My mom was a great cook, as many Southern women are, and I remember her boiled shrimp vividly. I don’t know what she boiled them in but it was enough to have created a signature taste, had there been others around to compare at the time. I could have picked hers out blindfolded. When I was a small child and we lived in Jackson, Mississippi, I recall sneakily opening the refrigerator door and pilfering a few now and then that she might have been saving for company or just for dinner later. No need for sauce, they were just that good right out of the bowl.
When we moved to Pascagoula on the Gulf Coast, shrimp were readily available right off the boat in the small craft harbor and my mom took full advantage of that. She developed other specialties, including Shrimp Creole. My family benefited from this interest as the shrimp menu expanded. My job was to “head” the little critters and our big yellow cat Precious would practically explode with envy if he happened to be in the house at the time.
A rendezvous with destiny (or, in this case, shrimp)
When Gail and I got married and began celebrating Christmas with her family in Nashville, I decided to bring a little of the Gulf Coast to the occasion by boiling shrimp. This might seem unusual but I remember my mom having boiled shrimp right alongside turkey and dressing frequently during the holidays. As an adult, I wanted to emulate her in creating a distinct shrimp boil concoction. What could I use to make it unique to me? Ah, ha! Dry barbecue spices from The Rendezvous restaurant in Memphis. After all, as a Tennessee resident now, why not pay homage to one of this state’s famous specialties, barbecue.
I love Memphis-style dry-rub and The Rendezvous spices can be bought in Nashville grocery stores or ordered online. Mixing that in with crab boil plus additional cayenne, black pepper, lemon & Tabasco sauce will really give your shrimp the flavor that will make you imitate the bandits in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as you paraphrase them, saying, “Sauces? We don’t need no stinking sauces!”
Don’t get me wrong, I do make sauce, too. Usually, just a “heapin’ helpin’” of fresh ground, course cut horseradish in ketchup with lemon and hot sauce on the side, so each person can add the lemon and heat to their taste. It is my opinion that Tabasco is twangier than Crystal, which seems sweeter to me. But both are hot and will allow some flexibility and make you a hero to those who prefer either one.
To borrow the title of the book Gene Wilder finds in Young Frankenstein, “How I Did It!”
You’re on your own about how much of everything to use, but here’s what’s in it. I just refer to the amounts I use as “generous.” It may take you a time or two of testing, but you’ll enjoy your mistakes a lot, too!
U.S. domestic wild shrimp (this is very important and the subject of another blog)
Pan of water
Lots of fresh ground black pepper
At least one lemon, sliced in eighths
Charlie Vergos Rendezvous Famous Seasoning
How I do it:
Drink a sip of cold beer (not an official ingredient, but a great mood setter for the cook)
Pour a bunch of water in a pot and start it to boiling.
Squeeze the lemons into the water, dropping the peels in, as well.
Add the crab boil & stir.
Drink some beer while the water heats.
Add the Rendezvous spices (generously), stir.
Add some cayenne pepper, stir.
Take a pepper grinder with black pepper and grind the pepper into the water enough to where you can see the pepper appear on the sides of the lemon peelings and throughout the water. Stir.
Add some Tabasco sauce. Stir.
When the water comes to a full boil, put the shrimp in and set a timer for three minutes.
At the end of three minutes, stir with a wooden spoon and if the shrimp look and feel like they’re done, take ‘em out. If they don’t look and feel like they’re done, leave ‘em in but no longer than a minute or a minute and a half.
Pour the whole thing into a colander in the sink, be impressed with the steam as she fogs up your glasses, have another swig of beer and let the shrimp cool to the point where you won’t burn your hands if you try to peel one or two before you chill ‘em.
Chill (applies to both you and the shrimp) and then eat ‘em, with or without sauce.