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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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06.12.08

On Savannah and Shrimp

Bites: News and Miscellany


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Somewhere between the Harry Truman Parkway and an arm of the intercoastal waterway in Savannah, Georgia, there’s a billboard on Victory Avenue that says “You didn’t come to Savannah to eat pond-raised shrimp from China.” Georgia, thanks for the reminder. I guess. Just past that stoplight, the Spanish moss-shaded mansions and gnarled boulevard trees on Victory take over, and I almost forgot about this odd but dryly charming message from the Georgia Wild Shrimp association. But in a place where shrimp is ever-present on local menus and the smell of the salt-marsh hangs heavy in the humid air, it’s a hard thought to completely dislodge.

Of all the things I was expecting from Savannah on this, my first trip to the Real South, shrimp desperation was not on the list. I hadn’t even known there was a shrimp crisis at hand, and while I was more than happy to participate in a Shrimp-A-Day, Bubba-style diet during my brief stay (”shrimp and grits, shrimp boil, shrimp risotto…”), I certainly hadn’t planned on structuring my meals around supporting the local economy. Was there a shrimp shortage? Was China unloading sub-par crustaceans in Southern markets at gouged prices? Could I get a refill on my sweet tea? Turns out the answers are no, yes, and sure honey, respectively.

With the polar ice caps shrinking, renewable resources reaching the foreseeable end of renewability, and pocket change affording less and less at the check-out counter, it may seem like small comfort that our little planet is not lacking for shrimp. To Southern shrimp farmers, however, the glut created by man-made ponds in China, Thailand and other parts of Asia are cause for major alarm, to say nothing of the injustices of inferior product and plummeting market prices.

No one likes being undersold and overshadowed — especially when it comes to American agriculture. I’m from Wisconsin, and remember the hard blow dealt to our local farming community when California started posting the largest dairy-production stats in the nation in the early 90s, finally surpassing my beloved homeland in 1993. America’s Pacific Dairyland? It just sounded wrong. Though on the bright side, it spawned a fervent anti-Bovine Growth Hormone movement among Wisconsin dairy farmers in backlash to super-producing California cows, and as one of the lactose-lovers carrying the gene that makes me taste that awful sour peanut flavor in BGH-produced milk, I can’t thank them enough.

Georgia seems to have a similarly vocal and defensive stance in favor of local growers when it comes to shrimp. And as of yet, there doesn’t seem to be much of a clear upside to competition with Asia. Except, perhaps, for the local population’s insistence upon visitors sampling the seafood down South. While there doesn’t seem to be any genetic proof that wild Georgia shrimp taste sweeter, I’m willing to take it at face, or rather fork value, that this is some excellent local fare.

I’m more spice than sugar and everything nice, particularly in my culinary preferences. I found quickly that sweet Georgia tea makes my fillings ache (though, after a gulp and a wince, I always found myself going back for another sip, like some sort of beverage masochist), and the Southern habit of flavoring rice with a spoonful of sugar seems unappealing to me, unless the rice is coming in pudding form. But Georgia shrimp are a sweet treat I can really get behind. After all, it pays to be wary of a fish in the Midwest, given the vagaries of seafood shopping on the coast of a lake.

In Georgia, though, it seems one could easily live on shrimp alone, the sweeter the better — that wonderful rosy flavor playing so nicely against creamy grits topped with buttery, brightly flavored Tasso gravy and spiked with crunches of green-tasting celery and spicy nuggets of taut-skinned Andouille sausage at Southern chain J. Christopher’s. Or in a clean-flavored and brightly-colored risotto at Savannah’s Firefly Cafe, where the sweetness of shrimp and red onions is mellowed by the juicy bite of fresh tomatoes, the tang of lemon, and earthiness of spinach and mint. To say nothing of the dappled shade of evening on one of Savannah’s garden squares, the smell of lilac in the air, and the low flicker of gas-lit lanterns in the distance.

These restaurant revelations, so seemingly familiar but fresh and new to my Northern palate, were nothing compared to a real DIY Southern meal: the Low Country Boil. On the way back from a very crowded beach day on Tybee Island (over Memorial Day weekend, go figure), a little sun-drained and sandy, we were lured in by the nautical murals and bright ocean-blue cinderblock facade of Bowie Seafood, and stopped in to shop for dinner fixings. The fish smell was like a slap in the face when we walked through the door into the air-conditioned and damp coolness of the little corner store. It was kind of a good slap, though (apparently I’m an olfactory masochist as well).

My host, a transplanted Midwesterner and consummate hostess, scrunched her nose and squinted at the heaps of seafood on ice behind the glass, unsure of what to pick. There were small, cooked shrimp, already pink and curled like snack chips. There were fat, raw, de-headed shrimp, still with their speckled exoskeletons and spidery legs. And there were fresh-from-the-pond shrimp au natural, still with heads and eyes and legs and tails, looking like a pile of giant grey crickets. Flat-eyed red snappers and ghostly flounders were artfully arranged at the far edge of the case, clearly the supporting players on this particular stage. We went with the less-animalistic de-headed shrimp, a pound and a half for a hearty dinner for three, upon the recommendation of the curly-headed teenage boy behind the counter. A tin of Old Bay seasoning (ingredients: celery salt, “spices,” paprika) rounded out the order at Bowie, and baby red potatoes, white sweet corn and smoked turkey sausage rounded out the meal.

We followed Paula Deen’s basic recipe: boil water, add seasoning, add vegetables, add shrimp, remove from heat, enjoy. Common additions to the standard Boil are crab, butter, onion, and a can of beer (we tried for O’Douls but were thwarted by the state’s Sunday ban on alcohol — despite the lack of actual alcohol in O’Douls.) The entire meal took about 15 minutes to put together, and it was good. From the peppery-sweet steam of the pot mid-boil to the jolts of salt and cloves in the spices trapped between kernels of perfectly cooked corn, the only accompaniments needed were dijon mustard for the potatoes and cocktail sauce for the shrimp — and they were just icing. I struggled with peeling the shrimp and worked to get the gritty spice residue off my hands for hours afterwards (”Guys, I’ve got Low Country under my nails”), but it was well worth it.

With the popularity of the Low Country Boil and the ubiquity of shrimp at tables around town, it seems unlikely that wild sweet Georgia shrimp will go out of style any time soon, or give way to lower-cost, lower-quality import knock-offs. But, having fallen victim myself to the charms of fake Louis-Vuitton in the recent past, I wouldn’t discount the seduction of the sub-standard imitation either. Short of putting up billboards and ordering cross-country, there’s always a little something the average consumer can do to help. Like my eternal look-out for BGH-free milk, maybe I’ll start asking about the provenance of my supermarket seafood from now on. Just a little bit of Northern hospitality to help our friends down south.

Bowie Seafood, 801 First St., Tybee Island, Georgia 31328; 912-617-0212.
J. Christopher’s, 122 E Liberty St, Savannah, GA 31401; 912-236-7494.
Firefly Cafe, 321 Habersham St., Savannah, GA 31401; 912-234-1971.

More information about Georgia shrimp:
http://www.wildgeorgiashrimp.com/
http://www.georgiashrimp.org/

One Comment on "On Savannah and Shrimp"

Laura Hanneke

Fun, crisp writing makes this piece worth saving and/or passing on. I enjoyed every mouthful…oops, that’s the Georgia shrimp I’m talking about, of course.



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