“Friends don’t let friends eat imported shrimp.” As a homegrown New Orleanian who grew up on a steady diet of the freshest, local seafood from the nearby waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico, this has long been my mantra.
The culinary culture of New Orleans has become increasingly threatened by the flood of cheap, imported shrimp. Yes, even here it’s necessary to ask where the shrimp came from, despite the fact that we are blessed with two shrimp seasons making freshly caught shrimp available virtually year round.
In late spring, sweet, brown shrimp are trawled from our inland waters. Known as “Louisiana Gold”, brown shrimp inspired the classic dish, Shrimp Creole, that perfect marriage of Creole tomatoes and shrimp bound together by a dark roux. In fall and winter, the larger white shrimp that grace our tables throughout the holiday season appear, often enrobed with remoulade sauce.
Marketumbrella.org, the non-profit that founded the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans has long been aware of the plight of Louisiana shrimpers, who are a vital part of our market. In 2003 the White Boot Brigade was formed, named for the signature white rubber boots worn aboard shrimp boats. Wearing their white boots, shrimpers appeared at art markets and other community gatherings with ice chests brimming with freshly caught shrimp. Thousands of pounds of shrimp were quickly sold at prices that were economical for the shopper and fantastic for the shrimper, who realized profits often ten times over what was being offered at the dock.
As the fleet struggled to rebuild following the 2005 storm, the White Boot Brigade reached out across the United States where some of the nation’s most renowned chefs were eager to buy fresh, head on shrimp direct from the boat. With the support of marketumbrella.org, the shrimpers stormed New York City and found a friend in NBC’s Al Roker, who welcomed them and praised their efforts on the Today Show. Food Network hosted a “Shrimp Cocktail” event where Chef Emeril Lagasse demonstrated the fine points of cooking “Louisiana Gold” shrimp to fellow master chefs, Daniel Boulud and Floyd Cardoz. Famed New York restaurateur Danny Meyer jumped in, featuring wild caught Louisiana shrimp in his award winning restaurants, Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Café and Eleven Madison Park. Alice Waters began to serve wild caught Louisiana shrimp at Chez Panisse, making a special exception to her usually fanatically local menu as she recognized the threat to the Louisiana shrimper. FISH restaurant in Sausilito and other West Coast chefs and restaurants jumped aboard, buying directly from White Boot Brigade shrimpers. In this win-win situation, the shrimper gets a fair price and the chef and ultimately the customer gets a fresher product, all while saving an industry.
This year, only 1/3 of the 15,000 pre-Katrina commercial shrimpers were back in the water when the slump in the American economy dealt a blow to our seafood industry that could sound the death knoll for the local shrimping industry. Viewing shrimp as a luxury item, Americans ate less of them while shrimpers experienced an unusual bounty of spring brown shrimp. Unsold product was frozen and stored. The supply and demand factor at the opening of the 2009 white shrimp season resulted in a 10-year low price of 50 cents a pound at the docks. Shrimpers marched on the Louisiana State Capitol in protest. Many simply dry docked their boats and walked away.