Above: Inside the Washington Crab Producers facility in Westport. Below: raw shrimp on ice.
WESTPORT, Wash.--Those kettles in the photo, they look like something out of an F.W. Murnau movie, inhuman shapes venting steam and menace. And yet their function is to be as gentle as possible with their tiny fodder, shrimp.
So let's continue with the little buggers themselves. The ones that fishing boats catch off the coast of Washington and Oregon, they're hippolytid shrimp, elongated bodies, extremely long antennae. And that's about as far as I can go without opening the excellent reference book by Dr. Greg Jensen of the UW's Fisheries Department. Less scientifically, they're known as Pacific Coldwater shrimp, and the folks here at Pacific Seafood process something like three quarters of the entire harvest at a dozen facilities up and down the coast. They weigh next to nothing, swim right into the nets of the trawlers, where they're iced in giant totes until boats (like the Swell Rider) put in at the pier--after four days at sea--with their 40-ton catch.
They're cooked at 210 degrees for exactly 70 seconds in those giant kettles, then dumped into a device that essentially bounces and washes the shells from the meat. (A million gallons of water a day, all of it recycled.) The machine wasn't invented until Eisenhower days; before then, the tiny shrimp were shelled by hand, an impossibly expensive delicacy.
Over on the crab side, 100,000 of the two-pound critters go through Washington Crab's steamers every day. To extract the meat, about 20 percent of the crab's weight, a team of four dozen experienced "shakers" shows up for the early shift. They're paid 68 cents a pound for their trouble;.it's better than minimum wage (not a lot more), still, more than I make typing this blog. Mind-numbing, tough, smelly work: I have a lot more respect now for crab legs, believe me.
Related note: as far inland as Moscow, Idaho, Pacific Seafood manages to deliver marvelous shellfish. Enjoyed a lovely seared scallop at Gnosh recently.
Our trip to Westport was hosted by Duke Moscrip, owner of the Duke's Chowderhouse chain of six "upscale casual" seafood restaurants and a vocal proponent of sustainable fisheries. As we wrote on our beverage blog, Slightly Pickled, back in May, Duke's does a fine job with its happy hour cocktails, too. Many thanks for the opportunity to learn more about the sources of our favorite foods!