Yes, prawns. Beaten down by cotton and catfish, at last one Delta family has found success by growing prawns. And restaurants are gobbling them up.
Of a bumpy blacktop near Leland, at the end of a winding dirt road, stands a white clapboard farm house where guests are greeted by a black Labrador called Decoy and a golden retriever named Catfish.
Standing between a big metal tractor shed and a hoop house is a striking woman with raven-black hair and a cheerleader’s perky smile, waving you in.
“Steve, they’re here,” Dolores Fratesi yells. Her husband, unshaven, is wearing muddy work pants and boots, apologizing sheepishly for his appearance. The heavy rain from the day before left a sloppy mess, and he’s been dealing with the repercussions all morning.
Eager to show what they’ve built here, they lead us into a hoop house filled with several large water tanks. She takes an empty glass, scoops up some of the water from a tank and proudly holds it up for all to see.
It looks like dirty water.
But look closer. Each of these microscopic particles, she explains, is a baby prawn. By September, they will be full-grown, ready to be sautéed, stir fried or even wrapped in a sushi roll.
Prawns? In the Mississippi Delta? Yes, these Southeast Asian crustaceans have found a home in the heart of catfish-and- cornbread country. And the Fratesis are a big reason why.
They were the first farmers to start growing what they and other farmers hope will be the future of aquaculture in the Delta. They have become crusaders, nudging chefs to put them on menus and farmers to put them in their ponds. They have taken their story to the media, promoting the growth of prawn farming in the same way proud parents wax eloquent on the accomplishments of their children.
Steve comes from a long line of farmers, Italian immigrants who settled here more than a century ago to till the Delta soil. Like so many young Deltans, he planned to break from farming and went off to Mississippi State University to study accounting. There, he fell in love with Dolores, who was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Greenville. They married and moved to Memphis.
But the pull of the Delta soil was too strong. They moved back to Leland to join the rest of the family in farming cotton and soybeans. In 1985, as cotton’s allure waned, they started growing catfish in man-made ponds, a hot new trend at the time. The industry boomed during the 1980s and 1990s but it peaked around 2003, when imports of cheap Asian fish similar to catfish began to flood America’s shores, undercutting local growers. Since then, many catfish growers in the Delta have fled the businesses.
“Currently there are no catfish farms in Bolivar County and perhaps just a few in Sunflower County,” said Ramona Rizzo of Rizzo Farm near Cleveland. The Rizzos sold out, too, returning to row crops.
But luck was with the Fratesis. Even as catfish were peaking in popularity and profitability, they had already begun their prawn adventure with the help of experts at Mississippi State. Now they grow nothing but prawns, finding a new use for some of those empty catfish ponds. They have even won national recognition for introducing this new, very different food trend to the Delta. The challenge is spreading the word and getting it to catch on.
Come the last weekend of September and the first weekend in October, a caravan of cars and trucks from all over the Delta will roar down the winding dirt road bearing containers and ice chests that people will fill with a delicacy being hailed as the new seafood, 100 percent sustainable and eco-friendly. It will be almost like a festival, a celebration that only comes once a year, when the prawns grow big enough to be harvested and plopped on plates in homes and restaurants from here to Memphis.
Lauren Farms, as they call the place, sells the freshly harvested prawns by appointment over those two very busy weekends. It also sells them frozen year-round. “I’ve had people from five states come,” said Dolores. “We’ve got a good trade, I would say, from about three hours’ drive.”
When they started, people thought they were nuts, one more Delta farmer desperately trying to diversify against long odds and finding another loser. But they stuck with it.
Dolores works hard to get the word out. She does regular cooking demos at the Greenville television station. Dolores also pushed to get prawns into local restaurants and now sushi bars in Memphis have started to pick them up, along with Delta Bistro in Greenwood.
Back up that winding road in Leland is a prime example of her efforts. Will Gault, the chef at Vince’s, has been championing the Fratesis’ prawns, cooking them in various ways to cultivate new tastes.
Gault grew up here too. He wants to keep the Delta heritage alive and does it by supporting the Fratesis and other local farmers by putting their products on his menu.
On this day, he serves a prawn feast to a group of visiting journalists. Gault has made prawn pita pizza, prawn ceviche and a take on the Southern favorite shrimp and grits called prawns and polenta, all piled spectacularly on a table with Dolores cheering him on.
They hope this is the future of the Delta. As we speak, a TV crew arrives. So does the local newspaper. This is what Dolores does and she does it well.
Looking to the future
The Fratesis are thrilled that some of their customers now have their own little tanks and are raising prawns in their backyards in tiny ponds. The Fratesis sell them stock to get started.
Prawns differ from shrimp in that they start off in saltwater but eventually grow to full size in fresh water. Much larger, they have a firmer texture and sweeter taste and are more reminiscent of lobster than marine shrimp. They are farmed in 11 states, with North Carolina the main hub of American prawn production.
The Fratesis produce about 750 pounds of prawns per acre. They have 6 acres of ponds and are selling freshly harvested prawns for $8 a pound.
So far, large numbers of farmers have not rushed into the prawn business. Steve says that’s because it’s so different from what most farmers know. They are reluctant to try it “because of the once-a-year harvest. It takes a lot of marketing to do it and you know, we’re used to catfish,” he said.
In a region known for its epidemic obesity, Dolores is quick to assert that prawns are a logical healthy alternative. “They have half the fat of marine shrimp, they have low iodine and sodium, so they’re really almost a little bland. They work really well in different recipes because they don’t compete with whatever seasonings you’re going to use because they just complement everything. They’re low in cholesterol, and they’re basically free range,” she said.
Need help deciding just how to prepare them at home? Delores can provide tips and recipes for such dishes as prawns ‘n bacon and blackened prawn po’boy. In her book Eat, Drink, Delta, Susan Puckett includes a recipe from Delores. “It’s prawns wrapped in prosciutto, and it has tons of garlic and olives and I love serving it with the angel hair pasta, tossed in pesto. You can put them on skewers and serve them as appetizers or as a main dish,” said Puckett.
Along the way, of course, the Fratesis have had to win over the taste buds of people who have been eating shrimp for generations.
“There was a lady, she loves shrimp. She didn’t know if she could eat prawns or not,” Steve said. “So she cooked them and she took them up to the doctor’s office, and she sat there and ate them in front of the doctor. And he said that if she got sick, he’d finish them for her.”
[quote] Will Gault’s Spice Corn Chowder with Chili & Lime Prawns and Assorted Micro Greens
Makes 12 Servings
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 4 slices bacon, diced
- 2 medium yellow onions, diced
- 2 jalapenos, seeded and diced
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 8 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
- 2 red bell peppers, seeded and diced
- 3 cups roasted sweet corn kernels*
- 2 tablespoons chopped thyme leaves
- 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 1 1⁄2 cups milk
- 1 1⁄2 cups heavy cream
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 3 cups prawn stock**
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste chili and lime prawns:
- 1 1⁄2 pounds prawns, peeled and cut in pieces, if large
- 3 tablespoons Asian chili paste or Srichicha sauce
- 3 tablespoons lime juice
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
micro greens, or extra sprigs of cilantro and thyme
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt butter; add the bacon and fry until crisp and all the fat is rendered. Remove bacon from the pan and save for garnish. Add onion, jalapenos, garlic, potatoes, red bell peppers and corn to the pan and sauté until the onions and bell peppers are softened. Add the thyme and cilantro, and season to taste. Add milk, heavy cream, prawn stock, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are softened.
With slotted spoon, transfer half of the softened vegetables to a food processor. Puree and add back to the saucepan. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes longer or until the chowder starts to thicken.
While chowder is simmering, marinate prawns in chili paste and lime juice for 15-30 minutes. In a separate sauté pan, heat olive oil just under smoking point. Add prawns to pan and sauté over medium high heat for 2 minutes, or until firm.
To serve: Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with some of the prawns, reserved bacon, and micro greens or herb sprigs.
* Roast ears in husks in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes or until soft, then cut kernels from cobs. ** made by simmering shells in water at least 10-15 minutes to extract flavor [/quote]
– Story by Rachael Walker, Photos by Katie Williamson. Story and photos originally published in Deeper South: Land of Plenty, an award-winning magazine published by the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. The magazine was named Best Student Magazine in the nation by the Society of Professional Journalists.