I love a good shrimp scampi, or shrimp and grits, or shrimp fra diavolo. But what is the deal—[Jerry Seinfeld voice]—with serving these dishes with tail-on shrimp? Peel-and-eat shrimp: Sure, leave the tail on. It’s in the name, after all. Fried shrimp: Yeah, the tail forms a little handle to make it easier to eat by hand. Cocktail shrimp: Same deal. But restaurants have to know that most people who ordered shrimp scampi aren’t going to crunch through the tail portion, so why is it even there?
Yes, this is a minor quibble. If the dish is delicious, I’m probably not going to have my night ruined by a handful of shrimp tails. But so much thought goes into plating food these days that I’m baffled by the presence of these irksome little crustacean bits. Before I can dig in to a forkful of creamy pasta and juicy shrimp, I have to put down my fork and knife, touch the buttery shrimp, pick off the silly shell-tail, and then put it… where, exactly? Unlike mussels-with-frites or peel-and-eat shrimp, I’m rarely given a separate bowl to discard the shrimp tails, which end up collecting like so many transparent toenails at the edge of my plate—hardly an appetizing prospect.
I mean, what. is. the. deal.
I take my grievance to Carl Galvan of Chicago seafood supplier Supreme Lobster. Carl, I ask, why do chefs leave tails on the shrimp if I’m just going to pluck them off?
“I’m with you in the group that thinks that if it’s a homogeneous dish that’s meant to be spooned or forked all as one bite, it should be tail-off,” he tells me. “Maybe because tail-on shrimp are slightly cheaper than tail off? Maybe because it’s a lazy chef who doesn’t want to go through the tedious effort of shelling and/or tailing shrimp? Maybe the chefs want the presentation to have the tails on?”
Interesting theories, I think, but nothing conclusive. So I keep digging. Maybe it has something to do with locking the flavor inside the shrimp?
Paul Adams, senior editor at America’s Test Kitchen, says yes, shrimp shells are quite flavorful and can impart that flavor into the surrounding dish—shrimp stock, the shrimp meat itself—if it’s cooked long enough.
“However, in a dish like shrimp scampi, the shrimp are cooked for just a couple of minutes, so it’s unlikely the tail imparts any flavor,” he tells me. “It’s just there for presentation reasons; same reason the clams in spaghetti alle vongole are in their shells.”
That’s it? Aesthetics? I do a Google Images search for shrimp pasta. At least a solid half of the recipes show shrimp with tails firmly attached, ready to impede pasta-to-face inhalation. Even Bon Appetit’s shrimp scampi recipe is illustrated with tail-on shrimp. So, to settle this mess, I go to that recipe’s developer himself, Rick Martinez. (He’s since left Bon Appetit but is still a food editor and stylist.)
“To be honest, I think it’s really an aesthetic thing,” Martinez tells me. “Even down to something as pop-culturey as the shrimp emoji—imagine if the shrimp tail wasn’t on the shrimp emoji, you actually probably wouldn’t know what it was. It’s iconic. So unfortunately it’s just there because that’s what we’re used to seeing. ”
Okay, I see his shrimp emoji point. But I still push back a little: The shrimp tails are annoying when I’m trying to eat with a knife and fork.
“It doesn’t serve any function and to be perfectly honest, in a pasta dish, I’d prefer it to be gone,” he agrees. (Amen!) “But if you pull the tail off, which is easy to do, and then cook it, it just looks weird. There are these three little… they’re almost like little filaments. It would look like a weird deformed, floppy piece of shrimp. It would just look unappetizing.”
Hmm. Deformed, floppy piece of shrimp vs. ease of eating said piece of shrimp? It turns out the question of pasta dishes with tail-on shrimp is one of pure aesthetics and presentation, not flavor or laziness. That knowledge stirs something almost existential in me: Do I expect a dish at a restaurant to be presented in the way that is easiest for me to eat, or do I mind a bit of artistry? I still think it’s silly to have to touch saucy shrimp to remove their tails before enjoying my dish of pasta, but maybe next time I order the shrimp scampi, I’ll snap a photo first. Then the tails will have served a small purpose.