Southern Alabama has always been my home. Well, all but my first nine years, but even then we lived close enough to Mobile (the city) for the 3 D’s: the doctor, the dentist and dance classes.
Southern Alabama is made up of two counties: Mobile County on the west side of Mobile Bay and Baldwin County on the east side. They’re the only two counties in the Yellowhammer State that border the Gulf of Mexico.
Fresh seafood is abundant everywhere in this region. Thus, it may come as no surprise that the “Seafood Capital of Alabama” is Bayou La Batre, a little fishing village of maybe 2,500 people located about a half hour drive southwest of Mobile down on the Mississippi Sound.
For as long as I can remember, Bayou La Batre was where you headed for the freshest, best oysters around. Going inside a seafood shop wasn’t necessary; you just drove down there with a cooler and looked for somebody taking their haul off the boat.
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It was a different world, with the shipbuilding industry on full display as you entered the small bayou community. No glitz or trendy shops — just hard working people.
The shoreline surprised me the most on my first trip to “The Bayou.” As we drove along the beach road, I saw once stately homes on beautiful unspoiled waterfront lots with mossy oaks still standing. They had been left mostly in various states of disrepair, echoing back to a bygone era when times were more prosperous there.
Bayou La Batre gained a little bit of national notoriety when “Forrest Gump” came out in 1994. In the movie and in the book by Winston Groom, it was the home of Forrest’s army buddy, Bubba, and later Forrest’s home during his time as a shrimp boat captain. Though it wasn’t actually filmed in Bayou La Batre, it was a pretty good depiction nonetheless.
Life changed overnight on Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped Bayou La Batre off the map for good. It was, without a doubt, the end of an era. The community was decimated.
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Luckily, I spent time in The Bayou in the 1990s, long before Katrina. I became good friends with a family whose shipbuilding business had been there since the late 1930s, and my friend’s mom still lived there at that time.
They were a big family filled with exceptional cooks, great story tellers and talented musicians. If you didn’t cook, you sang. If you didn’t sing (or cook), you played an instrument or figured out how to entertain the kids. There were a few who could do it all, but everyone had a part to play. It was that kind of family.
And those who could cook . . . let me tell you, they could cook! If family or friends happened to drop by and stay long enough, any given day would turn into a celebration. Guitars would come out, family harmonies and laughter would fill the air and good food would seem to appear from all directions.
Coming from a small, quiet family, I just enjoyed the show and the food. These were some of the best years of my life.
Pickled Shrimp is one of the first recipes I remember falling in love with back in the day. These shrimp were always a part of the celebrations and get-togethers down on The Bayou. Before we start cookin’, here’s a closer look at the main ingredients:
Wild-caught, Gulf of Mexico shrimp are what I would recommend, but any wild shrimp would be delicious.
Oil and vinegar
This recipe has been around for a very long time. Like many of my recipes, it’s old-fashioned and from a time when grocery stores didn’t have so many options. For this recipe, I used avocado oil and/or high quality sunflower oil, but any neutral tasting oil would work.
The same goes for the vinegar. When this recipe originated, the choices in local stores were cider vinegar or distilled. Over the years, I’ve used many different types of vinegar in this recipe. Though they’ve all been good, more often than not, I usually opt for cider vinegar.
Pickling spice is made up of black pepper, coriander, dill, mustard seed, allspice, red chili flakes and bay leaf.
Recipe: Pickled Shrimp from The Bayou
- 2 1/2 lbs. raw shrimp, peeled and deveined.
- 1/2 cup celery and leaves
- 1/4 cup pickling spice
- 5 tsp salt divided
- 7-8 bay leaves
- 2-3 onions, chopped small or sliced thin
- 1 cup salad oil
- 3/4 cup vinegar
- 2 1/2 tsp celery seed
- 2 1/2 Tbsp capers and caper juice
- Several dashes of Tabasco sauce
- Optional: 2-3 lemons, halved lengthwise and sliced
- In a pot with about 2 quarts of water, add the celery, pickling spice, 3 1/2 tsp salt and bay leaves.
- Bring the seasoned water to a boil, then add the shrimp. Cook until nice and pink and “C” shaped, about 10 minutes. The shrimp will sort of curl up when they’re done. Drain in a colander.
- Alternate layers of shrimp and onion in a large pretty bowl. Add the lemon slices to the layers, if using.
- Mix together the oil, vinegar, 1 1/2 tsp salt, celery seed, capers and Tabasco sauce. Pour over the shrimp and onions.
- Cover and allow to marinate for no less than 24 hours.
Exactly how long to boil your shrimp has not been agreed upon so far in my lifetime. It depends on the size of the shrimp, as well as how you grew up eating them. My mother likes to boil her shrimp until they’re pink and curled, then she allows them to remain in the seasoned water a bit longer to soak up the flavor.
Choose “large” or “jumbo” sized shrimp for this recipe. To save time and hassle, I pick up up already steamed shrimp from my local seafood shop. It’s a great time saver, and if you aren’t experienced with boiling shrimp or you just want to eliminate that step, feel free to do so. Just make sure to ask for peeled and deveined shrimp.
I’ve always served this appetizer in a big, pretty bowl, sometimes doubling (or tripling) the recipe for a crowd. I’ve also seen it served in individual dishes or Mason jars at parties. Whatever way you present it, one thing’s for sure — it’s delicious.
More recipes from Bibi’s Southern kitchen:
- Unlike lots of recipes for pecan pies, this one is tried and true
- This naturally creamy soup is made without dairy or dairy alternatives
- The recipe for this easy-to-make, old-fashioned coconut pie has been passed down through time
- Salmon is the star of this dressed-up version of hot artichoke dip — and it’s so darn easy to make