Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Travels of the Heart: Barbecue Shrimp


A few years back, I was at a conference of women chefs where I heard a panel discussion on what was then a new and still somewhat controversial topic: eating locally. On this panel sat Joan Dye Gussow, author of This Organic Life: Confessions of an Urban Homesteader, Michael Rozyne, founder of Red Tomato, a distributor of local foods in Boston, and Nora Pouillon, chef-owner of Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., the first certified organic restaurant in the United States.

During the Q and A session afterwards, a heated discussion ensued. A representative from a frozen food company, who had a decidedly global perspective, questioned the implications of the locavore movement on agriculture in developing nations. She was particularly concerned about the impact it could have on the Central American banana industry and the laborers who work in it. Her point was that if all Americans adopted the locavore diet, this would likely decimate the banana industry and any gains made to the living conditions of its workers. The exchange got quite tense, the crowd watching the volleys back and forth. Finally, a voice from the crowd rose up, cutting through the rising tension. That voice belonged to Odessa Piper, formerly the chef-owner of L’Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin, who is often referred to as the Alice Waters of the Midwest in recognition of her efforts to feed her customers from the Great Lakes food shed. Clearing her throat, she presented her version of the middle way. “Local” she explained “can be far as the heart can travel.” In other words, if you care about the conditions of the workers on the banana plantations and are willing to take a stand on them at the check out, this would fall within her definition of sustainable eating.

I thought about this exchange tonight while making dinner. I also thought about another exchange at yet another conference that I attended more recently. In September, I was at the Chefs Collaborative Summit, which also focused on sustainability and local eating. I listened to so many inspirational speakers: Rick Bayless, Bruce Sherman, Fred Kirschenmann, and David Mas Masumoto, but none served up inspiration with such gusto and hilarity than Poppy Tooker.

Poppy Tooker is many things: chef, cooking instructor, founder of Slow Food New Orleans (the ultimate in U.S. slow food), co-founder of the Crescent City Farmers’ Market, and most recently author of the Crescent City Farmers’ Market Cookbook. Before a book signing, she regaled us with stories about the characters that sold and hung about the Market. The audience roared with laughter listening to one story more salty than the next. Near the end of her talk, she did make one serious appeal. Apparently, the bottom has almost completely fallen out of the shrimp industry, the prices being disastrously low. She expressed the fear that if things didn’t change fast, many of the shrimpers wouldn’t survive. She asked each of us to set aside our locavore (would it be locavor-ish) tendencies to help the Gulf shrimp industry. I thought of her tonight as we allowed our hearts to travel to New Orleans eating an almost entirely non-local dinner of Barbecue Shrimp using brown Gulf shrimp I picked up at the Lincoln Park Whole Foods this afternoon.

Barbecue Shrimp

1 tablespoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
5 grinds freshly ground pepper
1 pinch cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Juice from ½ lemon
1 ½ pounds shell-on large Gulf brown shrimp
1 ½ sticks butter, at room temperature and cut into small pieces
4 small garlic cloves, minced

Mix together the sugar, spices, thyme, salt, Worcestershire sauce, and lemon juice in a large skillet. Bring to a simmer over medium high heat. Add the shrimp, cover and cook for about 2-3 minutes or until the pink begins to turn opaque. Add the butter and garlic cloves and cook for about 3 more minutes. Serve in a large bowl with a ton of napkins, Tabasco, and a loaf of crusty bread for dipping.


  1. I love that post--I sometimes think about certain food imports I can't live without, and wonder, hmmm, does this fit my idea of sustainable? But I remember the artisanal producers, the quality and wholesomeness of the product and how meaningful the place where these products come from is to me and it does almost seem "local." And certainly the type of food production we are seeking to encourage!

  2. Fresh Local and Best,

    The sauce was addictive and requires great restraint and even better bread!

  3. Gulf shrimp *is* local for me and it is SO DARN CHEAP right now, I feel guilty for the price. I know how badly these shrimpers are suffering, especially with the imports that are sold in stores across the US.


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