Fish-Shack Cooking

A Lesson about Life


Every night the roar of that “hog” outside announced her, foretelling the laughing and the clunk-clunk of feet plodding upstairs to the restaurant.

Shannon always came to work astride her boyfriend’s Harley. Every night. Or nearly.

In the little Gulf-coast town of Cedar Key, we knew everybody’s business before they knew it themselves, or so it seemed.

Working in a fish shack, set in the middle of that tiny paradise — except for the gnats, that is — soon turned into a microcosm of hell.

The night I quit slaving in that steamy pit of a place, cooking shrimp ad nauseam — butter-flied and laid out on trays like miniature salmon ready to be planked, dredged in cornmeal spiced with a few grindings of black pepper and Old Bay — Shannon finally said more than two words to me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

With her perky ponytail, blond and shining like a mirror, Shannon seemed pretty harmless. At least she did when I saw her on the street or sitting in front of her little house, the one covered with brown roofing shingles, surrounded by a garden of prickly sand burrs and needle-leaf scrub. She always sat on the single concrete step, next to her boyfriend’s Harley, smoking a cigarette. Alone.

I met Shannon the first day I started working at the Brown Pelican Restaurant, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. She barely glanced at me when Tim the manager said, “Hey, Shannon, this is your new line cook. She’s gonna help you out here.”

“Hi,” I said, eyeing her T-shirt, black and sleeveless, with “Harley” plastered over her chest. Her ankle-length white apron, stained with grease and fish blood, hid bare legs and khaki-colored short-shorts, but stopped just before the green plastic flip-flops she wore, her toenails painted Pepto-Bismol pink. Shaking hands was pointless, since hers were deveining shrimp like nobody’s business. Instead, she bent her head slightly and kept pulling shells off the famous Cedar Key pinks, stopping only to flash her paring knife and remove the intestinal veins. My smile wasted, I just stood there, looking like a fool.

I could tell that in just a few years she’d look old, like her own mother, not that I knew her mother or anything. The smoking’d be enough to take care of that right quick. Not that it mattered a bit.

“So, what needs to be done?” I asked, like a puppy dog trying hard for a pat on the head, tying on my own apron, two twists around the waist with the long ties, ending with a floppy bow.

With a flick of the knife, she pointed at the shrimp. “Them.”

For two hours, we deveined shrimp, all twenty slippery pounds of it. In silence. In spite of my tries at conversation.

By the time we finished, my hands felt like I’d undergone the death by a thousand cuts so prevalent in Imperial China.

Then came the trial by fire.

Cooking for tourists spilling relentlessly through the restaurant’s doors, like so many oyster crackers dumped into a bowl of clam chowder. Arriving sometimes ten minutes before closing, staying for two hours. Needless to say, we in the kitchen hated those latecomers. It meant very late nights.

And so for weeks the routine rarely varied.

On good days we’d leave the back door open, the tiny wooden porch the perfect place to sit and devein shrimp, catching some sun and a breeze or two in the late afternoon, rolling right off the ocean sparkling like stars below us. Every once in a while hordes of flies joined us, and we’d run around, swatting at them with a blue plastic flyswatter and picking up little carbon-hued bodies afterward.

And the sea birds, swooping over the shimmering waves below us, seemed to have second sight. The minute we finished deveining shrimp, ready to throw the papery shells over the porch railing into the water, the air suddenly filled with jabbering pelicans and squawking seagulls eager for a free meal.

The birds had it easy.

Cooking in a restaurant is darn hard work.

Dancing for hours between the deep fryer and the waitresses’ counter, slapping the fried shrimp, oysters, fish, clam strips, and French fries onto the white oval platters, well, all that took a lot of energy. So did dipping tongs into the droopy salad greens in a plastic bowl the size of a bushel basket, wiping up spills, manipulating the broiler, and running the dishwasher.

Some nights, usually Saturdays, another cook joined us. Then, Shannon always put me to work running the dishwashing machine. I was glad. No point in trying to talk to Shannon, even after weeks of working with her; she still wouldn’t talk to me beyond monosyllabic grunts. But I could hear her and the other cook blabbing away on those nights. (Maybe her silence had to do with my weekly food column in the local newspaper? Who knows?)

By the time I got off at 11 p.m., after cleaning up the kitchen and mopping the linoleum floors, I could barely walk down the stairs to the street. And, every night, I stumbled up the stairs to my house. It was built on stilts in case of a hurricane. Life became more and more difficult.

Trying to liven up my job, and the food with its awful presentation — just dumped on plastic platters — I started sprinkling dried parsley on the broiled fish. Why not fresh parsley? There simply wasn’t any fresh parsley in the restaurant. After that, I stuck a few bits of ornamental purple kale on the shrimp platters. The purple next to the pink of the shrimp was a glorious sight. But Shannon’d look at me and sniff, like she had to blow her nose but couldn’t find a Kleenex.

The last time I decorated the plates was when she opened up and shared her thoughts with me.

“You know, girl, you’re just tryin’ too hard. I mean, why put that dried-up parsley and rabbit food on everything —- it’s just too much fuss,” she said. “It’s fake.”

I agreed with her. But not because she was right. No way. The parsley was the fake stuff. Couldn’t hold a candle to the real thing. Fresh, green, feathery, peppery. We eat with our eyes.

That night, come to think of it, I didn’t hear the Harley.

It was a night of endings, I guess. I quit. Shannon talked. No more pseudo parsley. No more boyfriend, either.

Not long ago, I went back to the Brown Pelican. I stared over the countertop into the kitchen. Shannon stood there, 15 years older, looking just like her mother. Or what I had imagined her mother to look like all those years ago. I thought about asking her why she never talked to me. But I didn’t. I paid my bill and left, smiling.

The purple kale on my plate looked mighty pretty next to the pink shrimp.

We do eat with our eyes. First, anyway.

CEDAR KEY FRIED SHRIMP
Makes 24-36, depending on size of shrimp

2 pounds large shrimp (Cedar Key pinks, if available), shelled and deveined
2 cups white cornmeal
1 T. Old Bay Seasoning
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
3-4 large eggs, beaten
Oil for frying

Kale or parsley for garnish

Mix the cornmeal with the spices and salt. Dip shrimp in egg and then into the cornmeal mixture. Fry in hot oil until slightly curled and golden. Garnish with something green and plenty of French fries. Drain on paper towels and serve with tartar sauce and red seafood cocktail sauce.

For more about Florida seafood:

Allyn, Rube. How to Cook Your Catch

_____. Saltwater Florida Fishes

Carlton, Lowis. Famous Florida Recipes: 300 Years of Good Eating

Dalhem, Ted. How to Smoke Seafood: Florida Cracker Style

Guste, Roy F. Gulf Coast Fish: A Cookbook

Lynch, Lonnie T. Mastering the Art of Florida Seafood

Malone, Barbara. Florida Seafood

Raymond, Dorothy. Catch and Cook Shellfish

The Southern Fisheries Association. Southern Seafood Classics

Thompson, J. Kent. Remembering Florida’s Forgotten Coast

U.S. Department of the Interior. Florida Fish Recipes

Watson, Verona. Cedar Key Cookin’

____. Cooking Up Memories of Cedar Key

Weinstein, Bruce. The Ultimate Shrimp Book