by Andi Brown
Here is how you eat boiled shrimp when you are twelve years old at a family reunion in Gulfport, Mississippi: First, the aunties will boil the shrimp in giant pots, pounds and pounds of the stuff. Next, they will chill it on ice. Then they will pour the shrimp onto the tables covered in wax paper, ringed with bowls of cocktail sauce.
My aunties’ cocktail sauce is tangy, because Whelan women prefer a double portion of lemon juice. It is not spicy. The uncles make the crawdads, and they are spicy. I don’t know if this is by man’s intention or God’s design, but crawdads are spicy and shrimp are not.
The shrimp are boiled just long enough to separate the meat of the shrimp’s back from the shell, but not long enough to make the shell or legs soggy. Here is how you make the most of the meat: Grab the legs of the shrimp, pinch them together, and peel off the shell. Pull the head of the shrimp off slowly. What’s left behind is grey and yellow paste, brain and spinal cord; it looks funny and smells like rotten eggs but doesn’t hurt to eat. Peel the tail carefully, not to disturb the tendrils of muscle that run almost all of the way to the end.
Good shrimp is pink and firm and made by my aunties on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. The room we eat in has no air conditioning, just fans that lazily circulate the hot, wet air. Metal chairs shriek as they are moved in and out from the tables, each time a family member is identified and hugs are had.
I’m quiet, fastidiously pulling off the head and tails, prying off shells, making my private shrimp graveyard. My fingers are sticky with shrimp brains and cocktail sauce. It runs down my fingers and onto my wrists.
A cousin younger than me plops down and begins eating. Unceremoniously ripping off the shell, missing parts of the meat. I hate him for the waste, but there are mounds of shrimp, an abundance. We can afford to be sloppy.
A woman near me tells me her name is Sarah May, and that she is a cousin of my mother. I take her word for it. My mother has fifty cousins scattered across the South and in other parts of the US. She knows all of their names, what they all do, where they live, and where their children live.
Sarah May says, “I was in the Zeus Parade with your mother when we were in tenth grade. Did she tell you about that?”
I say, “I don’t think so.”
“Well, every year, the prettiest girls rode in a parade through Hattiesburg. All the Whelan girls were on the float, of course. Your mother was never on the Zeus Court, but her sister Angie was the Queen of the Zeus parade one year. I can’t believe she didn’t tell you!”
I ask for more details—it seems like the thing to do—and Sarah May happily obliges.
“Your mother wore the most beautiful ice blue dress with chiffon sleeves and silver stitching right along here.” She gestures to the column of her neck. “I wore a green dress with a ribbon threaded from up here down to the bodice.”
My mother comes over and sits beside me. She’s skinny in a way that looks intentional. Her hand rubs up and down my back, the touch a strange thing in and of itself. She greets Mary Lou, and they trade secrets about what cousin lives where and who is struggling, bless their heart.
My mother takes her own pile of shrimp, pulling the heads and tails off as haphazardly as my little cousin, not conserving the meat. This is not how we do things at home. At home she ignores my brothers and sisters while we squabble over food, picking every piece of meat off the bone. At home, I sneak into the kitchen at night and steal food because I am so hungry I can’t sleep.
She says nothing to me, hand returning to idle on the back of my chair intermittently until she excuses herself and makes it clear that I, too, am full.