Shrimp Scampi. Fried Shrimp. Shrimp Cocktail. They sound so scrumptious, but this isn't a cookbook, though twelve pages of recipes, including Lady Bird Johnson's Shrimp Squash Casserole, are included.
Shrimp, sometimes called prawn, usually depending on the circumstances and location, is the most consumed crustacean in the world. Like lobsters and other relatives in the Order Decapoda, shrimp have five pairs of legs under the carapace and five more swimmerets under the abdomen. They thrive in salt water as well as fresh water, both warm and cold.
People are attracted to shrimp in many ways, not just for their flavor. They are also significant in symbolism in the arts and literature. The shrimp has long been a symbol of luck and longevity in Asian cultures. Since it sheds its exoskeleton and appears to begin life afresh, it is also symbolic of birth and renewal. Along with lobster, shrimp designs are found on Samurai armor for good luck.
European artists have used shrimp in many of their endeavors. William Hogarth's The Shrimp Girl portrays a young woman who peddles shrimp on the street. Dorothea Sharp's Impressionist painting, At the Seaside, captures children collecting shrimp in nets. An early 20th century British postcard, Seaside Specimens, depicts a shrimp tail with a woman's head, sort of a crustacean mermaid.
A British writer, more than 200 years ago, noted that “many men's sweetest memories are connected with shrimps.” William Shakespeare used the word “shrimp” to identify a “dwarfish creature.” In Henry VI, Part 1, the Countess of Auvergne describes the Earl of Shrewsbury, saying, “It cannot be this weak and writhled shrimp should strike such terror to his enemies.” Seinfeld, the American sitcom, in 1997 featured an episode in which a character, George, sat in front of a bowl of shrimp on a table in a conference room. Not paying much attention to what is going on in the room, George gobbles the shrimp, using both hands to fill his mouth. A coworker comments, “Hey George, the ocean called, they're running out of shrimp.” The room bursts forth in laughter.
This book is especially light on the biology of shrimp, focusing more on its culinary and economic aspects. It tracks the culinary uses of shrimp through history and around the world—from about 25 centuries ago in China to Europe, Africa, and Middle America. Shrimp were important in the American economy, especially in the 20th century, but now farm-raised shrimp are a multibillion dollar industry in Asia. The history of preparing shrimp for marketing in the United States describes a sad story where women, children as young as three, immigrants, and African Americans were put to work peeling shrimp in conditions that were brutally inhumane.
The shrimp has even had an impact on religion. Many Jews believe that the Old Testament nutrition laws stated in Leviticus forbid the consumption of shellfish. Many Muslims consider shrimp consumption to be permitted by the Quran, but some believe that only shrimp may be eaten, whereas prawns are forbidden. A 19th century Christian minister got around the Old Testament laws by reasoning that the sea is loaded with organisms, many of which die every day. He felt that it would be better to use them for food, rather than having dead bodies polluting the water.
Part of Reaktion Books’ ambitious Edible series, dedicated to food and drink, which documents various edible items related to plants and animals, from a natural and cultural history perspective, this exhaustively researched volume is appropriate for and may appeal to college or advanced high school readers. Though engagingly written and full of interesting information, the book may not be one for which there would be a good reason to include in a biology class library. It is profusely illustrated with captivating photographs and includes a timeline of beetles, endnote documentation of the text, a bibliography, a list of websites and associations, and an index.