By John Martin Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
It was with suspicious surprise that I learned nine years ago of a "new" species of shrimp being hawked by my friend Eddie Corley, who sells shrimp from his roadside trailer in Red Top, S.C., on the banks of Rantowles Creek, about 15 miles outside Charleston.
When the local shrimp aren't coming in, Corley drives south as far as he must to bring shrimp fresh off the boats back to his customers. He was jubilant about his find: "royal reds," a ruby-colored species that shrimpers off Cape Canaveral were netting off the Continental Shelf in waters as deep as 430 fathoms (a half-mile).
"You've got to try these," he told me. "They're the sweetest shrimp I've ever had, and their texture is more like lobster. They cook in half the time."
Until Corley mentioned them, I had never heard of royal reds, and I'm as much of a shrimp aficionado as anyone. I grew up in the 1960s casting circular nets for shrimp in the salt marshes that meander behind the barrier islands of the low country between Charleston and Savannah. If the weather was bad, we would buy fresh-caught shrimp right off the boats from the Crosbys in Charleston, the Fontaines on Edisto Island, S.C., or the Williamses in Thunderbolt, Ga. I can barely recall a summer meal without the luscious pink shellfish.
In the wake of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, I was part of Charleston's boom, when the entire town was gussied up and restaurants sprouted like mushrooms after a rainstorm. I had spearheaded a call for all-natural, whole-grain, stone-ground grits and was thrilled to watch the city's signature dish of shrimp and grits return to local restaurant menus and become popular elsewhere, although I've been dismayed that chefs rarely use wild-caught shrimp from local docks. These days, more than 85 percent of the shrimp sold in America is pond-raised and imported (much of it from Asia).
Shrimp season in the eight southern coastal states -- Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas -- generally runs from spring through fall. From Brownsville, around the Gulf of Mexico, through the Keys and up the Atlantic coast to Cape Hatteras, shrimping has been a major industry for more than 100 years. It's all some families have ever known.
It turns out that the season for royal reds is brief, but that situation is self-imposed: Florida shrimpers could catch this deep-water species year-round, but they stop going out for them as soon as inshore species appear. It's simply not profitable enough; moreover, most people just don't know about them. Corley has educated his customers. This year, he typically sells more than 1,200 pounds of royal reds in less than two hours: "My customers start lining up each day about 6 a.m. By the time I open at 10, there are 50 to 60 people in line."
I tried to get Corley to send me some this year (they are available only from February through April from Florida's Atlantic coast), but he referred me to other merchants (see the box below). "The shipping is so expensive," he said, apologizing. "I just can't justify it."
Even though they aren't widely known, royal reds (Pleoticus robustus) have been plentiful for a long time. They were caught 100 years ago by Sicilian and Greek immigrants in 200-fathom waters 40 to 60 miles offshore in the Atlantic, at the edge of the underwater ridge known as the Blake Plateau. Those immigrants founded the modern commercial shrimping industry, which traditionally has focused on the inshore white, brown and pink species. Royal reds, a different species entirely, simply were not an economically feasible catch until fairly recently, partly because of the need to develop special deep-water nets and get them approved by the government. Ironically, as consumers are finally learning about these succulent shrimp, higher fuel costs and shrimp prices forced down by the imported competition threaten to shut down the domestic industry.
In the 1950s, royal reds were discovered in the Gulf as well, but, again, more than 50 miles offshore and at depths of 1,000 to 2,000 feet. Most of the commercial fishing for royal reds, such as it is, has been concentrated in a 200-square-mile area off Florida's Atlantic coast between St. Augustine and Fort Pierce; an area half that size surrounding the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf off the southwest coast of Florida; and a 700-square-mile area south of Mobile, Ala., also in the Gulf.
Twelve years ago, royal reds were found off the coast of Connecticut, where Stonington fisherman Alan Chaplaski captains the sole vessel that goes for what they locally call "Stonington reds."
I spoke with Chaplaski, whose haul of royal reds is considered a bycatch; he is licensed to fish for whiting. "Our season opens here on June 16, but I don't know if I'll even go out this year," the 58-year-old veteran of the North Atlantic told me. "I'll just have to wait and see what the fuel costs are."
Frank Patti of Pensacola, Fla., one of the most colorful characters in an area long known for fostering eccentrics, was the first person to commercially catch ruby reds, as they're also known, in the Gulf in 1966. The son of Sicilian immigrants who opened Joe Patti's Seafood in 1931, Patti knows shrimp and the Gulf the way the Clintons know Capitol Hill. I asked him how his mother would have cooked these denizens of the deep, and he told me that they cook in one-third the time of other shrimp: "45 seconds in boiling water. You bring your water to a boil and throw the shrimp in. They'll be done before the water can come back to a boil. Really, they're done about as soon as you put them in."
My Gulf Coast friend Ann Bullock, who shops at Patti's twice a week, sent me her recipe for royal reds in an e-mail. She prepares them by peeling them, sprinkling them with lime juice and cooking them in hot butter for a minute. "I rinse the pan with tequila. It's a tasty and quick supper."
Though Patti, 75, no longer shrimps, he still holds court in his bustling waterfront store, which sees 75,000 visitors each month. Bullock told me: "The place is an institution. When you go in, you get a number. On busy days, and most are, a sheriff hands out the numbers!"
Perhaps only Edward Wood of Wood's Fisheries in Port St. Joe, Fla., knows more about wild shrimp. Wood's, founded in 1860, is a fifth-generation business at the forefront of the movement to promote the environmentally friendlier wild-caught shrimp from American waters. Instead of being scooped from ponds and shipped here from abroad in container ships, wild American shrimp are netted directly from their natural environment. From the docks, they come to your table only after meeting government environmental standards and becoming certified by Wild American Shrimp, a trade group. Though excessive bycatches have long been a problem, shrimpers say the bycatch with royal reds is insignificant, making them decidedly environmentally friendlier than imported, pond-raised shrimp.
After tasting seven varieties of previously frozen shrimp bought at Washington's waterfront wharf, as well as frozen royal reds from last year's Gulf catch, I can safely proclaim that wild-caught shrimp taste better, and that royal reds taste best of all. They're comparable in size and price to other shrimp, but they're often described as both sweeter and saltier, and they have a distinctive, more delicate texture. In spite of the difficulty in harvesting them, they remain a sort of Holy Grail among shrimp lovers.
Chef Tory McPhail of Commander's Palace in New Orleans is a fan. At the recent International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in his city, he sang the royal reds' praises at a panel on wild American shrimp. "If you can find them, buy as many as you can, take them home and freeze them," he told the audience. "Hands down, one of the best pieces of seafood I've ever eaten in my life."
Even more so than for other shrimp, it's important not to overcook royal reds; they will lose their unique texture and subtle flavor. Not surprisingly, the recipes I've developed are simple, reflecting both the Greek and Mexican influences in Gulf Coast cooking. You can use other shrimp in the recipes, but you'll need to cook them a minute or two longer. And remember: The results will certainly be tasty, but not as glorious as with royal reds.
John Martin Taylor, author of four cookbooks, blogs at http://www.HoppinJohns.net. He lives in Washington.