I was thrilled last week to find frozen Louisian wild-caught shrimp for sale at my small, local, family-run grocery store. I had given up asking for it in the large, chain grocery stores and it never occurred to ask the folks here for it. My, how quickly my routine ‘after-work’ shopping trip turned around into a giddy menu-planning adventure.
Here in the Northeast, we rarely have the opportunity to purchase Gulf shrimp. The artificially undercut and subsidized prices of imported southeast Asia shrimp from high-volume shrimp farms make it problematic for stores to take an interest in slightly-higher priced domestic shrimp. Fear that consumers, obsessed with price over quality, will not respond to American Gulf shrimp, keeps them from stocking this superior product.
According to statistics from the Agriculture Department of the State of Louisiana, 85 % of the shrimp eaten by Americans is imported and pond-raised. This is a sad fact as American wild-caught shrimp is only a few dollars higher in price ( I paid 15.99 for a two-pound bag of large 20/24 count frozen,headless, un-peeled shrimp packed by Paul Piazza & Sons, New Orleans, LA. http://www.paulpiazza.com.)
Not only does my purchase support the efforts of hard-working Americans in the domestic shrimping industry, but I can cook and eat shrimp that tastes like the stupendous shrimp I feasted on in Louisiana. These shrimp are caught miles from the shore in the wide, free-flowing expanse of clean Gulf waters. This yields a completely different tasting shrimp from the foreign farm-raised shrimp that are born and raised in close-to-shore stagnent, polluted shrimp ‘ponds’. ( For those with an interest in geography, Gulf shrimp are collectively caught in the waters of the following states: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina) .
I became aware of the problems of American shrimpers last year ( and also of how much more delicious Gulf shrimp is ) when a writing project that I was working on brought me to visit Gerard Thomassie at the Louisiana Shrimp and Packing Co., Inc., Golden Meadow, Louisiana.
This area is south of New Orleans ( Cajun-country ! ) and home to many fish, oyster, crab and shrimp processors and the men who make their livelihoods in these declining industries. Gerard gave me a tour of his facility and told me the following. He buys shrimp from 100 or so shrimpers, a far smaller number of men ( and boats ) from the days when his father started the business in 1963.
His facility peels, deveins and freezes the shrimp, and during the height of the summer they can process 8,000 pounds of shrimp an hour. Work begins at 3:30 AM and ends about 5 or 6 PM. Three types of Gulf shrimp are harvested in different seasons:
- white shrimp ( litopenaeus setiferus ): which acount for 35 % of the Gulf catch
- brown shrimp ( farfantepenaeus aztecus ): which live in the salt marshed and sea grasses along the coast, accouts for 55% of the catch. Brown shrimp are summer shrimp and have darker pignemtation and is considered the best tasting
- pink shrimp: the smallest catch and the remaining 10%
In the wild, the life cycle of the largest shrimp is only about 15 months. Gerard works three boats out in the Gulf ( one of which is named ‘Colors of the Blessed Mother’ ) and he showed me the sophisticated computer mapping and tracking system that he uses to keep watch over the boats. These programs tell him where the schools of shrimp are likely to be at any moment and what the word is from other boats out in the Gulf. Gerard also scans for bad weather and on-coming storms so that he can steer his boats and men to safer places.
Consider this: the United States is the largest importer of shrimp in the world. This fact, along with an over-supply and un-regulated glut of farm-raised shrimp from Asia and Mexico has caused the price of Gulf shrimp and the amount paid to U.S. shrimpers to drop continuously since the 1980′s.
The combination of reduced prices, increased fuel and supply costs and the current economic situation has caused significant hardship to the shrimp industry.
For me, an avid eater and cook, I want to buy and serve Gulf shrimp to my family and friends. Gulf shrimp are sweet and tender: they have not been treated with copious chemicals that sour the flavor and tighten the meat. The day I purchased these frozen Gulf shrimp in my local market ( and as many bags as I could pack into my freezer ) I made a point of thanking the grocer for stocking this product. ( Which is another way of asking that he please continue to sell these ! )
That night we feasted on an easy and delicious dish of very thin-sliced sweet onions sauteed with chunks of Spanish sweet Chorizo and Lousisana shrimp in a little red wine reduction sauce. I served this in the manner that many shrimp dishes in Louisiana are served: with plain white rice and a small green salad ( a fitting use for the last of my local radishes and tomatoes ). For a seasonal New England touch, we sipped chilled local semi-dry hard apple cider and felt on top of the world.
I will encourage my local store to continue carrying these shrimp and do my best to spread the word so others can make an informed purchase. For readers local to Northampton, MA the market is Fosters Market located at 70 Allen Street in Greenfield. Fosters is a wonderful market with an old-fashioned, funky flavor and feel. It is small and quirky and has many local items and foods stuffs that other store do not carry, such as the Louisiana shimp, frozen Louisiana crayfish and whole frozen octopus. I rarely by produce anywhere else off-season and can count on them having Meyer Lemons all winter long.
A few last thoughts on the topic. Not only are Gulf shrimp sweet, tasty, and firm, but when I eat imported shrimp I become conjested and headachy a few hours after eating them. Long ago I stopped eating imported farm-raised shrimp for three reasons: bad taste, bad texture and bad physical reactions.
Thinking about this makes me wonder about the increase in shrimp allergies among Americans. I wonder if the allergies are less a response to ‘shrimp’ and more a response to the polluted environment that imported farm-raised shrimp live in and the chemicals used to preserve them.
For a current article in Reuters profiling the Gulf shrimp industry, please click here: http://tiny.cc/zHLSV