Growing up in St. James Parish in the 1950s, my siblings and I were not aware of the festivities of Mardi Gras 55 miles downriver in New Orleans. All we knew was that when Ash Wednesday rolled around, my mother had all eight of us lined up at the altar rail to get ashes. Thus began the holiest season of the year, when the church was draped in purple cloth to represent mourning and our Friday evenings were spent praying the Way of the Cross and attending adoration, which was truly a sacrifice for young boys who wanted to be in the swamp.
From the Sunday pulpit, Father Lester Schexnayder emphasized Lent as a time of preparation, a kind of “spiritual spring cleaning.” We understood that meant preparing the heart and soul for Easter, but for us it also meant preparing for the seasons ahead. It was time to repair river shrimp boxes and order cotton seed cake to catch Mississippi River shrimp in the weeks ahead. We mended crawfish nets and painted the mirliton trellises. We picked Papere’s strawberries and helped plant the spring garden, which was always done during Holy Week, but never on Good Friday. Our favorite task by far was collecting onion peels, clipping dandelions, and saving the water from boiled beets to dye the prettiest Easter eggs on River Road.
When Lent rolled around, we fasted from meat on Fridays. Like most families in our area, we lived off the land and ate what the swamp floor provided. Our refrigerator was stocked with an assortment of feathers, fins, and furs. During the early days of Lent, the crawfish and river shrimp were not yet running, and the Mississippi River water still too chilly to string trotlines. As it happened, St. James Parish was blessed with flocks of poule d’eau, or “water chicken,” during the first months of the year. Now, in a community that was 99 percent monetarily challenged, poule d’eau were plentiful and so were the mouths that needed to be fed. Providentially, the local priests classified poule d’eau as fish (after all, they were fisheating birds), and gave all of us a dispensation so that we could eat poule d’eau stew on meatless Fridays. I guess if “you are what you eat,” then, poule d’eau truly is fish!
I’ve read that during the Middle Ages cheese, butter, eggs, and fats were also prohibited during Lent. St. Thomas Aquinas explained that these items “afford(ed) greater pleasure as food (than fish).” Obviously, the angelic doctor never tasted Louisiana seafood gumbo or sauce piquante! Because you might feel the same about poule d’eau, I’ve provided a great barbecued shrimp recipe to help in your abstinence from meat this season.
You know, it really doesn’t seem that we Louisianans sacrifice much by substituting meat with seafood on fast days; but I guess if it works for the Church, it works for me, too!
CHEF JOHN D. FOLSE is an entrepreneur with interests ranging from restaurant development to food manufacturing, catering to culinary education. A cradle-Catholic, he supports many Catholic organizations including the Sister Dulce Ministry at Cypress Springs Mercedarian Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, LA.
MICHAELA D. YORK is vice president of communications for John Folse & Company
CHEF JOHN FOLSE’S BARBECUED SHRIMP
Prep time: 30 Minutes • yields: 6 Servings
4 dozen (21–25 count) shrimp, head-on
1 tbsp light margarine
1 tbsp olive oil
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
Louisiana hot sauce to taste
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp salt ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Preheat oven to 350°F. Place shrimp in a large baking pan with a 1-inch lip and set aside. In a 15-inch cast-iron skillet, melt margarine in olive oil over medium-high heat. Add minced garlic,
Worcestershire, hot sauce, paprika, salt, and pepper. Blend well into margarine mixture and sauté 1–2 minutes. Sprinkle in parsley and sauté one additional minute. Pour garlic sauce over shrimp and bake 10–12 minutes, turning shrimp occasionally. Transfer shrimp and sauce into a large ceramic serving bowl and serve with toasted French bread.