(This piece is part of the shrimp chapter in the upcoming Hugging The Coast book.)
Years ago, while living in Upstate NY, I innocently took what turned out to be a life-altering trip to the supermarket. I couldn’t know it then, but getting my ass kicked by shrimp would be the event that set me on the path to Seafood Enlightenment.
It all began with a small sign above the frozen seafood cooler:
“SPECIAL: 5 lb Boxes of Jumbo Shrimp — $2.99 lb”
What a deal! Only a fool would pass it up! And since I was clearly not a fool, I left the supermarket that day with not one but two boxes and a nascent plan to invite some friends over for a weekend get-together, just so I could wow them with my largesse – and then amaze them with the story of my uncanny shopping acumen.
There was only one minor speed bump: they were “head-on” shrimp.
‘Well, so what?’ I thought. Sure, I’d never dealt with whole shrimp before, but I’d always heard that shrimp were much more flavorful when cooked intact, so their head-on status was a good thing, a bonus, an opportunity! And, being an old semi-pro in the kitchen, I doubted I’d have a problem with the heads. It wasn’t like shrimp had sad, soulful, guilt-inducing eyes that would stare at me accusingly as I lowered them into the pot. These were “head-on” shrimp, fer cryin’ out loud, not “head-on” veal.
I also knew that when it comes to aquatic ingestibles, the Chinese – those warrior-poets of the kitchen – always try to shorten the distance between water and wok, between sea and seasoning.
A restaurant I frequented off Canal Street in NYC’s Chinatown had an entryway lined with bubbling tanks of future entrees: fish, frogs, eels, crabs, turtles, some furry-looking tubular sea critters, and oodles and oodles of live and very lively shrimp. If you placed an order (or, from your future entrees’ perspective, handed down its death sentence) for the Sizzling Shrimp with Salted Peppers, a dripping netful of teaming shrimp would be rushed to the kitchen where they would join the Choir Invisible and a flurry of fiery peppers for a short stay in Wokville.
And oh, the magnificent crunchy salty spicy sweetness of those shrimp! Nothing pre-peeled, pre-packaged or pre-anything could ever approach them. Their succulence, I firmly believed, must have been due to the fact that they had been, until literally minutes before, alive, kicking, and firmly “head-on”. Of course, they arrived at table sans tete, but surely it didn’t involve more than a quick post-wok chop?
At least, that’s what I was thinking as I pulled the boxes out of the fridge that Saturday evening. I’d settled my guests in the living room, where they were enjoying little snacky things and a crisp, cool Australian white as a prelude to the coming feast. All I had to do was boil and peel the shrimp. Sure, ten pounds was a lot, but I’d peeled thousands of shrimp before and I’d gotten pretty quick. This “head-on” thing wouldn’t present a problem, either; it was just an additional step in the process. It wasn’t like I had to, you know, kill the shrimp personally; they’d already been dispatched to their aquatic afterlife. How bad could it be?
It was bad. Very, very bad.
My head-on bargain turned into ten pounds of living hell, or as I referred to it afterward (when I could finally speak about it), the Never-Ending Jumbo Shrimp Death March. I’d like to spare you the gory details, but seeing as this is a cautionary tale (and seeing as I have a perverse mean streak), I can’t.
For the uninitiated (which I was), shrimp with their heads on can look a lot less like something potentially yummy and a whole lot more like ocean-dwelling insects, which when you think about it… wait, no, let’s not think about it. They have, for instance, lots and lots of legs and long, whip-like antennae. Hundreds of them, it seems. Each. They also have big black eyes that are literally beady and bear a disturbing resemblance to good caviar. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some enterprising but unscrupulous person with enough shrimp heads at their disposal might try to pass off … no, wait, let’s not think about that either.)
Unpleasant as the little beasties were to look at, I eventually manned up, rinsed them off, and dumped them into the briny deep of bubbling Old Bay. While picking extra limbs and such out of the colander, I tried to focus on how abundant-bordering-on-decadent ten pounds of Spiced Jumbo Shrimp with Remoulade Sauce was going to look on a serving platter, what a great deal it was, what a clever and generous host I would be…
Then I lifted the lid to stir the pot – and was horrified to discover that most of those beady black eyes had come unstuck and were swirling around in the water like the Tapioca of Doom.
If I’d had any sense at all, I would have regarded it as an omen. I briefly entertained the idea of dumping the whole mess in the backyard for the raccoons, who might have been a bit suspicious at what appeared to be a peace offering from The Crazy Guy with the Broom who always rudely interrupts their al fresco dining at Cafe Hefty, but they’d get over it:
Raccoon 1: “What’s with Crazy Guy tonight? He looks more demented than usual.”
Raccoon 2: “Beats me, pal. Hey, did you try the beady black things yet? They’re amazing! They sort of burst against the roof of your mouth in little briny explosions.”
Raccoon 1: “Wow, you’re right! I’m gonna go check the trash bags for some lemon and minced hard-cooked egg.”
Raccoon 2: “Cool! See if you find any toast points in there too, will ya?”
But then I thought, ‘Screw the raccoons. I’m going to be a clever and generous host, dammit!’
Naturally, things went from bad to worse when it came time to dress out the intimidating pile. I was under the impression that all one had to do was cut off the head, split the back, and zip off the shell. Well, not surprisingly, I was wrong. I found that if I didn’t want to waste half the shrimp, I’d have to work a knife awkwardly under the gill plate (yes, shrimp have gill plates.) And, also previously unknown to me, shrimp have sharp pointy bits front and rear. I knew they ostensibly served some useful evolutionary function, but it began to seem like they were really just there to poke little holes in my fingertips and jam painfully under my nails like bamboo splints.
But the worst, most gag-inducing aspect of the whole episode was the mysterious creamy pink goo. I didn’t know what it was, but with every cut the god-awful stuff oozed out of the heads onto my white cutting board. It might have been a delicacy for all I knew, but whatever it was it nauseatingly resembled the kind of sauce one might make for, you know, boiled shrimp. And, looking at the veritable mountain in front of me, I knew that by the end I’d probably be ankle-deep in revolting pink goop.
The way I saw it, I had two options: one was to leave the house by the back door, never to return; the other was to stoically (and with the aid of a few spine-straighteners from a bottle of dark rum) continue the loathsome enterprise. Since I wasn’t really eager to start traveling by boxcar, living in refrigerator cartons, and telling beery, maudlin stories to bartenders about how I used to have a wife and a house and a dog until that accursed day that I foolishly bought two boxes of shrimp on sale at the Price Chopper, I decided to soldier on.
The beheading went on for what seemed like hours, relentlessly, mechanically, as if Henry Ford had been put in charge of streamlining the French Revolution. It was a different world out in the living room, though. A world of laughter and Sauvignon Blanc and blissful ignorance of the bleak human (not to mention decapod) condition just beyond the kitchen door. In my morbid and increasingly inebriated frame of mind, I began to think of my merry, canape-munching, so-called friends as a bunch of insensitive, good-for-nothing spongers. ‘Bastards,’ I muttered to myself as I chopped, “Insensitive, (whack!) good-for-nothing, (whack!) sponging, (whack!) bastards!”
At some point, I think I started to imagine myself as one of those haunted, hollow-eyed Poe characters, the kind that shouts things like “Fools! How can you laugh? Do you not know that Death is here among you? He is the founder of the feast!” But when I began to feel a fit of maniacal giggles coming on, I knew that perhaps I’d better reestablish a grip on the old sanity, or else I was likely to leave the shrimp in the kitchen, drop a platter of severed heads onto the coffee table, and shout, “HURRY UP AND EAT ‘EM BEFORE THEY ROT!!! BWAA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!
Which, of course, was not exactly what I’d planned for this weekend get-together. So I shook the demons, spiders, and any remaining hubris from my head and finished preparing what I’d really intended: a meal that would bring people together in fun and friendship around a big ol’ platter of delicious food served with appreciation and genuine affection. Then, I shouldered the load, left the kitchen (and the memories of carnage) behind, and joined my thoughtful, kind, and generous friends in the living room.
“My God, you look pale! Are you alright?” my friend Cheri said, jumping up to help.
“Yeah, sure,” I said, setting down an abundant-bordering-on-decadent platter of Spiced Jumbo Shrimp with Remoulade, “Long day.”
All in all, things did turn out pretty well. The attendees ooh-ed and ahh-ed over what I’m told were some truly magnificent shrimp; I blamed my lack of appetite on noshing in the kitchen. A fine time was had by all, including me, as the company of good friends and several more bottles of wine almost — almost — made me forget the horror show in the other room. (Which, as I found out much later, was wholly unnecessary: you don’t cut shrimp heads off, you pinch them off — a very quick and easy process. Duh.)
After the party, feeling docile and a bit conciliatory, I went out to the backyard and set a big platter of shrimp heads and leftover appetizers on the back step for my old foes, the raccoons.
“Chow down, fellas,” Crazy Guy said into the darkness, in the direction of the four watchful eyes under the garden shed, “No broom tonight.”
If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy these other interesting posts:
- Video: How to Peel and Devein Fresh, Local Shrimp
- The “Hand-To-Mouth Meals” Series: Shrimp
- A Soft-Shell Saga: Tarantula Sandwiches to Go
- 7 Pasta Shapes I Have Loved (Plus 1 That Made Me Gag)
- Gut Instinct: Trusting Yourself in the Kitchen
Please join us tomorrow for our recipe for Seared, Wild Mushroom Dusted Shrimp & Scallops With Spaghetti Squash, Porcini Oil, & Grana Podano Shavings, as part of our special Holiday Shrimp Week Series.