"Hey, it bit me!" cried Joe Thompson, grinning as he looked at the thing in his hands.
The thing looked more or less like a shrimp ... a shrimp from outer space. It was about 6 inches long, with spiny blue claws, googly blue eyes and a serrated beak the size of a cocktail sword.
Meet Macrobrachium rosenbergii, aka the giant freshwater prawn. Get used to its odd appearance, because you'll almost certainly be seeing much more of this crustacean, a species of shrimp native to Southeast Asia.
Thompson lives in the northern Orange County community of Cedar Grove. He is one of a growing number of the state's former tobacco farmers transitioning to prawn aquaculture. Nearly unheard of a decade ago, today there are nearly a dozen prawn farms across North Carolina.
Thompson, a 61-year-old with an impish smile, started raising prawns in 2006 after a hip replacement made tobacco farming difficult. His son read about the practice on the Internet.
On a rainy Thursday morning in October, Thompson and several dozen friends, family members and assorted hangers-on were standing in the squishy mud, waiting to begin the last prawn harvest of the season.
Thompson raises the prawns in two "ponds"—vast but shallow rectangular dirt holes carved out of the land he's farmed since 1979. Earlier that morning, he had opened the drainage pipe that leads from one prawn pond to a makeshift catch basin. As the water level in the pond dropped, prawns began to pour out of the pipe and into the basin, where several men in hip waders stood, nets ready. Others milled around, smoking cigarettes or chatting with a crowd of curious onlookers.
Michael Graves, who recently left corporate life in Charlotte to take over his family's farm in Caswell County, had dropped by to investigate prawn farming.
"Everyone's talking about going back to locally grown and self-sustaining," he said, peering into one of Thompson's cement catch basins. "This could really help out the small farmer."
Back at Thompson's modest ranch-style house, men rinsed prawns, placing them in buckets in an ice-filled kiddie pool. Twenty minutes in the ice will kill the prawns without ruining their texture, explained Leroy Womack, Thompson's brother-in-law, who was timing the ice baths.
Across the lawn, women set up the prawn-weighing station under a blue plastic tent and tended to an oil drum cooker filled with barbecue sauce-slathered chicken. Lunch.
"This is the way it used to look when they did a hog kill," said Archie Hart, surveying the scene. "This is the way agriculture used to be."
Hart is the special assistant to the commissioner of agriculture at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He explained how organizations like the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI) and the Golden Leaf Foundation are helping farmers like Thompson start prawn farms as a way of reducing dependency on tobacco crops.
"It's different, it's unique and per acre you make more money," Hart said, accounting for the appeal of prawn farming over conventional crops like corn and tomatoes.
As prawn farms multiply, North Carolina chefs are increasingly viewing freshwater prawns as local, eco-friendly alternatives to shrimp. In the Triangle, restaurants like Zely & Ritz, Lantern and Crook's Corner have featured prawns on the menu, and many chefs say they would like to make prawns a regular item once supplies increase.
One such chef is Michael Chuong, of Cary's upscale Asian fusion restaurant An. He had dropped by Thompson's to pick up a bucket of prawns, which he hoped to put on An's menu that weekend. Mostly though, he seemed to be having fun, snapping pictures and chatting with Thompson's wife, Geraldine.
For Chuong, seeing freshwater prawns brought back memories of his childhood in Vietnam.
"My dad loved these prawns," he said. "They're bigger in Vietnam."
"I bet your mind's just rolling with stuff to do with these," said Geraldine, smiling fondly.
Chuong was thinking of trying an Asian-influenced scampi, he said. The key is cooking the shrimp with the shells on, for better flavor.
What is the flavor, anyway?
"Like crawfish, but a little more shrimpy," said one onlooker.
"Like lobster but less salty," said another.
"Like shrimp but better," claimed a third.
Thompson harvested 4,600 pounds of prawns this year, a number he hopes to increase by adding two or three more ponds in coming years. At $8.50 a pound, that makes a tidy profit for not a whole lot of work.
Low labor cost is one of prawn farming's main attractions. Each spring, Thompson has post-larval prawns shipped from a Virginia nursery. He dumps them in the pond and over the summer, feeds them a diet of soy and millet alternating with distillery waste from Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, whose owners happily donate the high-protein byproduct.
"They're good people," Thompson said, showing off his feed-delivery device. Consisting of a McDonald's French fry basket, a leaf blower and an irrigation pipe welded to a wheeled chassis, the Rube Goldbergesque machine is designed to be hooked to an ATV and driven around the perimeter of the prawn ponds. The feed, placed in the fry basket, drops down a length of tubing and is blown sideways into the pond by the leaf blower. Like many things on the farm, it's a Joe Thompson special.
One of Thompson's other inventions, an ice-making trailer, comes in handy when its time to freeze the prawns. Prawns are harvested during two or three marathon sessions in September and October, and sold on the spot or shipped to restaurants around the state and the country. Leftovers are frozen and stored in Thompson's (homemade, naturally) walk-in freezer for year-round purchase.
"He's just been successful in everything he's done," said Womack, admiring Thompson's handiwork. "I helped him in the tobacco for years. Now I help him with this."
Executive Chef Jay Pierce of Lucky 32 in Greensboro and Cary recently made these Big Easy-style prawns for a cooking demo. He prefers to peel the shrimp tails but leave the last segment and the head attached. "It makes a nicer presentation, and you get so much flavor from the head," he says. "It is really worth it."
1 pound prawns, peeled
2 oz. Eastern-style BBQ sauce
6 oz. heavy cream
2 teaspoons Creole spice
2 tablespoons green onions
Heat sauté pan. Season prawns with Creole spice. Add prawns to hot pan. Add remaining ingredients and simmer over medium heat until shrimp are cooked. Serve over grits or mashed sweet potatoes.