When I (Chuck) was a kid, I was a picky eater: I ate hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and fried shrimp. Many picky eaters never learn to like shrimp, but if you grow up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and you don’t eat shrimp, you’ll likely starve.
It never fails to amaze us how many people are lost when it comes to seafood, but obviously we grew up where fresh seafood is a staple of everyday life. People of the coastal communities of the Northern Gulf of Mexico who don’t eat seafood are like people from Wisconsin who don’t eat cheese. So to wrap up our series of blogs on this corner of the world, especially since eating is one of the top activities for travelers, we give you a primer on the seafood you’ll find around these parts.
First, a few words on the ways you’ll find the seafood here prepared. This being the deep south, fried is the most common preparation, one that everyone is familiar with: your seafood is coated with either a dry breading, usually cornflour-based, or a wet batter and deep fried in oil until it’s a golden brown. It may be the most common preparation of seafood in the deep south, but it’s obviously calorie-rich. Pan-fried or sautéed might be spotted in some of the fancier restaurants, but it’s not overly common.
Grilled and baked preparations are pretty self-explanatory. Some seafood–particularly shrimp and crawfish–are boiled in water: that water is extra-salty and extra-spicy so that the flavors get infused into the seafood, hence if you order boiled shrimp be careful not to rub your eyes as you peel and eat! Residents from our neck of the woods can easily tell when “inlanders” boil seafood, as it lacks any amount of seasoning because (simply put) they’re afraid to use the seemingly enormous quantities of spice necessary.
And then there’s the highly misunderstood, rarely prepared accurately, method of cooking called blackening. Blackened Redfish was a dish invented by New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme in the 1980’s. The technique involves coating the fish filets in butter, dipping them in a spicy seasoning powder, and pan-frying them in an extremely hot cast iron pan. The process creates lots of smoke so must be done in a well-ventilated kitchen (or even outside: it’s that smoky). The result is a spicy caramelized coating on a super-moist, fleshy piece of fish.
Blackened Redfish became so popular that redfish fishing had to be restricted. As a result, people started “blackening” pretty much everything they could get hold of, and not just seafood. Unfortunately, many foods just don’t translate well to Prudhomme’s original intentions for the recipe, and too many chefs today think “blackening” simply entails coating and cooking a meat with a ridiculously spicy dry seasoning. Your best bet to get genuine blackened seafood is to stick with flaky white fish, and you’re most likely to find true blackened seafood the closer you get to New Orleans.
|Bust of Bubba Blue
Shrimp – “They’s the fruit of the sea”, and they can be boiled, fried, grilled, blackened, and they can be prepared in a creole, stew, etc. Shrimp are the world’s most popular, most common, crustacean. They absolutely love to breed in the waters all along the Gulf, from Texas to Florida, but they’re particularly prolific, and particularly tasty, in the brackish waters created inland from the barrier islands here and there along the coast, especially the waters off Louisiana and Mississippi. If you order them boiled, they’ll come with peels on (remove them before you eat!), and sometimes they’ll come with the heads on (also remove). Boiled shrimp from around here will likely also be coated with hot spices, but don’t worry: the actual meat won’t be that spicy. If you order them fried, they’ll most likely be battered and fried, will come peeled and (most likely) with heads removed, but the tails will still be attached as a nifty little handle (just don’t eat the tail). Shrimp po-boys are subway-style sandwiches of ready-to-eat fried shrimp; if you see them offered “overstuffed”, don’t ask questions, just order one. Shrimp season (when you’ll get local, fresh shrimp) is summer and fall. Final note: “shrimp” is both singular and plural. If you order a platter of “shrimps”, you’re sure to earn some kitchen snickers.
Oysters – These are a mollusc (an invertebrate that grows in a shell) that thrives on the bottom of brackish waters close to the coastlines, just like shrimp. If you ask someone around here what the difference between oysters and clams is, they’ll tell you, “Northerners eat clams”. They’re only partly right: there are other differences, but–for the most part–clams come from freshwater, oysters from brackish saltwater. Oysters are most commonly eaten fried, raw, or grilled. If fried, they’ll be battered and deep-fried and can be popped right into your mouth. Raw oysters take some fortitude and are the domain of both advanced seafood eaters and the amorous (they’re purported to be one of the best natural aphrodisiacs on the planet, but we’ll let you decide for yourself). Oysters are literally dredged up by net from the bottom and transported in their shells; all along the coast you can find these shells making up driveways and parking lots. Local favorites are the smaller oysters that come from the Apalachicola area of Florida. Oyster seasons from state to state are typically in the fall.
Crab – The crab of choice around here is the blue crab. It is indeed the same blue crab as served up in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, but (naturally) much more tasty when coming from the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico. If you walk into a restaurant in Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola, or Fort Walton and order crab, they’ll come boiled. If you see “soft-shelled crab” on the menu, these are (most likely) blue crabs harvested during their molting: their guts are removed, but otherwise they are battered and deep-fried in entirety and can be eaten whole since their new shells haven’t yet hardened. Here and there you’ll see other crab varieties, including crab claw appetizers, and while quite tasty, they likely are flown in from somewhere else or frozen. Local crab seasons typically follow summer and fall shrimp seasons.
Crawfish – These are “toy lobsters”, crustaceans that look identical to their bigger cousins (in fact in Europe they’re often called “langostinos”, literally “little lobsters”). Crawfish are 2 or 3 inches in total length, but it’s the tail meat that you’re after. They grow inland, not in open waters, and they particularly love the muddy wetlands of Southern Louisiana. 9 times out of 10, you eat them boiled, and you’ll have to pull the tail off and peel it just like a lobster (suck the spicy juice out of the head if you want to be just like a local). If you’re lucky enough to find a place that peels them for you and batters and fries them, you’re in for a special treat: a crawfish and pepper (jalapeño, usually), aka “craw-pep”, po-boy (sandwich) is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Crawfish are also commonly used in gumbo and other cajun dishes. If you’re invited by a local to attend a crawfish boil, don’t turn them down: it’s a major social and culinary event. Crawfish season is spring and early summer. And, whatever you do, please don’t call them “crayfish” when visiting this area: those snickers will occur at the table in front of you.
Fish – There are more varieties of fish available to you when visiting the Northern Gulf of Mexico than we can adequately address in a single blog. Here’s a quick sampling of what you might see on the menu: amberjack, bonefish, catfish, dolphinfish (the fish, not the mammal!), flounder, grouper, redfish, various shark (particularly lemonfish), snapper, swordfish, tuna, wahoo, and yellow jack. We won’t describe each one; instead, we’ll summarize them into either a white fish or an oily fish. If you’re knowledge of fish is limited, you’re most likely to prefer a white fish: simply ask your server if their catch of the day is a white fish or not. It will most likely be offered baked, grilled, blackened, or fried. Seasons can vary widely by species and the state they’re caught in: stick with the restaurant’s fresh catches. We will make one fish recommendation: if you visit Mississippi and find a catfish house, don’t pass it up. Bar none, the best catfish house in the world is Catfish Charlie’s in Gulfport, Mississippi.
A word on wine pairings, and we’ll keep it simple: drink what you like. We have no problems drinking red wine with our seafood, particularly if we’re eating fried. But if you want to drink like a local, it’s likely a beer: Mexican beers, particularly Corona, are especially popular around here. If you find yourself on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, ask if they have Lazy Magnolia‘s Southern Pecan beer for a special treat.
Finally, on every table in any seafood restaurant in this area, you’ll find a bottle or two of hot sauce. The three predominant brands are Tabasco, Louisiana Hot Sauce, and Crystal Hot Sauce. Tabasco is, of course, world famous: it’s made in Louisiana with a unique pepper variety known as the tabasco pepper. Of the 3, it’s slightly more spicy than the other two. Louisiana and Crystal have a bit more of a vinegar bite to go along with the hot. All three are especially good sprinkled on fried seafood.
Bon appetite, ya’ll!