At first, Patty Ball didn't know what to make of the big white truck advertising fresh Gulf shrimp that periodically sets up shop in the parking lot of Steve's Wine Market on University Avenue.
But like others in the know, the Madison resident now swears by the shrimp, crabmeat and other specialties that Steve Fabian of Galveston, Texas, has been selling out of the back of his truck for nearly 30 years.
"We never miss a delivery -- ever," said Suzy Howell of Madison, who's been buying seafood from Fabian for "20 years or more" and was among the first customers in line when the truck pulled in on Tuesday.
"There's just something about the shrimp trucked in to town -- it tastes so good and it's so fresh," said Howell, who misses the seafood she enjoyed while living in the Chesapeake Bay area.
Every few weeks from April through mid-November, Fabian Seafood swings through Madison to satisfy the cravings of hundreds of longtime patrons.
Some come with coolers in hand to keep their catch on ice until they can get it home. Cecelia Hempel, assistant director of UW-Madison's Biotechnology Center, came equipped with a Styrofoam cooler recycled from the DNA lab.
Regular customers, who receive postcards and e-mails a few days before sale dates, start lining up before noon and continue in a steady stream until 6 p.m. with barely a break for Fabian and his workers, who sell between 600 and 700 pounds of shrimp to more than 200 customers each time they come through.
"All these people we know," Fabian said. "They've been buying for years."
Hour after hour, Fabian dips his gloved hand into ice-cold coolers filled with large, extra-large or jumbo shrimp, which he scoops onto a scale that hangs from the back of the truck. The rubber insulating glove -- the same worn for working on high tension wires -- protects his hand from the cold.
Handmade signs duct-taped to the back of the truck list the varieties and prices of shrimp and crabmeat, as well as other offerings, such as the last Louisiana crawfish tails for the season. There also are fresh-shucked oysters in the spring and fall, whole flounder beginning in October and whole red snapper when it's available.
"It reminds me of San Francisco, down at the wharf," said first-time customer Judy Florey of Madison.
The small family company operates four routes in the Midwest and Plains states.
"My mother, who's 73 years old, is in charge of all the e-mails and cards," Fabian said.
Fabian, who set out from Galveston with about 2,500 pounds of shrimp packed in coolers in his refrigerated truck, picks up additional shipments flown to airports while en route.
In his first hour on Tuesday, Fabian sold 150 pounds of shrimp.
"Sometimes they sell out of the shrimp," said Howell, who usually picks up "5 to 10 pounds of shrimp as a rule" to serve to family and friends.
Madison resident Maides King came early to get his pick of shrimp, usually jumbo or extra large. "It will be about 8 or 10 pounds, I know that," said King, who has kept up the tradition begun by his mother, who died in 1985. "We just make sure we get our shrimp."
Carolyn Johnson of Madison has been a customer for as long as Fabian had been coming to Madison. Her father was born in Denmark, where "he grew up on shrimp," said Johnson, who still abides by her father's preference for small, tender shrimp. "The big ones they fed to the pigs. The little ones they ate."
\ Trucked seafood
Fabian's next scheduled stop at Steve's Wine Market, 3618 University Ave., is July 25. To receive a postcard or e-mail announcement, visit www.fabianseafood.com.