TITUSVILLE, Fla. | After trawling the Atlantic Ocean for days, Rodney Thompson returned to his Florida home and dropped buckets of rock shrimp in the middle of the kitchen.
He ordered his four school-age children to stop playing and figure out a way to cook them.
Rock shrimp were considered trash. Their hard, spiny shells would split thumbs open and take forever to peel.
Thompson’s challenge to his children lasted for months, until his oldest daughter, a teenage Laurilee, had the idea to split them open, cut out the sand veins and broil them like lobsters. They were delicious.
That was 50 years ago. The Thompson family’s discovery led to the popularization of a cuisine that today is served all along the Florida Atlantic coast — most famously at a restaurant owned by Thompson’s family in Titusville.
“We call him the Daddy of the rock shrimp industry,” said Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association. “He was the only one who saw the opportunity to get the meat out so you could eat them because they were so hard.”
It all began with Thompson’s quixotic dream of building a 73-foot (22-meter) fiberglass shrimp boat. Back in the 1960s, shrimp boats were still made of wood and many fishermen resisted fiberglass.
Thompson, a taciturn man with an inventive mind, was a boat builder by trade in Titusville, which by then had gone from a citrus and fishing town to a bedroom community for NASA workers laboring at the neighboring Kennedy Space Center to land a man on the moon.
His staff worked on the boat for a year. But it was built on spec, and there were no buyers. So, Thompson turned to shrimp fishing to show off the boat’s prowess, and began catching buckets of the inedible rock shrimp.
He asked his four children, Laurilee, Sherri, Tom and Tim, to help him find a way to cook them.
“When I figured it out finally: We were sitting there in our misery one day, wishing we were playing pool, and riding horses, and not looking at big piles of stupid rock shrimp on the table,” said Laurilee Thompson, now 65.
Laurilee suddenly grabbed a steak knife and began cutting a half-dozen rock shrimp open along their bottom edges. Her mother, Mary Jean, melted butter, poured it over them, and stuck the shrimp in the broiler. And then the whole family gathered around and stared for the two minutes it took them to cook. The rock shrimps’ tails curled up and the flesh pulled away from the shell, just like a lobster. They pulled them out of the oven and tasted them.
“That was probably the biggest, ‘Eureka!’ moment of all of our lifetimes,” Laurilee Thompson said.
Rodney Thompson enlisted the neighborhood kids to form an assembly line in his wife’s kitchen after school each day. One kid would crack open the shrimp, another would wash it and others would pack the shrimp into boxes, which were delivered to dozens of bars and grills up and down the Indian River. The rock shrimp were salty, which the bar owners liked because their patrons, who fished off their docks, would eat them and buy more beer.
The demand quickly outgrew the capacity of the family kitchen, so Thompson rented space at Port Canaveral and started hiring grown-ups. Using a sewing machine motor and a vacuum cleaner belt, he also built mechanized splitters that could crack the rock shrimp’s hard shell. The Thompson children returned to their play.
Rock shrimp span from the Atlantic coast of the southern U.S. states into the Gulf of Mexico as far as Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Their Spanish name is camarones de piedra. Considered no more than bycatch before the Thompson family’s efforts in the late 1960s, the annual haul — still predominantly caught in Florida waters — grew to thousands of tons a year by the 1980s.
Thompson, meanwhile, continued to build boats through the 1970s. But he overextended himself, and when interest rates soared and a recession hit in the early 1980s, he was forced to sell his businesses. Thompson lost all three of his boats, two restaurants and the shrimp-processing plant.
Not long afterward, Rodney and Mary Jean Thompson started over with a tiny diner. Their restaurant, “Dixie Crossroads,” struggled. For three years, customers wanted rock shrimp but Thompson couldn’t serve them because he didn’t have a boat and couldn’t get a loan.
One day, friend and fisherman Sam Vona invited Thompson down to his port office and showed him a freezer with a padlock. He told Thompson that the rock shrimp inside were his and that the freezer always would be full. He knew Thompson couldn’t pay him back, but he would keep track and Thompson could repay him when he got back on his feet.
“They were really good friends and my dad had a lot of faith in Rodney doing what he did and getting a market for that shrimp,” said Vona’s daughter, Cissy Shipley.
Thompson installed shrimp splitters in Dixie Crossroads’ kitchen and started selling rock shrimp off the menu. Lines into the restaurant started winding around the building, with two-hour waits.
Over the decades, he built additions to the restaurant, which today seats 465 people. NASA officials used to bring astronaut families there before space shuttle launches. In recent years, the restaurant and a separate seafood retailer run by the family have each had around $6 million in sales annually.
Thompson died a year-and-a-half ago. His daughters, Laurilee and Sherri, run the businesses today. Though Vona died in 2012, the Thompsons will never forget his kindness in helping to launch one of Florida’s best-known restaurants.
“Look where it is now,” Laurilee Thompson said. “We sell a lot of rock shrimp.”
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