To the best of my recollection, I ate well growing up. What I mean to tell you is that my mother was (and is) a good cook and I can recall that she cooked dinner every night for us, eventually forcing me to learn how to cook dinner too. Every Sunday we had Sunday dinner, mostly a pot roast, always a bit stringy swirling in colorful gravy. (This gravy was colorful because besides being a good cook my Mother also has her own ideas of what food should look like and that usually involved and still does an odd assortment of food dyes, yellow and red being her favorites, and in this case yellow #6 added to the roasty roux.) Despite that one little idiosyncrasy, every meal had yummy, creamy mashed potatoes with flecks of black pepper or maybe corn off the cob, lovingly sliced, the corn milk expressed from the cob with the flat of a knife making creamed corn like you might have never tasted unless your momma cooks country too.
We would have any combination of cole slaw or peas with okra, green beans or fried okra and green tomatoes, or one of my favorites, stewed tomatoes, the lumps of fresh tomatoes, slightly pink from a piece of white bread used to thicken them, the tangy sweetness of homegrown obvious as I took the first bite. Sometimes we had this kind of weird casserole made of porkchops, potatoes, and beans with maple syrup and ketchup, baked over the stove with rolls. It was good.
And there was always dessert. Pies were the specialty and my favorite had to be pecan, or maybe the chocolate, or the fresh dewberry icebox pie, or maybe it was the coconut cream. Watching her make the vanilla pudding over a pot of hot water, a homemade double boiler, little beads of sweat forming around her mouth, when it was nice and thick, she would put a pat of butter into the swirling, sometimes very yellow sweetness, the giant flakes of moist coconut the only lumps in that fine coconut pie. There was always a fight whether or not, I, her reluctant helper and student, would get to lick the beaters before dinner. There is nothing like pudding on beaters when you are standing in a kitchen smelling Sunday dinner. Then there were her fried apple pies. Flaky bisquit dough, rolled out just thin enough to hold the filling, I ate them hot, right from the cast iron kettle, with a big glass of milk. Often I ate three, sitting in the summer evening, astride my bike, watching the fireflies begin their summer evening dance.
Most everything we ate, she cooked from scratch whether it be cakes or fried steak, short ribs or spaghetti, pizza, greens or sweet potatoes. Always adventurous, there was one thing Mother never attempted to make from scratch but bought, already prepared except for the frying; breaded shrimp. We might have been Arkansas and a long way from any salty water, but whoever made those things, they were delicious. Plump, firm shrimp, lightly breaded, I would dip them in just slightly spicy cocktail sauce. I think I ate dozens of them. They were a treat for a blue collar laboring family and I can remember my mouth watering as Mother would slide them out of the freezer bag.
Now being from the Gulf Coast we are a bit spoiled when it comes to shrimp. Its so good down here, that what might be considered excellent fried shrimp in any other part of the country, down here in Texas, the standards are so high, that to pass muster here, they can be nothing short of excellent. Not only that, there are categories of greatness because the wealth of shrimp options can’t really be compared with each other. There are the really wonderful just fried Cajun ones my by-marriage sister makes. Learning from her own mother, she floats them for a while in beer and secrets, then coats each one in flour and spice and makes them golden pink in peanut oil. These things are good enough to eat cold the next day, which I have and do, a lot. There are the New Orleans barbq shrimp, that aren’t barbqed like you might imagine or how they might sound, but through some kind of magic that looks like browned butter, you wear a bib to eat them as you peel, because the most flavor for these is about being cooked in the shell.. But not until this past week did I discover that just a bit off the coast, down Farm to market road 1488, my own beloved multicultural coastal prairie community of Field Store, hides a little seafood house, just off the dusty road, that makes, homemade breaded Gulf shrimp that, well yes, does justice to my childhood memory.
We stepped into the café from working on the farm, dirty and grimy, tired but armed with the rumor that the food here was good. The place was plain but very clean, except for us, tables made from pressure treated fence parts, and a young Asian woman pointed to the menu on the wall. How good could this be, I thought, six shrimp and fries, for 4.99? Oh my. The shrimp arrived in a little green plastic basket, lined with white paper, no oil to spoil its crispness. Three squirt bottles of ketchup and cocktail sauce or tartar arrived at our table, and I listened to the light banter of the locals. A young Taiwanese man poked his head out of the kitchen curtain and smiled. I smiled back. As I bit into the shrimp, I closed my eyes and for a minute I could remember those shrimp dinners at home, on Oak Hill Street. These were every bit as good as my memory of breaded shrimp growing up, a rare occurrence if you think about it. I took a minute, looking out the window, and saw a young man walk out of the kitchen and wander over to the field next to the café. Concentrating on his task, he picked a posey full of beautiful Texas wildflowers, yellow composites, wine cups, and soft velvety evening primrose. Shyly, he arranged them in his hand and headed for the kitchen. I spent a moment thinking about the moment my Mother had shared earlier in the day, when on the farm she came across our own little patch of evening primrose. She told me that early one morning Dad had walked into the kitchen with a handful of the sweet pink flowers he had picked for her, I guess he too, captivated by their beauty that spring morning.
Rarely is anything as good as you remember it or if you choose to devise a revisit does the attempt to recover the memory fare well. But I must tell you, in the world of unlikely possibilities, there are some memories that will. Hurriedly, I sat down my shrimp tail, remembering that I had forgotten to say Grace, I was so hungry. Sometimes, its just the little things in life, that make you shake your head in disbelief. I thanked God for my mother, truly for the food I am blessed to enjoy, and with a heartfelt prayer that others might enjoy such similar wonders, small beautiful memories, either making or remembering them, in God’s good time.
Quote of the day: “Anyway, like I was sayin’, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that’s about it.”
Bubba in Forest Gump
Bible verse: For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape, give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
Song of Soloman, 2:11-12