April 29 was Shrimp Scampi Day – imagine that! Well seeing that, it reminded me of how my family of land-locked Germans were first introduced to shrimp. My 2nd oldest sister, Imogene, had a husband who loved to fish, especially along the Texas coast. In fact, he loved fishing so much he took a coaching assignment in Texas City, Texas to be near the water, and immediately bought a boat. Some might remember the tragedy of Texas City blowing up in 1947 killing hundreds, but the refinery-rich city paid teachers quite handsomely in the ‘50s. We eyed the first shrimp Imy brought home to Fredericksburg with suspicion, but with her help she showed our mother how to fry them in batter, and we had our first taste of shrimp. We were all quite impressed, but as usual, my stoic father said nothing.
Americans have probably been eating shrimp in their homes for centuries, but shrimp didn’t make a big splash in American cookbooks until after the Civil War when they first became available, canned. Shrimp Salad, usually whole shrimp piled up on lettuce with a mayonnaise dressing, became something of a delicacy, but not likely here among Meusebach’s settlers.
Fried Shrimp seemed to have become an occasional menu item in the early 20th century, but breaded, deep-fried shrimp did not make its big debut nationally until after World War II, when pre-cooked frozen shrimp, plain or breaded, came on the market. These shrimp dinners were relatively cheap because the breading could cover the less desirable specimens that could not be presented fresh. Attractively boxed and frozen, no one could see what they were buying. Soon, however, they became available everywhere, even in many drive-ins. TV Dinners also became a ‘50’s fad, but not in our household. My dad wouldn’t have stood for it. Just imagine sitting in front of a television set, eating!
Importation of shrimp from Mexico and India began at this time, but evidently it took some time before larger shrimp became truly affordable. I am not certain when the first fresh shrimp were available here in our local restaurants or groceries. A Shrimp Cocktail remained a luxury for many people throughout the 1960s. My sister, in bringing those shrimp home, had proven we could try something new and enjoy it. Later, my parents had an occasion to visit their daughter at her home in Texas City where she proudly offered them a huge platter of fried shrimp. That too was a meal to remember and having fried shrimp for dinner became something worth anticipating.
I am not certain when I regularly began ordering shrimp at restaurants. I am reasonably certain we never had them in the mess hall while I attended Texas A&M in the early ‘60s, and I cannot recall ever eating seafood when I began teaching in Seguin. I had fallen too much in love the abundance of Mexican Food restaurants the town had. However, returning home in the early ‘70s was a time when Fredericksburg was beginning to experience new and exciting restaurants. In town, Louis and Kay Sanchez-Navarro, with the help of her mother, opened the Spanish Cellar on the corner of N Llano and East Austin Street— actually in a cellar below their home. “Try the chili relleno — one of the best,” Texas Monthly extorted in its June ’75 issue. Restaurants in Fredericksburg were beginning to be noticed. My favorite dish at the Spanish Cellar was a shrimp soup-like dish. Its name I don’t remember, but I was surprised that the shrimp had not been shelled nor deveined. That made it a bit tricky to eat without using one’s fingers, but sitting in one of their booths, I enjoyed it often. Then Johnny and Brenda Nicholas opened the Hill Top Café offering new and exciting variations of Greek food, Louisiana Cajun foods and extra-large Southern Fried Shrimp. I became a regular customer.
Scampi is the plural of scampo, the Italian name for breaded shrimp, but it appears scampi was a popular English dish in the 1700s. It was once the undisputed king of pasta dishes, but its preparations vary regionally. According to the French they should have a slightly sweet flavor, but that quest is lost if the shrimp have been frozen. In Britain it is served fried in batter and accompanied with chips and tartar sauce. In the U.S., “Shrimp Scampi” is the menu name for shrimp in Italian-American cuisine. The dish is served in garlic butter, dry white wine, and Parmesan cheese, either with bread or over pasta or rice, or sometimes just the shrimp alone.
Several variations of the original Shrimp Scampi delicacy can be found regionally prepared in the U.S., some even made with chicken. Others use other crustaceans like scallops, crayfish, and even lobsters. So, it appears shrimp scampi is an American invention by Italians immigrants, and it also appears that they simply used whatever was available to them. Wherever its origins may lie, it is a masterpiece that has come to stay. Here are 2 recipe variations on Shrimp Scampi, one with pasta and one without.
8 oz dried angel hair pasta, uncooked
½ cup unsalted butter
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. peeled large, fresh shrimp
1/3 cup dry white wine
¼ tsp freshly ground pepper
¾ cup grate Parmesan or Romano cheese
¼ cup fresh parsley
Cook pasta according to directions; drain and place on a large serving platter.
Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat.
Add garlic and shrimp; cook, stirring constantly, 3 – 5 minutes or until shrimp turn pink.
Add wine and pepper.
Bring to a boil; cook, stirring constantly, 30 seconds.
Remove from heat; stir in cheese and parsley.
Pour shrimp mixture over pasta.
Toss gently and serve immediately.
Yield: 4 servings.
2 lbs. large shrimp
½ cup olive oil
3 TBS dried parsley flakes
3 TBS finely chopped fresh parsley
2 TBS finely chopped fresh parsley
2 TBS lemon juice
1 tsp dry mustard
2 tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
4 cloves garlic, pressed
Marinate shelled, deveined shrimp in a mixture of the ingredients.
Preheat broiler to 500ºF.
Put shrimp in marinade in a broiler pan 4-inches from heat for 5 minutes.
Broil another 5 minutes.
Yield 4 servings.