savannah. Boats lined the docks until the late ‘70s, when rising fuel prices and soaring demand for riverfront property drove some out of business, some further south.
Since then, U.S. shrimpers have faced much tougher times. America imported 1.2 billion pounds of shrimp in 2008, about 85 percent of what we consume each year. A third of it came from Thailand; another 37 percent from other countries in southeast Asia; the rest from Central and South America.
As a food reporter, I heard from many sources that discouraged Americans from eating imported shrimp:
• Microbiologists who warned of shrimp dosed heavily with antibiotics, some forbidden for use in the United States, to ward off illnesses common in crowded ponds.
• U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials who banned the import of farm-raised Chinese shrimp because of contamination with unapproved drugs and food additives that have been linked to cancer and antibiotic resistance in humans. In a 2008 report to Congress, the FDA detailed its attempt to improve seafood safety. Among the issues: decreased inspection of imported seafood — just 1.2 percent — coupled with an increase in imported shrimp and other seafood found with traces of chloramphenicol (an antibiotic linked to aplastic anemia in humans and also a suspected carcinogen); nitrofurans (an antibiotic that is a suspected carcinogen and leaves permanent residues in the body tissues of shrimp as well as those who eat the shrimp); malachite green (it kills seafood parasites and is considered potentially carcinogenic and mutagenic); gentian violet (another parasite and fungus-killer that may cause bladder cancer in humans); and fluoroquinolones (a powerful antibiotic banned in U.S. food animals in 1997 because of concerns that its use could lead to drug-resistant bacteria).
• Environmentalists who warned that pond-raised imported shrimp was destroying mangrove forests and other sensitive habitats, and that imported wild shrimp were no better because of high bycatches — turtles, sharks and other marine life killed by trawling. For every pound of shrimp caught by trawling, another 3 to 15 pounds of unwanted animals die, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. U.S. shrimpers have to follow stricter rules about trawling to reduce bycatch.
The only person who tried to talk me into buying imported shrimp was the seafood manager at my local supermarket. I wanted to place a special order for three pounds of Georgia shrimp that would take a couple of days to get from the wholesaler. He discouraged me, walking me over to the cooler with frozen shrimp from Thailand. “They’re cheaper,” he said. “And they’re already peeled.”
Well, yes. But back to what I said about school lunches: You get what you pay for.
I buy U.S shrimp because it tastes better, because it’s local and because I want to preserve the few fishing communities left on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
And now’s a good time to buy, because late summer and early fall are peak season for Southern shrimp. Domestic shrimp can be hard to find, even in Atlanta, which is within a four-hour drive of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Around here, I can always find them at Fresh Market, a regional specialty foods chain, and sometimes at Whole Foods Market.
A few days ago I picked up a couple of pounds for a purloo and another pound for shrimp mousse, both staples on Lowcountry tables. I usually like shrimp cooked simply, served steamed with just some cocktail sauce, or in a Lowcountry Boil. Shrimp and grits is another favorite combination, either with Shrimp Paste stirred into stone-ground grits, or sautéed shrimp served with cheese grits.
The late Bill Neal’s recipe from Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C., is a classic. (If you’re following the recipe linked, make sure you add the milk to the grits when preparing them, not after they’re ready; the cheese and everything listed after it go in after the grits are cooked.)
But I wanted to try a couple of more involved recipes. One came from a forgotten pamphlet stuffed between my seafood cookbooks, a collection of Southern seafood recipes put together by the U.S. Commerce Department (which oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service), another from Damon Lee Fowler’s “The Savannah Cookbook” (Gibbs Smith, 2008).
Purloo, also known as pilau or pirlau, is a rice dish served with any number of things: tomato, chicken, seafood. This one gets its flavor from bacon and tomatoes, like my favorite Savannah Red Rice, but with lots of shrimp mixed in. I found a copy of the same recipe for Carolina Shrimp Pilau in an old St. Petersburg Times; make sure you skip the canned shrimp and use fresh shrimp instead.
For a lighter variation, check out Carolina Gold Pilau With Shrimp from chef Anne Quatrano of Atlanta’s James Beard-winning Bacchanalia. Annie’s recipe was originally printed in Food & Wine magazine. Carolina Gold rice is difficult to find, and expensive; it’s OK to use white rice instead.
Shrimp Mousse is the kind of gelatin-enhanced dainty that shows up at women’s gatherings and cocktail parties. But it’s not a congealed salad; it’s mostly shrimp, mixed with celery, cocktail sauce and cream cheese, a dip that’s styled in a mold instead of served in a bowl. Other variations use sour cream and heavy cream instead of mayo and cream cheese.
Wild American Shrimp, a trade group that promotes domestic shrimp, lists dozens more recipes on their web site.