If you can't stand the heat -- get in the kitchen. On Thursday, June 13, at 6 p.m. at the Lounge at Crescent Ballroom, Chow Bella writers are warming up for summer with "Fried," an evening of true stories. Admission is free; food and drink will be available for sale.
Today: Amy Young and the deep-fried jerk.
Somehow, I still feel disappointed and cheated that the memory of the first time I ate deep-fried jumbo shrimp is a reflection that is bittersweet. To me, bittersweet food memories that are twisted up with another person should be ones in which at least a modicum of affection was part of the equation.
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Like in the neighborhood of feeling dizzy as you pull a slice of Brie away from its wedge, recalling the first time it hit your lips, fed to you by an amazing lover, who, of course, later destroyed the fuck out of your heart. Or maybe, getting a bit choked up opening a jar of pickles and thinking about the late nights spent as a teenager laughing at your sister as she made her favorite cheese-and-pickle sandwiches which you devoured while laughing ridiculously at the overwhelming general dysfunction of our family.
Instead, when I first tried the crispy crustaceans, it was with my gramps. My nana, also known as his only saving grace, was there, too, but that didn't matter; the mere presence of my grumpy grandfather was enough to put a cloud of crap over any decent moment.
Clad in his version of shorts -- plaid pants hand-cut to just below the knee, ends cut in a triangular pattern to give them a "design," as if to somehow disguise that he was the man behind the scissors, he informed my nana and I that we were going with him to "look at a piece of land in Orlando." I never got why he spent so much time doing this -- he never actually purchased property that I can remember. Certainly no Donald Trump. In those shorts, Donald Frump, at best.
This jaunt actually took on some appeal when he said we would go, on the way back, to a waterfront seafood restaurant that was on an old boat. Bigger than the excitement of eating on an old sea vessel was the surprise that old Andy was going to splurge on dining out. Making his own aforementioned summer shorts was one way he held onto the self-made fortune that he continuously attempted to lord over the family, not dining out was another.
The mere suggestion of going out to eat generally sent him into an annoying rant about restaurant kitchens serving nothing but "poison." In turn, the word "poison" in our family became a funny way of referring to cheapskate behavior.
In any case, Gramps was driving, and there wasn't much I could do as a 9-year-old but go along for the ride. We saw the empty lot. I sat in the car with my book as he dragged my grandmother around the empty parcel that he would never own.
True to his promise, we hit the pirate-y family seafood spot on the way home, my curiosity piqued by this all-you-can-eat golden fried jumbo shrimp. I had a kid's metabolism -- back then, the promise of all-you-can-eat was a challenge, not something you knew you'd be lamenting in next week's therapy session. I figured, too, that it was the bang-for-your-buck type of deal that the old man couldn't say no to. And I was right.
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SHOW ME HOW
A plate soon came, loaded with a dozen or so plump ocean critters. My nana squeezed lemon over those fat boys and told me to dig in. And I did. It was love at first crunch. I felt, at that moment, that if fried shrimp were the only food I'd eat again, it wouldn't be the worst thing ever. Juicy, delicious, lemony, and spicy from the cocktail sauce -- I was in seafood heaven. I wolfed those guys down, mentally preparing for plate number two. When the waitress came to take away my tail-laden plate away and ask if "such a little girl was ready for plate number two," my mouth opened to say yes, but all I heard was the voice of my gramps: "No, thank you, she has had enough." I wanted to cry. I wanted more. I didn't understand. As always, my grandmother came to my defense, but he wouldn't bend.
Much like using his money to manipulate, it was just another move from his playbook of ways to try to control the people in his life. And making it supremely, ultimately worse was his capping the conversation with an attempt at humor, "You had enough shrimp. You know, just because you seafood, doesn't mean you have to eat it." The one time this curmudgeon cracks a joke and it is at the expense of me and my appetite. I seethed as he chuckled, clacking his ancient false teeth together, ones so old we'd say he probably made them himself to save money, cursing him internally the whole drive home.
I still love to "seafood" and eat it, and though I don't order much fried shrimp these days, when I do, that first bite still tastes just like Grandpa.