The Almighty Shrimp

When your name is Cheramie, it is difficult to deny your origins from Bayou Lafourche and even more difficult to walk around without pocket knife. Let me explain. The Cheramie men have the reputation of always having a knife on them. One may think that this is due to the unfortunate habit of being ready for a fierce battle at any moment, which is not necessarily false, but I’ve learned from a reliable source that it comes from an honorable and even noble family heritage. My grandfather, like several members of his family, was a shrimper. He had a boat called, for a reason that was never explained to me, Little Italy. The Cheramies spread out to Delcambre and Cameron like many others because we needed to find other fishing grounds, so much there was competition for this little delight. In many respects, the development of the economic life in south Louisiana depended on the skill with which the fishing boat captains crisscrossed the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico in search of it. Later, these talents could transfer to shipyards, such as Higgins, where my grandfather piloted the Higgins boats on Lake Pontchartrain, testing them for the Normandy D-Day Invasion. Or others who went to build and serve the oil platforms in the North Sea, facing ocean swells that can reach mountainous heights. Other local legends say that during Prohibition, shrimpers were particularly effective at transporting alcohol without being caught, but that's a story for another day.

While it is surprising to some that there is a festival dedicated to both the shrimp and the oil industries, as in Morgan City, in Louisiana one understands the delicate balance that exists between the two. Even if it is sometimes disturbed, one cannot deny the crucial importance that these two activities play in the economy and even the culture. Nevertheless, consider the shrimp for a moment. Its name is synonymous with smallness, but it is almighty. It includes several species, but only two are caught in salt water of the gulf: the brown shrimp and the white shrimp. Each is associated with one of two fishing seasons: The May season and the August season, respectively. Normally, one chases the other. That is to say, once the little white shrimp appear in the nets with the browns, the first season is closed and one waits on the white ones to reach a size sufficient enough to open the second. One does not have to have an expert eye to distinguish them, even if they are similar. The white shrimp is easily recognizable by the green color at the tip of its tail. Also, the white ones are a little bigger and their taste better appreciated by some.

The shrimp begins and ends its life, if it can complete the cycle, in the gulf. The adults lay their eggs there, the brown ones year-round, the white ones only under the stimulation of the right temperature. Currents and tides push the larvae to the estuaries where they continue to grow towards adulthood. At each stage of its maturation, the shrimp is both prey and predator, holding an essential place in the food chain. It contributes to the health of estuaries by eating detritus and decaying organic matter in brackish waters. Once maturity is reached, the shrimp returns to the open waters of the gulf where the fishermen and their nets await them. Thereafter, buyers, dealers and eventually consumers, whether individuals or restaurateurs, bring this gift of nature to the cooks who prepare gumbos, po-boys, étouffées and other culinary wonders.

So why did the Cheramies, those great fishermen of this little crustacean, always have a knife in their pockets? Simply to cut the nets before drowning if they ever fell overboard. More precisely an eater than a fisher of shrimp, but a bit of a fighter, I use a knife that can serve to defend my plate against anyone who thinks I would share this great wealth.