Tuesday, September 25, 2007

To Boil Live Shrimp

The image records my first encounter with live shrimp for human consumption anywhere in the United States. I shot it on a recent trip to San Francisco in a fish market along the frenzied strip of Stockton Street between Pacific and Jackson. To purchase, boil, and eat some of these shrimp is definitely on the itinerary of a return visit to San Francisco in just a couple of days.

I enjoyed shrimp cooked alive once before in the mid-1960's near Guaymas, Mexico. A lone entrepreneur was netting them from a canal along the road. He would scoop them briefly into a large pot of water boiling over an open fire and then into brown paper bags that went for a peso or two a piece. The delight of tearing in and chowing down became a cherished memory. Quite simply, they were the best shrimp I ever tasted.

For a couple of days last week, during a surf fishing trip to Florida, I figured that the opportunity to boil up live shrimp might arrive even before San Francisco. A number of bait shops were selling live shrimp out of tanks of circulating seawater. At Anchor Hardware in Oak Hill, Florida, an accommodating and clearly knowledgeable manager named Nadine informed me: "You don't want to eat those shrimp. You see how filthy that water is? It's full of ammonia and everything else the shrimp excrete and then (consume) before they eat each other. The shrimp that go to restaurants are frozen."

A better option, she said, would be to visit a shrimp house
when the live shrimp are brought in at night in boats. They're kept alive in compartments within the boats where fresh seawater circulates in and out. Once off the boat, circulating tanks take over, including one that's built into the bed of a special "shrimp" truck for delivery to the bait store. By then, unlucky fish are the best they're good for. Hopefully, on my next Florida fishing trip, I'll be able to properly time a nocturnal shrimp house visit and score.

Meanwhile, the water in that Chinatown tank is clearly a lot cleaner, and the shrimp are a lot bigger. If restaurants exist that have similar tanks from which shrimp can be scooped like lobsters, I'm not aware of them. The immediate game plan is to arrive in San Francisco's Chinatown with a minnow bucket full of seawater and hope to find live shrimp where they were before. Stay tuned.