The Wild South

Shrimp Conundrum: To Devein or Not to Devein?

Do you really need to remove that dark stripe down a shrimp’s back? Getting to the bottom of a Southern debate

Photo: Greg Sweney

I blame the good people at Toadfish Outfitters for fanning the flame in the great debate over shrimp poo. Toadfish makes an awesome koozie that will hold a beer in a gale without tipping, and a great little inshore marsh rod, among other niceties directed toward the coastal South. But it’s the Toadfish shrimp cleaner that’s got me revisiting my longstanding notions of shrimp wisdom. Shrimp deveiners have been around forever, and since forever they haven’t changed. They were made out of red plastic, they cost $5 at the seafood market, and you wouldn’t be caught dead using one. Now Toadfish has put its own updated spin on the design, and folks that have scoffed and scorned at the mere notion of deveining a shrimp—folks like me—are thinking twice.

photo: Courtesy of Toadfish Outfitters
Toadfish Outfitters’ shrimp cleaner.

First things first. That dark stripe down the shrimp’s dorsal curve isn’t a vein. It’s the digestive tract, and that little factoid alone might be enough to sway the margins of the masses. But there’s no evidence that ingesting a snippet of cooked shrimp entrails is harmful. It is true, however, that the little black string can contain a bit of grit from the shrimp’s bottom-feeding habits. And in the larger sizes, for sure, you can occasionally pick up on that texture and flavor. (If you’re eating farm-raised shrimp, you’re probably buying shrimp that have already been deveined. But if you’re still buying farm-raised shrimp, we should probably have a talk. End of PSA.)

photo: Greg Sweney
A basketful of fresh-caught shrimp.

Still, the “vein” is just not a big deal. It comes down mainly to aesthetics, really. And in my neck of the marsh, at least, deveining a shrimp can lower your social standing among folks who know how to throw a cast net and replace the sheared cotter pin behind the propeller.

So where am I left in this Southern conundrum? Divided.

These days I’m trying to elevate my culinary skills across the board, so perhaps I’m getting a little pickier about presentation. But I have started to devein the occasional shrimp, mostly for aesthetics. My kids are largely grown and sort of gone, so often it’s just my wife, Julie, and me at the table. When I had four mouth’s worth of shrimp to deal with, it was tough toenails: Eat the shrimp poo, kiddies, or shovel ‘em over to my plate. But when it comes to larger shrimp, I do think you can pick up a bit of a gritty feel, and they do look a little better on the plate without that racing stripe down the back.

It’s situational, I reckon. Medium shrimp or smaller, I couldn’t care less. And when a steaming pot of Frogmore Stew hits the picnic table, I bet you won’t see one single Southerner hesitate to gorge on un-gutted shrimp, no matter if they’re the size of a Pomeranian puppy.

Bottom line: I’m just not going to freak out over a little shrimp poo. Pass the cocktail sauce. 

Follow T. Edward Nickens on Instagram @enickens