Going Wild for American Shrimp

admin | August 20th, 2014 - 10:34 am

If there were such a thing as a national shrimp intervention, this may be a perfect moment for it.

We are a popcorn shrimp nation, enthralled by endless shrimp platters and bulging all-you-can-eat seafood buffets. We are lovers of overstuffed po’boys, steaming bowls of scampi and takeout containers dripping with kung pao.

Loving shrimp is not a bad thing, but increasingly cooks and environmentalists wonder if we love shrimp too much. Or if we are loving the right shrimp.

Somewhere along the line, shrimp went from being that special thing to something you can gorge yourself on.

Like so much of the food we eat, shrimp comes with all sorts of issues: Ensuring sustainability. Eating locally. Guarding against disease. And, at the top of the list for many cooks, what tastes best?

Almost 90 percent of the American shrimp supply is imported, much of it from India, Thailand and Indonesia. But it’s been a tough couple of years for imported shrimp. Public health studies have been critical of the Food and Drug Administration’s testing program, and reports cite deplorable sanitation conditions at some processing plants. An incurable bacterial disease has devastated many shrimp farms, driving prices up. And even though the Seafood Watch lists certain farmed frozen shrimp from Thailand as an acceptable choice, the State Department in June released a report that highlighted forced labor used to catch the fish that feed some Thai shrimp farms.

Eating less imported shrimp and more shrimp from America’s coasts seems a logical choice. But a shift in culinary perspective — one that puts shrimp on par with food that is best in season and worth paying more for — is a change that most of us can only take slowly.

Shrimp’s popularity began to rise in the 1970s, along with foreign shrimp farms and inexpensive chain restaurants. Fancy shrimp cocktails at the “21” Club gave way to small, breaded shrimp at Red Lobster. Somewhere in the early 2000s, shrimp overtook canned tuna as the most popular seafood in America. People eat almost four pounds of it a year.

In Jacksonville, Fla., New Orleans and other shrimping capitals of the South, shrimp that has been boiled, fried or sauced with butter and Worcestershire is as common as bread. Shrimping is a legacy profession and the lifeblood of hundreds of coastal communities, whose shrimping families have endured hurricanes, environmental disasters and decades of foreign competition.

With foreign supplies in question and local food in vogue, many cooks and shrimpers here say wild American shrimp is the solution. But to assure itself a place at a shrimp-lover’s table, wild American shrimp will have to persuade cooks to embrace its more pronounced flavor, seasonality and higher price.

Shrimp are wild creatures, and availability rises and falls on a complex mix of reproductive cycles, government regulations and seasons. It’s named for its hard shell and is reminiscent of lobster. She poached it in butter and set it atop a little casserole of roasted corn, Mexican crema and smoked paprika.

Debate about the best wild Southern shrimp is intense. South Carolinians insist on white shrimp from their waters for Frogmore stew, a simple boil of shrimp, potatoes, corn, sausage and maybe clams or crab that came from the Gullah kitchens of the Sea Islands.

Some grew up loving the wild taste of brown shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, but critics say it can taste like iodine. Pink shrimp off the Florida coast has loyalists, so do Royal Reds, the rarest of the bunch because they are pulled only from deep water and can spoil quickly.

American shrimp is not without its problems. It can be expensive and hard to find. What a local resident here on the north Florida coast might pick up for under $9 a pound will cost $18.50 in Manhattan. Still, gulf shrimp is the best seller.

At the fish counter or supermarket, shoppers should not turn away from frozen shrimp. But be selective. Make sure the bag says “I.Q.F.,” which stand for individually quick frozen. The label will note whether the shrimp is farmed or wild, and where it came from. Buy shrimp in the shell. It protects the product, and peeled shrimp has often been treated with chemical preservatives.

Wild shrimp is attractive to a new generation of cooks. For our generation, we like to delve into the details of our food, and the whole wild-caught shrimp thing is just so much better.

And that is not a hard sell to a demographic group that increasingly wants to know more about the provenance, economics and social impact of what they eat.

Once you really get into shrimping, you are going to think maybe I shouldn’t be buying disgusting popcorn shrimp from a fast-food place.

Gulf shrimp gained new fans in the aftermath of the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Louisiana residents formed the White Boot Brigade, named after the shrimper’s rubber footwear, and began a nationwide campaign to introduce it to chefs across the country. Danny Meyer, Alice Waters and even Al Roker embraced it for its flavor and as a way to help save a culture.

The industry’s crawl back took another hit in 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. In Louisiana and in other coastal states that pull shrimp from the gulf, testing is more rigorous than it has ever been, and supplies have been declared safe by federal and state agencies, though many consumers are still hesitant.

That even includes people in the shrimp business .One shrimper who runs a seafood processing company in Grand Isle, La., is doing about half the business he did before the BP spill. Like a lot of people, he quit eating shrimp for a while. Although shrimpers are still pulling some deformed product from the gulf, he couldn’t stay away long.

Wild shrimp has other ecological problems. Fish and turtles get caught in the vast nets shrimpers pull through the water. Reducing that bycatch has been a focus in the wild-shrimping business. Sea turtle mortality dropped after shrimpers were ordered to attach devices to their nets that allow the turtles to escape. Louisiana is the only state that doesn’t comply, earning it a place on the Seafood Watch avoid list.

Still, most wild American shrimp from the Eastern Seaboard, the Pacific Ocean, the gulf and the waters around Alaska gets good marks from seafood monitoring programs, some of which also endorse certain kinds of farmed shrimp, including the small but growing domestic operations.

If we could make it one of many things we ate from the sea, then we could live off our own shrimp and eat the by-catch. It should be viewed as this precious local product, not a commodity product.

Source:  NYtimes.com, 8-5-14

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