Charleston shrimp has been the everyman luxury for years 

A History Lesson

click to enlarge Vasa Tarvin pulls in a boatload of shrimp onto the Miss Paula

Jonathan Boncek

Vasa Tarvin pulls in a boatload of shrimp onto the Miss Paula

We are at the beginning of shrimp season and with it the arrival of our tastiest natural resource. But shrimp fanaticism is nothing new to the Lowcountry. It's been omnipresent on plates in this city for generations. And perhaps one of the most beautiful things about Lowcountry shrimp was its everyman accessibility. Whether it was a poor family who cast netted the tidal creeks or a south of Broad aristocrat whose house servant purchased a plateful of head-on shrimp for 5 cents from a street vendor, as far back as the 1880s the Lowcountry eater regularly consumed the crustaceans from the second week in May through October, and with luck, through November.

At breakfast shrimp might appear in simple dress: boiled, headed, shelled, and served with a sprinkling of pepper. Huguenot French Charlestonians had "a method of stewing them with tomatoes or of serving them in a combination with bell peppers," perhaps an early manifestation of the classic Vol-au-Vent de Chevrettes. But while shrimp pie was a breakfast staple, the true queen of the morning meal was shrimp and grits.

An 1894 news article from the Charleston News and Courier indicates that in its original form, the boiled shrimp was prepared separately from the hominy grits and served on top of them at the table: "The long elliptical dish in the centre of the table, with its sides overrunning with the pretty little pink crescent-shaped fish is the cynosure of all eyes, and as the pater familias doles out the regulation amount for each plate of hominy the eyes of the children glisten and the death-like stillness that ensures bears witness to their love for their breakfast."

Local pride in shrimp and hominy became pronounced in the 1880s. A newspaper commentator opined that the average Charlestonian startled awake by the raucous call of a 6 a.m. street vendor had a better morning ahead of him than a New York millionaire, for they "will have a breakfast of hominy and shrimps and . . . even Vanderbilt and his $10,000 cook are in that one particular poorer than any man in Charleston, For neighter Mr. Vanderbilt nor his $10,000 artist can get up a shrimp breakfast 'as she is cooked' in Charleston at the frozen North. It is admitted that there are no shrimps in America at least that can compare with the Charleston shrimp in delicacy of flavor or in tenderness of flesh."

Dinner saw a different array of dishes, the most celebrated of which was "a pilau of rice, tomatoes, and shrimp," a dish universally recognized as being of African inspiration, or in the coded language of city elite, deriving from "one of those mental formulas which originate in the mind of Aunt Chloe in the kitchen." Another dinner fixture was battered fried shrimp, served crisp, and hot in a napkin. At supper, cold shrimp salad frequently appeared.

Mt. pleasant recently opened a new seafood market partly to help encourage people to buy local shrimp - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Mt. pleasant recently opened a new seafood market partly to help encourage people to buy local shrimp

When there wasn't time to prepare shrimp and grits, shrimp pie was the ideal morning dish since it could be made the night before and left unrefrigerated in a pantry for morning consumption. While appearing on city sideboards in Savannah and Charleston in the early days of the republic, the dish appears to have been perfected as a banquet and event dish by the talented African-American chef Nat Fuller, who featured it in his famous Charleston restaurant, the Bachelor's Retreat. The dish migrated from breakfast to lunch, dinner, and even banquet suppers during the latter half of the 19th century. The spicy Lowcountry pie perfected by Fuller diverged from the English dish found in many late 18th century and 19th-century cookbooks, first by dispensing with the anchovies, then eliminating the white wine, and finally by mitigating the amount of mace and nutmeg spicing the mixture.

In contrast to the complexities of an ambitious pie is the simplicity of shrimp salad. In its classic form, it mixed three elements: peeled cooked shrimp, thin sliced celery, and mayonnaise. Then, this was seasoned to taste, garnished with lettuce and a tomato slice, and accompanied with olives.

Three shrimp varieties have long been sold in the Lowcountry cities: the white, the brown, and less frequently, the pink. During the 19th century an African-American fleet of canoes worked coastal waters, manned by a netter and a paddler. The casting was done at night, and the harvest discharged at the city wharves around 5 a.m. Then the catch was divided to various street vendors who used a pan-plate (a container whose capacity was legislated by the metropolitan governments) to parcel out portions for customers. The vendors colluded to set a standard price in the city. The vendors roamed the streets from the last dark of morning to sundown. In Charleston, one iron-lunged vendor, Joe Cole (1841-1919), earned the name "the raw swimp fiend" for the volume of his calls. According to the News and Courier, "His early and horrible cries have been the cause of more profanity than any one single thing in Charleston." He sang:

Swimmy, swimmy, swim,
Raw, Raw, swim.
I want you all to member.
We'se got tell September.
So come and get yo raw, raw swim.
Raw, raw, sprawn, wid shooger een he hawn.

A rival to Cole's title as the Shrimp Fiend was "One Arm Prinus" who began his cries at 5 a.m. This sonic assault on the rest of the privileged classes inspired many pungent calls for action in the pages of the Charleston papers and in the halls of city government. Prinus's call took the form of a stream of consciousness soliloquy verging on scat singing:

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Shrimp
Raw Shrimp
Raw sin,
Raw, raw,
Yea, raw swimp,
Swimp, swimp, swimp,
She-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-rimp,
Raw, raw swimmy.
Yee, yo rosin,
Yee, oh raw, raw, raw,
Ya, yo raw swim,
Yah your large leetle raw swimmy.
Yash irashi
Yea de raw, yeddem,
Yah raw sweep,
Eunee, raw, raw, raw,
Fine leetle, large, leetle raw raw swimp,
Laage rawsee
Swimpee, de raw swimps,
Yah, raw sheep,
Yealou, yealou, yealou,
Prawn,
Yea, raw, raw sprawn,
Sprawnee, sprawnee,
Spraw-aw-aw-aw-asn.
Prawn, prawn, shug een e hawn.
Yea, fine large raw prawn.
Big sweet sprawn.

Auditors characterized Prinus's voice as unearthly in its crooning. In the summer of 1888 Alderman McGarey introduced a bill to restrict early morning huckstering in Charleston; it became part of the city code. Yet it was never enforced. In July of 1892 a mass meeting of citizens met to protest the early morning clamor. The only arrests of shrimp vendors from the 1890s occurred when vendors, such as William Young, tampered with the pans that served as the standard measurements.

The prime importance of shrimp in the seafood cuisine of the coast finds expression in any number of sources, including humorous writings such as the News and Courier's 1898 enticement of the S.C. state press association to the annual meeting at Pawley's Island with the following list of delicacies: "swimp pate, swimp salad, swimp au mayonnaise, swimp pilau, swimp au naturel, oyster on the half shell, clam chowder, broiled whiting, stone crab stew, baked drum, ragout de trotteir, baked bass, boiled sheephead."

Editor's note: I can confirm any member of the City Paper's editorial department would have been happy to attend such a meeting.


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