Have you ever wondered how your tasty shrimp plate gets to your table? I mean before the chef makes it into scampi or one of the other 90 ways Bubba told Forrest about? Well it’s not a pretty process. It’s called heading shrimp and when my family moved to the southeast coast of North Carolina, I had the opportunity to experience this southern practice.
Since my mother had grown up there, heading shrimp was something all the locals did to make extra money. And because I was turning 12 that summer, she decided it was time I learned the tradition as well. So I was forced, I mean asked, to join her one Saturday morning. At 8 a.m. we showed up at the shrimp house and waited for the boats to come in. My nose crinkled up in distaste at the briny smell of the Intercoastal Waterway mingled with the smell of dead shrimp. I sidled up to the 12 foot long wooden table with the rest of the ladies and took a look around. Galvanized buckets lined the table and it was shoulder to shoulder room only, because hey, who wouldn’t want the chance to make $2 a bucket? And then there was me. I, in my preadolescent naiveté, thought it was going to be easy and that we would be done in no time. I was already thinking of what I was going to buy with my easy money. A pair of Jordache jeans for the new school year or maybe a new Swatch watch? All I saw were dollar signs. I mean, all you do is pop the heads off shrimp--piece of cake, right?
Boy was I wrong! It's hard! And revolting! You take the shrimp, position your thumb at the base of the head, gouge your thumb in, and behead the poor sucker. Depositing the heads in a chute placed directly over the waterway, making them a veritable buffet for the numerous crabs and turtles that had assembled below. They also have these sharp barbs on their heads so basically you get stabbed every time you go to grab another shrimp. And woe betide the person who unknowingly shoves the skewered finger in their mouths to give it comforting succor. Yep, a mouth full of shrimp guts. I'm sure they're considered a delicacy somewhere in the world, just not in mine. I stood there with my arm held out, my face turned away as if sheilding myself from impending doom. I tried my best to rid my shrimp of it's head but just couldn't do it. Standing there with my thumb stuck halfway through my victim, its orange, slimey guts covering my thumb of death, it didn’t take long for me to see that this was not how I wanted to spend my time. I could feel my breakfast threatening to creep back up and I was pretty sure I had just turned three shades of green. I watched sadly as the dollar signs flew away. There go my new jeans...dang it.
The look of utter revulsion that was etched on my face soon turned to awe as I watched the other ladies successfully decapitate shrimp after shrimp. Their arms were moving as fast as a starving dieter running to McDonalds. They made it look so easy! Clearly, these women were pros and I did not belong there. Well it wasn’t my choice, that’s for sure! I thought as I threw a hostile glance at my mother. What was she thinking? Doesn't she know it's summer time and I’m supposed to be enjoying my vacation from school? I'd rather be in my room, listening to the newest record by Duran Duran and reading Tiger Beat! I did not want to partake in the dismemberment of shrimp and I never planned on adding "oceanic serial killer" to my resume. "Please, dear God," I prayed fervently, "don’t let her make me come back!" And due to my infantile whining and protesting, she never did. Yay God!
I have lived here at Holden Beach for over 30 years now and have never cooked shrimp (you did just read the above paragraphs, right?). I’d much rather listen to the new Coldplay CD and read Vogue. I leave the shrimp to the pros. Wouldn't you?