Making The Old -- and The Good -- New Again

By James Parrish Coleman -- a/k/a Jimbo Coleman

A later edition. Early Editions had a white

spine, and ads for long extinct local business.

Gulf Coast Gourmet was compiled by my late mother, Jane S. Coleman, in the early 1960s. The book was a fund raiser for the Foley Woman's Club.

The illustrations are the original work of a very talented artist named Marion Dyer. The book has been in print for many, many years; but has the simple fault of assuming you know about Gulf seafood and really know how to cook. I'll cook through the book (and my childhood), explain how Jane Coleman cooked, and tell a lot of family stories in the process. I like to cook. I will share what I have, and hope you like it. That's the spirit of this blog. Bon Appetit.


Boiled shrimp. Properly done the best
and simplest way to enjoy shrimp. 
God Hates Shrimp?!?
Who said?

This is poof positive of man’s inability to divine the true will of God.

  "Whatever in the water does not have fins and scales is abhorrent to you."
Leviticus 11:9-12 (New American Standard Bible)

God does not hate shrimp. I have it on the highest authority. God is actually a huge seafood fan. He hung out with commercial fishermen, and personally invented the fish po-boy. (Remember the loaves and fishes?)

In any event, I love shrimp, and so do most of us. American shrimp consumption has increased hugely since shrimp caught on the Gulf Coast were a major part of the market. The farm-raised and -caught product from overseas now dominates.

Wild-caught shrimp are harvested with a shrimp trawl, which is basically a bag which is dragged across the bottom of the bay or gulf.  Farm-raised shrimp are a variety of shrimp that can be raised in a pond, packed and shipped overseas.

Not only does God not hate shrimp, she (or he) wants you to eat wild-caught shrimp. They are available fresh, they taste is more subtle and they are the shrimp of Gulf Coast Gourmet. There were no "Black Tigers" (an Asian pond-raised shrimp) in my mother's day.

Long before the loaves and fishes,
folks like this High Priest were
spreading the word that shrimp, oysters,
crabs and catfish were not fit to eat. That's
my idea of a doctrinal error.

Shrimp, the beginners guide to the universe 

Shrimp are a good and misunderstood seafood. Because they are so easy to store, so efficient to ship and pack, shrimp are everywhere. Some good, some not.

A great friend of mine used to laugh about the guys selling shrimp on the side of the road. The product that some of them sell, poorly handled, mushy and just not what they should be would never pass muster with a Jane Coleman or other experienced seafood buyer. “How do they sell that stuff?” I asked.
He clenched his then ever present cigarette between his teeth. “Because those Yankees don’t know the difference.”

Well, now you know the difference. A shrimp should not smell like anything. It should be firm and not mushy. There should be no black smudges or spots under the edges of the shell. (more on that later). The shrimp should be covered in ice. (Remember the old proverb -- if you can see the produce there is not sufficient ice.)

Here are the kinds of shrimp wild caught you’ll see on the Gulf Coast. There are tons of others shrimp that come fresh from the Gulf too  -- from the Gulf of Tonkin, the Gulf of Thailand or what’s left of the mangrove swamps that were adjacent to those water but bulldozed to make shrimp ponds. You concentrate on the shrimp of Forrest Gump, the shrimp of the Gulf of Mexico.


Gulf shrimp are a story in Brown and White. Shrimp are essentially an annual “crop” they don’t live very long in any event. This makes the fishery responsive to management techniques, and vunerable to natural changes in weather and other factors. The shrimp harvest can vary greatly from year to year.

Brown Shrimp
Brown shrimp (Penaeus aztecus) are --- brown. They are also my favorite.  These shrimp are spawned in estuaries in late winter, and move on to deeper water as they mature. If you want to know more, see this link.

White Shrimp, but not was white as you think!
White shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus) are -- grey. I remember being disappointed as a little child when the I heard the operator of a packing plant talk about unloading white shrimp -- and finding they the shrimp coming off the boat were a pale grey color. As I remember, I kept my mouth shut about this development. These shrimp are caught in the fall of the year, often offshore in the gulf. In the old days, you always hoped for a good white shrimp season the marine supply business. Being the last to get paid, you knew the money from brown shrimp in the early summer went to the bank and insurance company, then the processor got his money back from fronting fuel and ice, then -- if there were white shrimp to be caught -- the past due bills at the marine supply would be brought current.

How To Buy

When buying shrimp, work hard to buy fresh, never frozen. You will have to use the ultra sensitive spoiled shrimp detector device to make sure the shrimp are not past their prime. These devices are handed out at birth and can be found on your face above your upper lip and below your eyes. Stick the device an inch or so from the shrimp and breath in. You should smell……. Nothing. If the shrimp smells fishy or like ammonia, buy something else that day. I’ve heard a lot of stuff about how the shrimp should smell like the odor of the sea, and such poetic nonsense.  The shrimp should have no odor except for maybe saltwater.

I like to buy heads on, ungraded. You will not have this luxury unless you live very near where the shrimp are caught. I do this for three reasons:

Black Spot, nasty looking and probably harmless
1) I am notoriously cheap. Ungraded heads on shrimp are usually less expensive.

2) I am smarter than you think. Ungraded heads on shrimp are less likely to be frozen and thawed. They are also much more likely to be local, and can be effectively tested by the Spoiled Shrimp Detector, mentioned above.

3) I use the heads for stock.

Visually, look for black spots near the edges of the shell. This discoloration is essentially harmless, but kind of nasty looking. The most common way black spot is discouraged is dipping the shrimp in a soloution of Sodium Bisulfite. Some people are allergic to this stuff. If you have ever had a reaction to shrimp, it may be the sodium bisulfite, not the shrimp.

Sodium Bisulfite, known
to us as Sodium Bi-suffocate.
We used to pour it from bags
into small plastic pails. It was
a nasty job, the stuff would take
your breath away. It would also
turn any steel it contacted black.
The boats dissolved it in water
and dipped the shrimp in the
solution. Now it comes pre-packed
in pails (including some that I sold)

Try to avoid shrimp that has been peeled before freezing. Remember, cold takes moisture away. Freezing the peeled shrimp will dessicate (dry out) the shrimp.

Shrimp are sized by how many per pound. This is the language you should use to ask for shrimp. Aside from drawing jokes from those ignorant about seafood (Paula Poundstone comes to mind) -- “Hey Tony, he wants......Jumbo...Shrimp” Ha, Ha Ha.
No dummy, I want shrimp for Shrimp Camellia: “Hey Nick, you got any nice 36 40s?” See how professional that sounds! Nick may even stop trying to push you to buy that mashed up under-iced crap up on the counter, and sell you to good stuff.

Here are the sizes you’ll find commonly available:
Name                                      Number Per Pound     Average Per Pound
Extra Jumbo 16/20 18
Jumbo 21/25 23
Extra Large 26/30 28
Large 31/35 33
Medium Large 36/40 38
Medium 41/50                                  45
Small 51/60 55
Extra Small 61/70 65

If you buy frozen shrimp, handle them properly. Never defrost shrimp in the microwave oven. Don’t even defrost them at room temperature. Remember, with all seafood thawing quickly damages the structure of the product. Thaw slowly and gently. If you want to brine the shrimp as you thaw them, prepare a salt water solution and place the frozen shrimp in the brine. Put the whole works in the ice box. Thaw them slowly.  I don’t brine shrimp if I am going to cook them in liquid. Brining will add some salt to the shrimp, and make the shrimp a little firmer.

Jack & Jill, a boat owned by Sahlman Seafoods. This Florida
company was one of the first to start importing shrimp.
They set up their own operation in South America. My
father investigated producing shrimp overseas on a
trip to Columbia in 1958. I still have the cufflinks he
brought to me from that trip. Sahlman also pioneered
freezer boats -- which actually freeze the product in a
vat of super-cold very salty water right on the deck of the
boat. It is not the answer that it seemed to be. When
 the catch was not large, the boat had more capacity
 than product. When the catch was plentiful, you could
not get the shrimp off the deck and frozen fast
enough  to prevent some loss of quality. "Ice boats"
with a simple big insulated hold did not have this
problem.  Frozen product also has to be
 "re-hydrated"  when it is thawed. Freezing
 makes the shrimp  lose water -- and weight.
 This is all important when selling by the pound!
I think texture always suffers when food is frozen and thawed. The vast, vast majority of the shrimp consumed is frozen, a lot of it on the boat. Just remember, thawing makes the product lose weight -- and that weight is moisture.  You can freeze seafood at home, just remember that your “freezer” is not a “freezer”. It is a storage box for frozen food. It does not have the capacity to turn unfrozen food into frozen food quickly enough to produce only tiny, tiny ice crystals in the flesh of the seafood. Big ice means big damage when thawed out.

Seafood is about texture. Freezing (like overcooking) will effect the texture. Handle frozen seafood properly and thaw it carefully.

Finally, if your fish guy is one of those folks who buys frozen, and then thaws it out and sells it to you as fresh hide by his back door some night after closing time and rough him up a little. You may need to take some friends, because seafood guys are usually pretty tough. Still, it will be worth it.
The basket that changed
my life. After failing to
make a success of my father's
business after his death, I started
wholesaling the shrimp baskets
we had always sold in the stores.
Above is the mighty XFSHBKT
made by Ropak Can-Am 
at the time. My commission deal
 with  Roapk, later led to
 employment with them and my 
10 years and 42 days as a bucket
 salesman. How I left  Ropak and 
became a lawyer is another tale, 
for another day. 

Better yet, just ask him to sell you the product frozen, and you’ll thaw it yourself. Understand, fresh -- really fresh -- will always be best. If you are very far away from the coast,  your shrimp will probably be frozen.  If you find someone who can sell you fresh shrimp that is really good, pay his price and be happy to have him. Most dealers are just to lazy to go to the trouble to provide superior product. Selling seafood is a lot of trouble and hard work. Most places won’t do it. You will rarely find good seafood in a supermarket, with the possible exception of shucked oysters or crabmeat.

To devein, or not devein?

Was that the question? Well, it depends. The “vein” is really the (harump) alimentary canal of the shrimp. If you like shrimp innards -- and there is no sand in the vein, it is no big deal. When you get into shrimp 31/35 or bigger, you will want to take the “vein” out. If you buy already peeled and deveined shrimp (which are put through a machine charmingly named a “P&D” machine) you don’t have to worry about this.
The Plastic Pick Stick. My intro
into injection molded product and my
ticket out of the marine supply business.
This item, envisioned by my father, was
built from a mold he had created in 1978.
This recent picture shows the stick in
use in Louisiana in 2010. I'm glad to see
the plastic pick stick is still out there.
I am also glad to know that I'm not out
there with it.

If you are buying fresh shrimp, peel and devein yourself. If you grew up eating shrimp, you’ll be fast at this -- and amaze your friends. Put the peelings in a container and make stock with them. After peeling, devein the shrimp. You can use a handy little plastic gadget made for the purpose. Or, just use the tine of a fork. Either is fine.

Finally, buy the shrimp the day you are going to cook them.