By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1996 Gourmet Magazine
Once upon a time, rock shrimp were thought of as trash. If a Florida fisherman went trawling in the deep waters of the Atlantic for easy-to-peel white shrimp but decked a thousand pounds of tough-hulled rock shrimp instead, he’d heave the hard heads back into the drink and curse his bad luck.
Today, sitting at the tables of the Dixie Crossroads restaurant in Titusville, just across the river from the John F. Kennedy Space Center, seafood lovers are delighted when waitresses bring forth rock shrimp by the dozens—split apart for easy pickin’ and broiled to pearly pinkness. The formerly worthless crustaceans have become one of Florida’s most widely appreciated delicacies. They are available in good fish markets coast to coast and are a key ingredient in dishes offered by some of America’s finest restaurants.
There are none tastier than the ones served at Dixie Crossroads, where the recipe is simplicity itself. Order them by the pound—or get the all-you-can-eat deal—and request them with Old Bay Seasoning, Caribbean-style spices, garlic (scampi-style), no salt, or plain. The shrimp arrive marshaled in rows, splayed open and in the shell like an army of tiny split rock lobster tails. Their size varies with the season, which starts in July and runs through March. When young, each one is scarcely more than an inch long—a bite-size morsel. At the peak of the season, they are plumper than crayfish and as sumptuous as prime beefsteak. A cocktail fork is provided to pull the meat from its hard, translucent shell. It comes away easily in one hefty piece. The buttery dunk served on the side seems like gilt for the lily, for there is hardly any seafood more inherently rich than these glistening creatures.
Rodney Thompson, proprietor of Dixie Crossroads, is the man who first figured out how to make the once-spurned crustaceans into something great to eat. It was in the early 1970s, when he was at the helm of a big shrimp trawler and getting nowhere trying to net the always-popular, tender-shelled brown shrimp. Encouraged by the captain of a Florida research vessel who directed him twenty miles east of Melbourne, Thompson dropped his nets into the deep water and came up with half a ton of rock shrimp. “If you can figure out how to sell those ‘peanuts,’ ” the captain said, “you’ll be a millionaire!”
At his own expense, Thompson shipped the shrimp to the Fulton Fish Market, where they had to be given away because no one would buy the seemingly impenetrable oddities. Thompson’s method was to steam them in the shell like Maryland crabs; but, even after steaming, they were every bit as tough to crack as a crab and there was too little meat in each to make the effort seem worthwhile.
Thompson’s daughter Laurilee had an idea: Split the shrimp first, butter them, then put them under a broiler. The results were delicious and inspired him to invent a high-speed machine that split and cleaned rock shrimp and made them easier to cook and eat than most shellfish. The Thompsons began giving them away to staff and customers at the Sand Point Inn, a seafood restaurant they had opened along the waterfront in Titusville. Those who savored the lobster like flavor of this local novelty wanted more. In 1983, at an inland location, Thompson opened Dixie Crossroads, with a menu focusing on shrimp of all kinds.
A vast, multi-room restaurant has grown up around the original fifty-seat seafood shack; and on weekend nights, a one to two hour wait for a table is not uncommon. (Reservations are accepted for parties of eight or more.) Outside, on a wooden deck under a tin-roofed gazebo, sits a gumball machine that, when fed quarters, dispenses food pellets for the sea creatures thriving in a pond below the walkways. OUR FISH FAMILY, educational signs say, identifying the tilapia, mullet, drum, and sheepshead that swim underneath. Despite the restaurant’s proximity to the tourist attractions in Orlando and the Kennedy Space Center, most customers who patiently wait their turn are local folks who consider Dixie Crossroads simply a good bargain, well worth the appetite-provoking delay. In addition to Floridians, the loyal clientele includes a regular contingent of astronauts’ families from Houston who often come to eat shrimp while the space-shuttle crews are busy preparing for launches. Also among the expectant crowds are almost always a good handful of traveling foodies from out of state who know this restaurant as a compulsory stop on any eating tour of Atlantic Ocean hot spots. “I wish I had a dollar for everyone who asked me how to get to Dixie Crossroads,” a Titusville police officer announced when we flagged her down on the outskirts of town to ask directions. “I could retire today a millionaire.”
Success has not inspired delusions of grandeur. The Crossroads is still a casual, paper-napkin eatery with salad dressings that arrive in miniature plastic tubs and flimsy cardboard trays for the disposal of shells. We love the way the knotty pine walls are decorated—with lifelike effigies of various fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico, including an angry-looking sandbar shark, a bright pink red snapper, a cubera snapper, a silk snapper, a swordfish, and a grouper. Tables are easy-wipe varnished wood, and waitresses and busboys are lightning fast.
Dixie Crossroads is famous for big portions; many satisfied customers take leftovers home. One reason for the surplus is that the corn fritters at the beginning of the meal are so good that it is all too easy to overindulge even before the seafood arrives. A mountain of them is presented in a little bowl. Their crunchy red-gold crusts are dusted with powdered sugar and their insides are moist and tender, dotted with an occasional corn kernel. Eat them all, and the waitress quickly brings you more.
Soup, although it comes in little cups, is substantial—particularly the vegetable soup, thick with peas, carrots, potatoes, rice, beans, and big shreds of tomato. Shrimp soup is filled with diced potatoes and a few delicious pieces of whatever native shrimp are in season.
To see which shrimp are netted where, you have only to glance at the paper place mats, which feature a map of Florida showing the offshore habitats of different species and what time of year the shrimp are harvested. In addition to the rock shrimp, there are usually two or three other types on the menu: white shrimp, starting late in the fall; brown shrimp, from January through the summer; and pink shrimp from the Florida Keys, available nearly all year long. The last are the familiar pastel crescents most places dish out as generic shrimp and are offered here fried, steamed, or broiled. Broiled or steamed, they are popping-fresh, with a marine sweetness that simply cannot be improved. The toasty-crusted fried ones are excellent too.
Early-season Cape Canaveral calico scallops, tender and milky white, are each hardly bigger than the eraser at the tip of a wooden pencil. They have a fresh, briny flavor and are easy to eat, but a single order of them in a big oval dish looks like several hundred and is a monomaniacal choice for all but a scallop zealot. A more sensible way to taste them is to order a combo plate called the Cape Canaveral Special: a half-pound each of rock shrimp, white or brown shrimp, and scallops. This is a veritable cornucopia of little sea creatures—the sort of boundlessly oceanic meal we sometimes fantasize about when we have spent too long in the shellfish-deprived interior regions of America.
When pressed to label his cuisine, Thompson calls it “cracker cooking” and recalls that his education as a chef began when he was a boy in Titusville: He used to catch and slow-smoke local river fish to earn his “runaround money.” Cracker cooking is the locals’ affectionate name for good old Florida food—similar to other Deep-South cookery, but with a greater emphasis on the yield of ocean, Gulf, and streams. Catfish is one of its fundamental, and, although Dixie Crossroads also offers it broiled or steamed, the only proper way to order it is fried. It is succulent food, sheathed in a frail, nut-brown crust with just enough crunch to balance the plump luxury of what’s inside.
Mullet is another distinctly Floridian flavor—a luscious river and ocean fish that is customarily filleted and skinned, then broiled or smoked. It was a longtime staple of Dixie Crossroads’ menu, but in midsummer of last year it became unavailable. “It had been fished down so bad, it almost disappeared,” Thompson says. Now, though, mullet has started to come back and is again on the menu. In fact, says Thompson, “the time will soon come when they will be so thick you’ll be able to scoop them up right out of the Indian River.”
The mullet shortage made us panic. What about rock shrimp? Might they someday get fished out? It is a possibility, he says. Luckily the University of Florida’s Whitney Marine Laboratory is exploring how to grow rock shrimp in aquaculture farms and reseed their populations in the ocean to provide a constant, year-round supply. That is a reassuring thought.