2000s Archive

Pretty in Pink

Originally Published October 2002
The best, most flavorful shrimp come from the Lowcountry's salt marshes, contends John Martin Taylor, and are the stuff of which memories are made.

When October comes to the Lowcountry, where I live, breezes disperse summer's humidity, and billowy clouds punctuate the hydrangea-colored sky. Second crops of corn, beans, and tomatoes add to the fall bounty of pumpkins and cooking greens, and as the water cools, the oysters begin to get really good. But the real autumnal joy for me is fresh shrimp, right out of the water. Every year I'm amazed as each day brings more and more shrimp, getting bigger and bigger, until suddenly, around Thanksgiving, there's a cold snap-and they're gone.

The salt marshes of the coastal plain of South Carolina and Georgia contain a world of seafood: The ebb and flow of the tide provides a constantly changing environment that supports hundreds of species of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans.

I spent much of my youth on tidal creeks and estuaries aboard my parents' sailboat, and it was not unusual for my mother to send me out in the dinghy to bring back lunch. In the summer, I might empty the crab trap (which also yielded flounder and eel); in the dead of winter, at low tide, I could pick oysters and clams from the banks of the salt marsh. But in the fall, I'd cast a circular shrimp net from the dinghy and pull in just enough shrimp for a meal. They were the young, tender ones (sometimes called creek shrimp) that prefer the warm, brackish waters of the salt marshes and are said by locals ("sandlappers") to be the most flavorful. They are certainly sweeter than the big adults, but, truth be told, I've yet to taste any fresh shrimp that aren't delicious.

Rowing back to the boat, I'd scoop up a bucket of the creek water, in which Mother would quickly boil the shrimp. Actually, she didn't boil them. She dropped those shrimp into the pot after the water had come to a boil, then dumped them out almost immediately into a colander with a folded towel placed beneath it. She would wring out the steaming-hot towel (how is it that mothers can do this sort of thing with bare hands?), unfold it, then generously cover it with coarse salt.

After spreading the barely cooked shrimp on the towel, she would roll it up gently but tightly and allow the shrimp to steam while we munched on raw carrots and celery, a bit of cheese, and our "elevenses"-the requisite glass of wine before the midday meal.

The shrimp would emerge from the towel miraculously perfect, their shells popped slightly off the pink flesh, the salt recrystallized on the insides. This remains one of my favorite ways to prepare shrimp. I learned at a very early age that overcooking shrimp is probably the biggest mistake people make; even the largest shrimp need only a few minutes to cook thoroughly.

I always try to buy shrimp with the heads on. They spoil a lot more quickly that way, so if you see them in the fish store, you know they are probably the freshest thing going. If you don't live near the coast, look for them in Asian markets. And one more tip: Use the heads and/or shells to make stock. It will be full of shrimp essence.

If all you can find are frozen or previously frozen shrimp, though, don't despair: Most shrimp boats are now equipped with flash-freezers, where the catch is instantly frozen. Better flash-frozen than traveling on ice for a week.

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