Sunday, September 7, 2008

Coming of Age Somewhere

I’ve always been a cultural anthropologist in my own land.

If you consider the Lone Star State another country (and some do), then my mom and I were expatriates in San Francisco when I was little. We arrived in the fall of ’67 for the flower power, and we migrated back to Texas every summer to see relatives. My kin in east Texas (on my estranged father’s side) would call me a “Yankee.” At age 6, I’d argue, “How can I be a Yankee? California’s not in the northeast!” But my uncles and aunts would just laugh knowingly. Apparently, logic does not determine regional identity. As the family chronicles tell it, I later marched onto the front porch where folks had gathered and asked: “Are we just going to sit around all day like we’re on Hee Haw?” (In subsequent years, I aimed to blend in a bit more, having learned that it’s best for the objective observer to refrain from judgment or direct conflict.) But what a funny little Yankee girl!* The other oft-told detail of that visit was how much fried chicken I ate at supper.

In my first seven years of schooling, I went to seven different schools. Each relocation demanded that I learn the strange tribal customs of my new surroundings. In sixth grade we moved to the East Coast, where I was informed by one clan chief, a chubby girl named Fiona, that the natives didn’t wear skirts at Cookiecutter Elementary. I smiled and pulled up my knee socks.

Going to high school outside of D.C. meant that when I went to college in the New York area, I was classified a southerner. Then when I transferred to a southern university, I turned out to be a northerner. Becoming an academic solidified my identity as a permanent guest, studying and imitating the indigenous habits with a clinical but loving eye.

North Carolina is where I’ve lived the longest; however, by marrying a man born and bred in Durham, a short visit with my in-laws can produce my own mild form of double-consciousness. Although I’ve been a member of this family by marriage for almost twenty years, they still see me as an unusual creature with odd eating practices. (Despite being told numerous times that I didn’t eat red meat, my [then future] mother-in-law made steak the main entrée at our wedding rehearsal dinner).

The road to embracing a regional identity is long. I’m not a huge fan of North Carolina BBQ (I know . . . blasphemy), and I could easily live without iced tea. But there is one kind of NC cuisine that I’ve adopted as my own. Calabash seafood. I’m not talking about the generic fish camp type restaurants, where they reel you in and stuff you with a pile of fried critters, because those places vary in quality and freshness. (They are, however, a goldmine for making field observations of the local residents).

I am talking specifically about Calabash-style seafood, only available in Calabash, North Carolina. And according to my in-laws, only available at “The Seafood Hut”—a tiny, unassuming building that packs ‘em in and moves ‘em out. Get there early and get in line. Once you’re sitting at your coveted table in the conditioned air, be ready to place your order: hush puppies, shrimp, deviled crab, fried flounder. By emulating the instinctive routine of my father-in-law, I know to choose the shrimp and oyster combo. It sometimes feels natural—innate, even. But as a perpetual stranger in a strange land, I’m deeply amused when I ascertain that no one can define “calabash-style” beyond insisting that you can only find it in Calabash.

So here’s my outsider’s take on frying up some seafood. This dish is from Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. (How appropriate that a Brit provides me with a home-cookin’ recipe). She calls them shrimp cakes, but they’ll puff up like fritters, resembling New Orleans' shrimp beignets. Serve them with a fresh spinach salad and the plate will lose all regional provenance. Just like me.

Fried Shrimp Cakes
½ pound shrimp, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 scallions, minced
½ teaspoon salt
½ Cup flour
4 teaspoons sherry
olive oil
Process the shrimp, garlic, scallions, salt, flour, and sherry with enough water to make a thick batter. Let stand in refrigerator for an hour, covered. Fry in oil in 2 inches of oil, teaspoon at a time, for one minute a side. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle fresh cilantro, and at the table, squeeze some fresh lime juice on the cakes.

*DS insists I mention that he's the only true Yankee in the family since he was born in Connecticut.

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