|illustration by Mike Lee|
Until crab legs clambered into my life, shrimp was my favorite seafood. Bottom-feeding tepid-water cockroaches. On ice and dipped in horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce. Or floured and fried. Or lightly sautéed in butter, garlic, basil and coarse black-pepper grinds. My favorite. And America’s second favorite sea prey, right after the can-shaped tuna.
Someone’s uncle had opened the Autumn Tree, a doughnut-shaped, glass-walled restaurant occupying the top floor of a 12-story cylindrical building on Randolph Street. Someone’s uncle wanted to hire 14-year-old busboys for 2 bucks an hour for reasons not made clear, but which one would imagine to be financial or sexual or both. At Edison Junior High, someone’s uncle’s nephew told me about the job opening, and since the sexual angle hadn’t even occurred to me and I missed the lavish lifestyle to which I’d become accustomed as a hard-working paperboy, I signed on.
The first night of my first night job, I peeled a great basin full of headless shrimp and butterflied them with a paring knife for six hours. A shrimp has 10 legs, all of which need to be removed. Bunch ’em up and rip ’em out all at once. Toss the legs in the trash. Peel off the shell and toss it out as well. Leave the tail. Make an incision approximately three-fourths of the way into the shrimp, from the neck down the length of the back to just above the tail. Take out the vein. (It’s not really a vein, but take it out anyway.) Spread the shrimp until it may be said to resemble a butterfly. Rinse it off and toss it in the other basin. All fucking night.
But only for that first shift. On the second night, the shrimp disappeared, and I began to master the comparatively pleasurable rudiments of traditional table-busing: circling the doughnut with gray plastic bus trays, picking up what needed picking, dropping off what needed dropping. Delivering the trays to the dishwasher. Scrubbing pots, wiping shit up. Circling, ever clockwise.
It ended up being nice. A total of six 14-year-olds had been hired, and someone’s uncle’s manager scheduled four to a shift that could have been covered by two. I worked two or three nights a week — enough to pay for my own books and records and drumsticks. Someone’s uncle kept the details of his finances and sexuality to himself, and at least once each shift the chefs would cook up a serious entrée for the busboys to wolf down between tours of duty. Big ol’ steaks, racks of lamb, battered shrimp.
One such night, as I was about to munch one such shrimp, I was introduced to Joy. Joy was a beautiful, wholesome, flaxen-haired 16-year-old waitress who, to my surprise, eyed me up and down, sighed and said, “Damn! Why do you have to be so young?” To which I replied, “Sorry.” And I truly was, for this was the first time I’d ever been ogled, and apologizing was all I could do to atone for the crime of appearing simultaneously cute and unpubescent. But then Joy seized the shrimp I held and ate it very, very slowly, inspiring me thereafter to nurture my impending adulthood with dozens of hot, joyous showers immediately after work.
For about three months. At which time a representative of the appropriate department of state government arrived to fire us and punish someone’s uncle with an appropriate fine.
Americans are famous all over the world for calling big shrimps prawns, possibly because most of us never see them with their heads and shells intact. In their wild state, it’s really pretty easy to tell the two apart: The side plate of a shrimp’s second abdominal segment overlaps the segment in front and behind, whereas a prawn’s abdominal side plates overlap lobster-style, like fallen dominoes from the top downward. But both animals are easy to kill and eminently butterflyable. For detailed instruction, download a lovely how-to-butterfly-shrimp QuickTime video clip (www.foodtv.com/video/compqt/vd_shll_shrm.mov) from the Food Network. But don’t watch it yet. First, go to Prawnography Net (www.prawnography.net), “Home of the Hardcore Crustacean,” and, when you regain your senses, download two less-lovely clips: one, an excerpt from the infamous “Clam Anderson and Tommy Eel” home video (www.prawnography.net/sections/movies/clam.mov); the other, two “amateur” prawns going at it doggy-style (www.prawnography.net/sections/movies/prawn2.mov). Then, as a tasty (if unsavory) treat between running around in circles, open all three video clips in your registered QuickTime Player (unregistered versions won’t play simultaneous files) and center the butterfly. Set the Prawnography clips to Loop, and turn down the volume a bit on the doggy-style. Select Play All Movies.
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