November 14, 2016

The parents next to me were telling their son he was about to get a real treat: his first-ever shrimp! Heads and shell-on, of course.

As soon as the plate arrived, the kid took a look at his meal and yelled, “MOM WHY DO I HAVE TO EAT BUGS?”

Fair point well made, little man.

Let’s get this out of the way. Shrimp are American’s most beloved seafood, most widely consumed, pretty darn healthy, and also on the same branch of the evolutionary tree as bugs.

Shrimp are covered by armored plating called a carapace and have sets of walking and swimming legs, which also house their gills, allowing them to breathe underwater. Their heart is in their head, and their digestive tract runs along their back.

Look past their less-than-lovely visage, though, and you’ll be richly rewarded by shrimp’s taste.

The little fellow next to me decided to judge his meal based on its character, not its outward appearance. Once his parents helped him peel and eat his barbequed shrimp, he was a fan. When he finished, he solemnly requested, “more bugs, please.”

Our ancestors from all over the world have been grilling, boiling, poaching, mincing and eating shrimp raw since prehistoric times. A fourth century Latin recipe book called the Apicius (written by a fellow of the same name) featured “squilla” dishes among its pages.

In the US, we primarily catch five kinds of shrimp, all of which have a distinct flavor. Whites are tender and sweet, but not quite so sweet as pink shrimp; browns are characterized by their “sea” flavor and more firm flesh; rock shrimp have tough shells like lobster and also a lobster-like taste; and royal reds are the most delicate and sweet shrimp of the lot.

How can such similar creatures have such different tastes? Because the ocean is basically a giant bowl of marinade, and depending on where the shrimp live and grow, they’ll take on the flavors of their environment.

That’s why wild shrimp usually have a richer taste than farmed. Duplicating that marine marinade in manmade conditions has yet to be accomplished, and a lot of people say they can instantly tell if their shrimp is wild or not.

I love that the whole world has a history with modern time’s favorite crustacean, and that there are still people catching, preparing and eating this storied food 2,000 generations later.

As the family got up to leave, I could easily imagine a similar exchange playing out millennia ago: a Roman child asking why they have to eat bugs, and then falling in love at first bite.

Shrimp’s staying power and long history speaks to their deliciousness. It just goes to show you that it’s what’s on the inside that really counts.