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SHRIMP: A CAROLINA DELICACY

July 31, 2016

Here is a riddle.

Question: What has twenty legs, swims forward and backwards, and glows in the dark?

Answer: The United States Synchronized Swimming Team!

Question: Why do they glow in the dark?

Answer: Since 1984, they have won more gold and silver medals than any other US Olympic team!

Actually, the answer to the riddle is a coastal Carolina shrimp!

In the movie “Forrest Gump,” Bubba explains the value of shrimp to Forrest.  “Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sauté it. You have shrimp kabobs, shrimp Creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep-fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That’s about it.”

While Bubba left out several shrimp dishes, his list showcases the versatility of shrimp. The tasty crustaceans, first cousins to lobsters and crabs, are South Carolina’s most valuable seafood crop.

Shallow-water shrimp in South Carolina come in three colors: white, brown, and pink. Similar in taste, the three species also have similar life cycles. However, they mature and spawn at different times of year. They are prolific little critters. A single female may spawn several times and produce up to 1 million eggs.

White shrimp account for about two-thirds of the state’s catch. Small fishing communities, scattered along South Carolina’s coast, depend heavily on the annual shrimp harvest. The shrimping industry also makes a significant impact on the economy of Mount Pleasant, Beaufort, and Hilton Head.

The peak of the shrimp season runs from July through October. The large five-ton trawlers are restricted to offshore areas for most of the seven-month shrimp season. In late summer and fall, when the shrimp are of marketable size, the inshore sections of bays and sounds are opened for trawling. Inshore shrimping is generally done by small boat operators.

Shrimping is a part of the spirit and the mystique of the sea. As we sit on the deck of a beach house looking out at the ocean, we see near the horizon a trawler dragging double nets. Followed by hordes of sea gulls picking up the leftovers, the shrimp boat is a picture of tranquility. While enjoying a shrimp cocktail at a creek side seafood restaurant, we gaze at shrimp boats resting in calm waters. These images are delightful but deceptive.

Clare and I have spent a week of vacation at Pawley’s Island for many years. Last summer, as is our custom, we enjoyed shrimp and grits at Thomas Cafe in Georgetown where the local folks gather. A tired, grizzled fellow took a table near us, and we struck up a conversation. He was a shrimp boat captain who told me about his work.

Traditionally a family business, shrimping is a demanding enterprise. Successful shrimp boat captains know the coastal waters like most people know their backyards. They can accurately predict and locate the site of the best catch in varying wind, weather, and tide conditions.

During the shrimp season, the shrimper gets up early and puts in a long day. The crew arrives at the dock at 4 A.M., and the trawler is soon heading out on the ocean. The captain maneuvers the boat toward the shrimping grounds, usually within six miles of shore.

Most shrimp trawlers are diesel-powered and double-rigged, towing two nets simultaneously through rich, offshore waters. Trawlers scoop up more than shrimp. Many other bottom-dwelling creatures become part of their catch. Shrimpers refer to the unwanted species as trash fish. These include crabs, jellyfish, and turtles. As soon as the nets are emptied on deck, the live trash catch is thrown overboard. However, some shrimpers keep fish like flounder, spot, and mackerel that bring a good market price.

After one or more days at sea, captain and crew return to port with their catch. At the dock, the work is far from finished. Tasks include unloading, sorting, and packing the shrimp in ice. While some shrimp are sold at the dock or in local seafood markets, most South Carolina shrimp are shipped out of our state.

Our family looks forward to our annual week at the beach. We invite all of our children and our grandchildren, as many as can come for as long as they can stay. Our clan always requests one or more meals of cold boiled shrimp. I buy several pounds of fresh local shrimp. I boil them and serve them on ice with several choices of sauce. Each family member peels and dips until they have had their fill. The remaining shrimp become fair game the next day as leftovers, usually finding their way into a shrimp salad.

I also have a recipe for shrimp and grits. My concoction has a little kick. Most of the family looks forward to that supper, too.

While we were at Pawley’s Island last summer, I was fishing in the surf. A friend had said that blue fish and spot tails were in close and hitting hard. I was using shrimp for bait, of course. I did have several hard strikes but no fish to show for it. Something pesky kept eating my bait. I was hoping for a blue fish and I finally landed a catch. He was blue alright – a blue crab. Clare came near to ask the question no fisherman wants to hear when there is nothing in the bucket.

“Have you caught anything?”

“No,” I said. “A crab keeps eating my shrimp.”

“Smart crab,” she quipped.

I put away my fishing gear, cleaned up, and took my wife out to dinner at a seafood restaurant in Murrells Inlet.

Like the smart blue crab, we both had shrimp for supper

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