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22 january 2018

I grew up eating shrimp, though I took a long time-out during my elementary/middle-school years thanks to a traumatic incident. During some dinner or other where I was allowed to sit with grownups, I took hold of one of the yummy fried shrimp that I loved – more breading than crustacean – and bit into it. The breading came away but the little pink shrimp remained, and I could swear he was wiggling himself at me. I threw it away in horror, everybody laughed (the worst part, of course), and I wouldn't eat shrimp again for several years.

If only I had been a little more sophisticated. Yvette Florio Lane begins the recipe section of her global history Shrimp with a dish called "Prawn Wiggle" (97). This concoction involves shrimp and peas in white sauce, a sort of shrimpy Schnüsch. Nobody knows where the wiggling comes in, though, because the shrimp are quite dead when they hit the pan. Lane does cite a Japanese preparation called odori ebi where a live shrimp is quickly stunned with sake and swallowed while it wiggles. However, my wiggler was not only dead but beheaded, thickly breaded, frozen, and baked. It scared me because I associated shrimp with their uniform breaded covering. Realizing that there was a whole animal inside was pretty traumatic.

Or rather, not a whole animal, but its abdominal muscle, which is a good part of its body length. Shrimp feature a high food-to-garbage ratio, and thus provide excellent nutrition with little waste. Lane compares shrimp at several points to oysters, which produce far more, and far more durable, residue. Lane argues that the 20th century saw a steady replacement of oysters in American cuisine by shrimp. Both were shucked by legions of immigrants, many of them children. Both were canned for shipping. Both involved dredging large expanses of sea or shore, with consequent dangers for overfishing; both quickly became aquaculture industries. (Here the analogies break down, though, as almost no oysters are collected wild anymore, while there's still a substantial amount of wild-caught shrimp on the market.)

It seems odd now to think of canned shrimp. You still occasionally see tiny shrimp in cans, for use in bisques and other soupy dishes. There's no point in buying super-small shrimp whole or fresh, and I guess not much market for them frozen. But any shrimp above kidney-bean size now pre-eminently come frozen; "fresh" supermarket shrimp tend to be thawed. The best shrimp come straight off the dock, never frozen, but of course obtaining them depends on proximity to the water. I live five hours' maniacal drive from the nearest shrimp dock, and that's probably closer than the median American. I don't get fresh shrimp very often.

Lane talks about how popular taste for shrimp replaced that for oysters. Both are initially a little off-putting. The oyster may be a tub of goo, but the shrimp is distinctly insect-like, with eyes, antennae, and little legs. The gateway to both is as little breaded-and-fried flavor bombs, like the ones I enjoyed (up to a point) as a child.

Safely headless, though, shrimp proved almost too easy for entire continents of eaters to get into. They go into an endless number of dishes, usually as last-minute additions, because they require so little cooking. Boiled neutrally and hung on the edge of a fancy glass, shrimp are just about perfect as the ultimate non-alcoholic "cocktail." Lane's recipes for shrimp-cocktail sauce include ketchup, lemon juice, and Tabasco. But I think you have to use horseradish, a flavor I don't like in any other preparation. Shrimp and horseradish somehow stand up to each other like few other foods and condiments do.

In Asia, shrimp (again like oysters) are often processed into pastes, sauces, powders, and other kinds of flavoring. Shrimp flavor is to Asian junk food as cheese dust is to American, she notes. Lane recommends taking a packet of quick ramen, breaking the noodles up small, dusting them with prawn powder, and eating as is for a crunchy snack. I am not sure my teeth are up to that, but it sounds craveworthy.

Lane looks a bit at shrimp in popular culture, but they don't play a very glorious role there. Shakespeare actually uses the word "shrimp" twice – it's quite an old term – but both times it refers to people, not seafood. It is hard to pin down whether the term of abuse for a weakling came from the animal, or the term for the animal from weaklings. "Shrimp" has never been a popular nickname. Though Lane does come up with one baseball player who perhaps sported it as a sobriquet. Jim Miller of the 1901 New York Giants may have been called "Shrimp" (77). Baseball-Reference says that they called him "Rabbit," but that may have been when they were feeling polite. He was only 5'4".

Most of the recipes in the book are extremely simple, except for an impossibly elaborate one for ceviche that spans several pages. I was intrigued by Lady Bird Johnson's recipe for shrimp and squash casserole, a kind of gratin; but it calls for baking the shrimp for 45 minutes, which I think would turn them the consistency of pencil erasers. Sorry, Mrs. Johnson.

I have used the word "prawn" in this review, and Lane says that's fine; shrimp and prawn are interchangeable. Yet in her explanation of that interchangeability, she muddies a more useful distinction between shrimp and langoustine (16), a confusion she eventually abates a bit later on (28). Langoustine, known unhelpfully as "Dublin Bay prawns" in the English-speaking world, are small lobsters with distinct, if slender, pincers. Functionally they are not much different in the kitchen from crevettes géantes, the big "tiger prawns" that lack the pincers (and are thus true shrimp). But taxonomically they are different beasts.

Lane ends her book on a melancholy note. Shrimp-eating does more harm to the environment, both animal and human, than most other kinds of food production. Trawling scoops up whole ecosystems and discards half of them as by-catch. Farming is a polluting, fetid business. Shrimp shuckers and sorters are as low on the global labor chain in the 21st century as they were in the 19th, held in peonage and subjected to the corrosive effects of mountains of shrimp shells. Shrimp marketing in the US is probably the most fraud-ridden section of the supermarket, where product is routinely mislabeled as to country and method of origin. They are delicious little guys, but there may be no way of enjoying them on the scale we're accustomed to without devastation and misery ensuing.

Lane, Yvette Florio. Shrimp: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2017.