In the 17th and 18th centuries, the coureurs des bois, or “runners of the woods,” traversed the American continent from Canada through the Mississippi Valley hunting, trapping, and trading furs. They were some of Louisiana’s earliest European explorers and lived on the edge of the law. I must confess that in our youth, my brothers and I were like those runners of the woods. My daddy used to say, “If night didn’t come, the Folse boys wouldn’t know when to come out the swamp.”
We didn’t live by traditional seasons. Seasons for us depended on what was running in the swamps and rivers: deer, duck, crawfish. While every season had its thrill, nothing beat the June Rise. That’s what we called the northern snowmelt—and that meant it was river shrimp season!
Mississippi River shrimp are one of the well-guarded secrets of Louisiana seafood. These freshwater crustaceans run from the middle of May until mid-July. Their soft-textured flesh has a distinct yet somewhat inexplicable taste, being much sweeter than their saltwater cousins. The shrimp swim upriver, laying their eggs in trees and grassy areas along the riverbank.
Papere Zeringue, my grandfather, kindled our entrepreneurial spirits when he taught us to catch and sell river shrimp by the quart or gallon. He built cypress shrimp boxes, which measured about 3 square feet and had a hinged door on top and wire funnels on each side that allowed shrimp to swim in (but not out) to enjoy the cottonseed cake or salted shad bait.
“MISSISSIPPI RIVER SHRIMP ARE ONE OF THE WELL-GUARDED SECRETS OF LOUISIANA SEAFOOD.”
Our daily trek began by dragging 15 to 20 boxes into the river while Papere hammered poles into the bottom of the river, securing the boxes that were held there by chains. These box traps were placed 10 yards apart in 6-foot-deep water along the riverbank. The shrimp boxes were tended each morning and afternoon when the catch was emptied and the boxes rebaited.
A day’s harvest might include five pounds of shrimp per box, many destined for Mamere’s kitchen for gumbo, stuffing for bell peppers, or even a shrimp boil for the family.
What my brothers and I loved most about river shrimp season was the recreation that followed a hard day’s work. We took turns swinging into the river from monkey vines that grew from the tops of the willow trees that leaned into the water. Although we were repeatedly warned about the perils of swimming in Old Muddy, seldom (if ever) did we fail to take a dip. And if there was any doubt, our mud-stained Fruit of the Looms gave us away every time.
- 2 medium eggplants, peeled and (¼-inch) diced
- 2 red bell peppers
- 2 yellow bell peppers
- 2 orange bell peppers
- 2 green bell peppers
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- ¼ pound ground pork
- ¼ pound ground beef
- 1 cup finely diced onion
- ¼ cup finely diced celery
- ¼ cup finely diced garlic
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 2 cups peeled and deveined river shrimp*
- ½ cup finely diced tomatoes
- Kosher salt, ground black pepper, and granulated garlic, to taste
- 1½ cups Italian-seasoned bread crumbs
- 1¼ cups shredded Parmesan cheese, divided
- Preheat oven to 350°.
- In a large stockpot, boil eggplant in lightly salted water over medium-high heat until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain, and set aside.
- Cut top off each bell pepper. Mince bell pepper tops, and set aside, discarding stems. Remove cores from all bell peppers, being careful not to tear shells. Set bell peppers aside, discarding cores.
- In a large sauté pan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add pork and beef; cook, stirring constantly, until golden brown, 7 to 10 minutes. Add eggplant, onion, celery, and diced garlic; cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Add stock; bring to a rolling boil, and cook until liquid is reduced to ¼ cup and meat is tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in shrimp and tomatoes. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and granulated garlic. Add minced bell pepper tops, bread crumbs, and 1 cup Parmesan.
- Stuff reserved bell peppers with equal portions of mixture. Additional bread crumbs may be sprinkled on top. Place on a baking pan with a 2-inch lip. Fill pan with 1 inch water. Cover tightly with foil.
- Bake until internal temperature of peppers reaches 145°, about 40 minutes. Uncover and bake until bell peppers are browned, 5 to 7 minutes more. Sprinkle remaining ¼ cup Parmesan over peppers. Serve immediately.
*If you cannot find river shrimp, use peeled and deveined medium shrimp.