“Pick the shrimps (after they are boiled) from the shells; beat them well in a mortar, and put as much melted butter to them as will make them of the proper consistence to be pressed compactly together; add pepper, salt, mace, and nutmeg to the taste; put the mixture into small pans, and pour melted butter over them about a quarter of an inch thick. If wanted for immediate use, grated bread may be added.”
Charleston social maven Sarah Rutledge recorded this receipt for “Potted Shrimp” in her now legendary Carolina Housewife, printed in 1847. Rutledge offered this recipe less than a decade before the commercial shrimping industry emerged in the Lowcountry. Beginning in 1850, the first commercial shrimpers, romantically labeled the “Mosquito Fleet,” were a ragtag bunch. With their crews comprised mostly of African-American slaves, the fleet took to whatever sort of sailing vessels was at hand and netted the shrimp in whatever makeshift hand sieve they could contrive. Once they had their haul back on terra firma, shrimp vendors plied the morning streets of Charleston as their now extinct cries rang out in the early morning air: “Swimpee, swimpee, raw, raw swimps.”
Charleston Receipts simply bulges with almost countless preparations of shrimp. Local traditions include shrimp with rice, shrimp gumbo, shrimp pirloo, and of course everybody’s social favorite, the Lowcountry boil. In fact, it’s hard to mention the Lowcountry’s culinary traditions without mentioning shrimp. People from all over come to Charleston just to eat shrimp and grits. For many “cum’yahs,” the very mention of Coastal Carolina conjures an image, carefully cultivated by our tourism boards, of shrimp boats meandering through marsh channels in route to the open waters of the Atlantic. It’s writ so large on our collective cultural slate that cities and villages all up and down the coast from Beaufort to McClellanville set aside a day each year to bless the shrimping fleet as the new shrimping season nears.
The Blessing of the Fleet in Mt. Pleasant has become such a huge annual event that by 2010 it had outgrown its original venue at Alhambra Hall and relocated to the new Memorial Waterfront Park at the foot of Ravenel Bridge. This year’s celebration, which marks the twenty-fifth anniversary, is scheduled for April 29 and is expected to draw upwards of 1,200 attendees.
We invite you to celebrate the start of shrimp season with this cultural lowcountry passage of the Blessing of the Fleet, to support livelihood of our local shrimping community, and to relish in the flavor of local, lowcountry shrimp.