Shrimp might be called a staple for many Americans. It’s often the seafood—or just plain protein—of choice for lunch, dinner, or cocktail snack because it’s sweet, nutritious, low in fat, and goes well with anything from mango salsa to garlicky oil. What’s not to love?
A few things. First of all, do you have any idea where most shrimp in supermarkets and restaurants comes from? Probably Thailand, from which the U.S. imported 182,371 metric tons of shrimp in 2008 (and where intensive shrimp cultivation is endangering the mangrove forests and everything that lives in them). Or maybe it’s from Indonesia, Ecuador, Vietnam, China, Mexico, or Malaysia. We import anywhere from 84,000 to 30,000 metric tons of shrimp from these countries annually. The energy demands of this shipping distance is one problem. Another is the environmental degradation that results from such intensive farming in these places. Then there is the problem of contamination. Mega shrimp farms are constantly fighting off bacteria and fungi with antibiotics—including those that are banned in the U.S. Heavy metals and other pollutants are also common contaminants. And do you recall the contamination scandals of recent years, when thousands of pets and Chinese babies died from ingesting melamine? The New York Times reported not too long ago that melamine is commonly used as a binding agent in the food pellets given to shrimp in China (and probably other places as well). During the occasional inspection of shrimp imports by the FDA, contamination is almost sure to be found. In another recent Times article about seafood from China, the reporter summed up the FDA report with these words: “Of the seafood that was refused at the border, filth was the top reason and salmonella was second, with shrimp accounting for about half of those.” And did you know that the FDA inspects less than 2% of food imports?
These are some of the reasons I’m so excited about the shrimp I can get at Auburn University’s fish market. The shrimp is raised in Gulf Shores, Alabama by the University’s Aquaculture department, whose programs focus on maintaining and restoring healthy ecosystems and running their businesses sustainably. (Another project of theirs I’m interested in is the restoration of the oyster beds around Dauphin Island, in the Gulf of Mexico.) Gulf shrimp are the only domestic shrimp available.
The fish market, just outside of town, is open on Saturday mornings, and often sells out of catfish by 8:30. This past Saturday, it already felt like summer: the air was heavy, hot, and humid, and the sun was just burning off the haze around 10:00. We pulled up to the little shack with $27 in cash. The shrimp are frozen, and sold in huge bags. Jack wanted to prove his strength by lugging the bag to the car:
I like to cook these shrimp in all kinds of combinations. Last night we had it with cous cous and a mango-jalapeño and fresh herb salsa (with, yes, many non-local ingredients). I also like to sauté it with the local shiitake mushrooms now in season, which lace the sweet shrimp an earthy umami yumminess.
Often, the simplest preparation is the best. Shrimp needs little more than to be sizzled in hot olive oil with crushed garlic and a dried chili for punch. Salad, crusty bread, and some light wine are the only other things you need for this savory meal.
Some links and other points of interest regarding shrimp:
Green Prairie Aquafarms, which delights in its oxymoronic name, and which I heard about from my friend Jim McKelly, who is working on a film about sustainability projects in Alabama, is an inland shrimp-farming business in the salt ponds of west central Alabama.
Auburn’s Aquaculture Department: http://www.ag.auburn.edu/fish/facilities/index.php