Ever had shrimp paste? It’s a Southern indulgence. Whether spread on finger sandwiches, swirled into grits or served with raw vegetables and toast points, shrimp paste is a treat you really ought to experience. It’s set out at breakfast, lunch and dinner. You don’t see it often now at parties but when I was growing up shrimp paste was the stand-by spinach artichoke hors d’oeuvre of the day. Fort Lauderdale was still a sleepy, Southern resort town. Locals pronounced Miami “Miamuh”. “Up on the highway” referred to US1, Federal Highway, the biggest main road that I can remember. Going to dinner at bar/restaurant, MaiKai, and seeing the Polynesian floorshow was cause for envy amongst my friends and considered major exotica. I mean, where else could you see beautiful women dressed in only grass skirts and coconut halves covering their breasts, dancing the hula while behind them handsome island men juggled fire-lit torches to the beat of thundering drums? Pretty hokey now but in those days that was almost fast living! Simple as life was then, there were some hard and fast social rules. For instance, napkins when entertaining. Linen napkins were used at every party…cocktail, dinner and luncheon. Luncheons were quite common back then as that was the time women could get away from the house for a few hours with the explanation of “I’ve got a club meeting. Be back this afternoon!” There seemed to be more women’s clubs then than today. Mama belonged to a good handful. These were invitation only clubs although they benefitted the community. Beaux Arts was the women’s club affiliated with the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art and, boy, could those ladies throw a luncheon meeting. All meetings were held in different member’s homes during the day, never at night, I imagine because all these ladies of the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s had to be home to prepare dinner for their husbands and families. And let me tell you, these ladies turned out for their meetings. Heels and dresses, baby, then wild pantsuits in the mid-’60’s. Lots of gleaming pearls dangling off of graceful necks, later years replaced with chunky, mod necklaces. Late morning the street where the designated meeting was to be held would fill with big, ol’ parked cars the size of boats in all different pastel colors. I don’t know why, but you didn’t often see black cars back then. Cream, baby blue, mint green, even soft pink land yachts sat bumper to bumper on both sides of the street as the women made their way into the house, heels crunching on gravel lined driveways, heavy charm bracelets softly tinkling while the women waved and greeted each other. I remember when Mama had meetings at our house the days prior would be a flurry of activity. Frankie, our housekeeper, was in charge of making certain the entire house was spotless and, on the day of the meeting, replenishing the punch bowl and platters of food on the dining room table. She also oversaw the polishing of the silver by older sister, Cynthia, and me. Mama would pay us each 50¢, sometimes a DOLLAR, big money back then to clean the silverware. My sister and I always seemed to be the designated invisible help relegated to collecting empty cups and crumpled napkins or emptying ashtrays. It was understood we didn’t engage anyone in conversation; that we were to speak only if we were spoken to. Wait. We were also expected to greet all the members…it was “hello, Mrs. So and So”, “very well, thank you”, “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am”. The meetings were only for a few hours although to us they felt like an eternity but, on the upside, we were allowed to eat as much as we wanted, however, only in the kitchen. When the meeting was called to order and the ladies got down to business, for instance discussing the finer points of their fundraising cookbook or the next preview party prior to the upcoming Calder exhibit, Frankie, Cynthia and I would load up with shrimp paste on toast points, dainty finger sandwiches filled with chicken salad or cream cheese and olive, salmon mousse and bite size quiches. It was a stolen hour of enjoyment without Mama telling me to stand up straight or put down that 17th sandwich as I was well on my way to a stomach ache followed with an emphatic “One day you’ll thank me for this!” or simply “Because I said so!”. The silky, creamy shrimp paste had been spread on small triangles of toasted, white bread which melted in my mouth and, when given the opportunity, I gorged myself on them. All the finger sandwiches were made by Frankie or Mama the previous day; the mousse, quiches and anything else would have been dropped off by the caterer that morning on account of the fact that Mama couldn’t cook. Obviously, it was a different time and different school of thought for women in general. Sometimes life was good for these women…sometimes not so good. These meetings were all about being with close friends and, hopefully, making a little money to help establish a truly strong museum of art. Perhaps these women were at times a bit frivolous but, over the years, their meetings taught these two little girls the finer points of leadership, organization and service. Today we have a vibrant, robust museum partly due to the unflagging, tireless fundraising commitment of these ladies. And we still have shrimp paste.
Slathered on toasted French bread or flavoring a breakfast bowl of grits, shrimp paste is best served at room temperature. Easily it can be prepared and kept chilled a day or two before serving, just bring it out about an hour prior to your guests arriving. It’s glorious atop warm slices of new potatoes, with cold, rare beef or grilled fish. I prefer my shrimp paste to be splashed with dark rum and seasoned with mace but you can easily swap the rum for sherry or brandy and one or two teaspoons of onion juice can take the place of the mace. Also, if you happen to stumble upon wild caught shrimps, by all means, snap those babies up. The spread tastes leagues better with shrimp that hasn’t been farmed but it’s not easy to find.
- 1 pound shrimp, shelled, deveined and rinsed
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
- 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- juice of one small lemon
- 2 tablespoons dark rum
- salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- In a large skillet heat the butter over high heat until foaming but not brown.
- Add the cleaned shrimp and cook until they are just pink, about 4-5 minutes. Stir often.
- Using a slotted spoon, put the shrimp in food processor fitted with steel blade, leaving the pan juices in the skillet.
- Drop the heat to medium-high and return the pan to stove top.
- Add the mace, cayenne pepper, lemon juice and rum, stirring constantly until the mixture has reduced to 3-4 tablespoons.
- Pour the butter mixture into the food processor and pulse 8-10 times. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and process until completely smooth.
- Transfer paste to serving bowl or crock, cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 3-4 hours.
- Remove from refrigerator 1 hour prior to serving. Serve cool, at room temperature.