Savannah Shrimpin'

Shrimp Boil


Whenever we pull into a new port, I always like to learn about the local foods and meet the people at the markets to find out what they're cooking. It's my way of soaking up culture. When we visited Savannah, that meant one main thing: shrimp.

Paul, a local fisherman, agreed to take me out on his shrimp boat so that I could see first hand how the shellfish were caught. It was early morning when we boarded Bo-Nita, his 52-foot trawler. Like most shrimp boats she was rugged and well-worked in appearance, her wooden hull battered from hauling equipment. We cruised along the Wilmington River in the tall marsh grass. Sunlight filtered through the leaves of large oaks, which looked as if they would topple from the weight of Spanish moss hanging from their limbs. A cool breeze blew off the water, rustling the palm fronds and causing me to don my sweater.

"So, you're interested in shrimpin'?" Paul asked as he toured me around. He had the broad physique of a defensive end, and the width of his shoulders showed how physical the work must be.

"I like to know where my food comes from."  I said.

"Well, this ain't no grocery store shrimp you'll be seeing here today," he replied.

Bo-Nita's outriggers held the trawls, large bag-like nets that were dragged through the water and scooped up wild Atlantic white shrimp as the boat moved along.  Every hour, the nets were reeled in and dumped onto the boat's aft deck. The catch flopped wildly as the crew sprang to work. One man sorted the shrimp into baskets while another rinsed them with fresh water. The third crew member transported them to the hold, where ice was added to keep them fresh. They all worked furiously and finished the task by tossing the by-catch (jellyfish, sand dollars, starfish) back into the water. The extruder gear allowed larger creatures such as dolphins and sea turtles to escape without harm.

A few blue crabs were in the mix that day. They were stored in a separate red bucket. "Dinner tomorrow," one of the men grumbled as he laid out the nets to be lowered back into the water for the cycle to begin again.

Late in the day, the crew took a break. Paul pulled a basket of shrimp from the cold water and waved a rough, thick-fingered hand over the display like Vanna White presenting that day's prizes. "These here shrimp go straight to market," he beamed. He plunged his hand into the pile. Long wisps of their antennas trailed through his fingers. His eyes danced and the sunburnt lines etched in the sides of his face creased deeper. "Today's a good day."

Paul returned to the wheelhouse and picked up the radio to tell the other captains on the water about his catch. Come to find out, fishing wasn't the only important information they regularly shared. "Falcons are down by 12," Paul said into the mike, "they can't keep it together. Looks like you owe me a round of beers."

After signing off, he set a large pot of water on the stove in the galley and sprinkled in Old Bay seasoning. The smells of peppercorns, allspice, and bay leaves wafted through the air. As the water came to a boil, Paul layered ingredients into the pot: first the onions and potatoes, then kielbasa sausage.He returned the lid to the pot and smiled mischievously at me. "Do you like a little heat?"

"Of course," I replied.

Turning back to the pot, Paul added more seasoning and then corn, still on the cob. It wasn't until the last minute that he poured in the shrimp, so that they wouldn't get overcooked."

This is what we eat here in the fall when the shrimp are best," he drawled. "A low-country boil."

Paul piled plates high with corn, sausage, and potatoes for everyone. I took my cue from the others and dolloped a generous amount of cocktail sauce on the side. We sat on Bo-Nita's aft deck among the nets and equipment, and as we tucked into our food, nobody spoke-we were all too busy peeling, dipping, and chewing. As a cook, Paul had a heavy hand with the spices, and all the food had a delicious kick to it. Juices from the kielbasa sausage drizzled down my chin, and the plump shrimp burst in my mouth, exploding with sweet flavor. Paul was right, these weren't like the shrimp I bought in the grocery store. These were moist and firm, and not at all rubbery as cooked shrimp so often are.

As the last of the day's sunlight fell from the sky, I smiled at this grizzly bear of a man and thanked him. I could get used to being docked here in Savannah. Between the food, the scenery, and the characters, everything was peppered with spice. Just the way I liked it.

Paul's Low-Country Boil

This is the easiest recipe for a crowd. Everything is boiled in one pot and ready to eat. There are many brands of spice mix to use: Old Savannah Crab and Shrimp Boil, McCormick's, Old Bay, and Zatarain's Crab and Shrimp Boil. Don't be afraid to leave the shells on the shrimp. Peeling them is half the fun. Make sure to put dishes out to collect the shells or place extra newspaper on the table to wrap up the remains afterwards. The condiment to serve this with is cocktail sauce for dipping.

  • 2 lemons
  • 3 liters water
  • ½ cup spice mix (see above)
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt
  • 2 white onions, chopped in 1-inch dice
  • 2 pounds baby potatoes
  • 4 ears of corn, cut in thirds
  • 2 pounds kielbasa sausage, cut in 2-inch lengths
  • 3 pounds medium-sized shrimp, head off, shell on

Cocktail Sauce:

  • ¼ cup horseradish
  • ¾ cup ketchup
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce

In a large pot bring water, lemons, onions, potatoes, sea salt, and spice mix to a boil.  Simmer for 10 minutes.  Add sausage and corn and simmer another 7 minutes.  Add the shrimp and bring back to a boil.  Strain.  Mix ingredients for cocktail sauce and serve on the side for dipping.  Serve with lots of bread and cold beer. Serves 6

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