"Are the shrimp fresh?" I asked the waitress at the Duchess of Dare Restaurant in Manteo, N.C.
"Oh, yes, sir," she said. "I just saw them peeling them in the back."
That should have been warning enough. Restaurants won't peel a shrimp until they've already cooked it to death so it's easy to get the shell off, and the menu made it clear to the reasonably pessimistic mind that they intended to cook it again to fulfill the promise of "shrimp sauteed in butter."
But I figured we were close enough to Morehead City, N.C., where they actually catch fresh shrimp, that local folks might have the sense not to destroy a shrimp in the cooking, and this being advertised as the oldest restaurant in Dare County, I guessed it might be local folks at the stove.
And then the shrimp came out, little deveined hard bodies curled up in a sea of melted butter, tasteless as cardboard, ruined.
The destruction of shrimp is an American tradition. We expect shrimp to be tasteless, and grow suspicious when they are not.
The three worst things you can do to a fresh shrimp are to behead it, shell it and freeze it, which are the Three most popular things to do before preparing shrimp in this country.
In Spain, where the shrimp is revered for the culinary miracle it is, the head is considered the most flavorful part, the legs the second-most, and any shrimp that's frozen would be considered dog food, except that Spaniards frown on pets.
In Spain you buy shrimp based on only one factor -- its freshness -- and the way to tell freshness is to look at the head, which grows dark with age, and the eyes, which grow cloudy. In Spain, he who sells a beheaded shrimp is hiding something.
A fresh shrimp with its head on smells exactly like the clearest, sweetest sea water, and tastes as sweet as it smells.
It is not impossible to buy fresh shrimp in America, but you have to search, you have to know what you're doing and generally you end up paying the cheapest price.
As I drove back from Manteo, folks were selling fresh shrimp along the roadside. The lowest price was always for shrimp with the heads on. I bought eight pounds at the first place I stopped, where small shrimp with heads on cost $2.39 and the large were $2.89. These shrimp were superbly fresh, packed in ice and evidently caught the day before. When I got home we ate them four straight days and they were still good at the end.
The best way to cook a fresh shrimp with the head on is to boil iT in heavily salted water for the shortest time imaginable -- about two minutes, the same as fresh sweet corn.
I toss a teaspoon or two of Old Bay, a cup of vinegar and a couple heaping handfuls of salt into a gallon of water and boil it, then toss two dozen shrimp in. I boil them only until they rise to the top of the water, and then scoop them out and lay them on a plate to cool. Then I cook two dozen more, and keep at it until all I intend to serve are done. That way nothing gets overcooked.
To eat a shrimp with the head on, first you break off the head and suck the juice out. The taste is magnificent -- rich, sweet and utterly marine. Then you bite the little legs off and suck on them, then spit them out. This facilitates removing the shell, which shucks right off. The meat is rewarding, particularly mixed with the lingering flavor of the legs and head.
Anyone who overcooks a shrimp or unnecessarily removes its head and legs before cooking needs to be flogged.
A fine alternative to boiling shrimp is to serve them a la plancha, Spanish style. This technique requires a medium-hot frying pan greased lightly with olive oil, some table salt and fresh shrimp with the heads on.
You just put the shrimp in the pan, carefully so that each cooks individually, sprinkle a little more olive oil over the top, sprinkle salt over the lot and cook, carefully turning the shrimp to avoid burning, until the meat turns from opaque to white, which doesn't take long.
One rule for cooking fresh shrimp is to always cook in small lots, so individual attention may be paid to each succulent morsel.
One other rule: Mistrust any shrimp you're not expected to eat with your hands.