Published in Issue #5 | Summer 2016
By Benjamin Perrone
Here in Charleston we’re settling into summer, and we also happen to be two months into shrimping season. I’ve spoken to quite a few people lately who didn’t realize that, and who can blame them? It isn’t as if hundreds of restaurants aren’t selling thousands of plates of iconic Charleston shrimp dishes year-round. Similarly, individual consumers can go to their local grocery store any day and expect to find multiple options both fresh and frozen. Meanwhile, hard-working men and women are getting out of bed at an obscenely early hour to go out and perform backbreaking work to chase shrimp through the ocean. And it’s not just shrimp. Clammers, crabbers, oystermen and women, commercial fishers and others are out doing the same thing. I could not possibly use the space here to do justice to the challenges that these people face. Very smart and conscientious people have poured incredible amounts of time and energy into documenting these issues, and their work is worth seeking out. In brief, cheap imports raised and harvested using questionable labor and safety practices have disrupted long-established marketplaces. Dock space is increasingly scarce and, therefore, valuable, and fuel prices have spiked unexpectedly several times just in the last several years. Add to that the unpredictability of the weather and an increase in extreme weather patterns and events, and it becomes clear that this is an industry of passionate, committed folks who earn their living.
When I think about how a Man About Town conducts himself, I feel that there is a call to support this local industry. In my opinion, we are a critical component of the decision-making process. Yes, chefs and restaurant owners make the decision to put products on the plate, and I am not trying to be critical of them. I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen, but I have sold foodservice products in Charleston for several years. I hated selling imported shrimp and only did it when I had to, but I sold a lot of Gulf product, and when we had Georgetown shrimp available I sold a lot of that as well. Consistency is key for most restaurants. Consistency of product size, consistency of availability, and consistency of price are all understandably important. Frankly, it is easier to find that outside of the local market. These really are complicated decisions with far-reaching implications in how the business operates. However, one trip to pick up seafood straight from a boat captain who caught or harvested it a couple hours prior demonstrates the unsurpassed quality of flavor and freshness that is available. Where we as individuals come in is communicating to our favorite restaurants and grocery stores and markets that we want to support our local seafood industry, that we’re willing to accept that everything won’t be available every day, and that we’re willing to pay for it. Even an item or two being switched out makes a big difference if everybody did it. While they decide what to put on the menu, their goal is to offer what customers want. I’ve heard people talk about boycotts, forcing regulations to encourage certain supplier choices, and stuff like that, but I feel that open and regular communication between those on the supply and demand side of the equation is a much healthier and deeper way of accomplishing our goals. But please, if you take this idea and run with it, don’t spend 30 minutes questioning your server in the middle of a Friday dinner rush. A couple quick questions and some feedback will send a message, and bigger and better conversations will follow if we all commit to it.